By Will Sloan
One time I was leaving Jack Ford’s house because I had a present I wanted to deliver to John Wayne. I told Ford, “It’s Duke’s birthday, I’m going over to give him a book.” “Eh?” he said. Sometimes Ford liked to pretend he was hard of hearing. So I repeated: “It’s Duke’s birthday, I’m going over to give him a book.” “Eh?” he said again. “It’s Duke’s birthday, I’m going over to give him a book.” Then a long pause. Ford says, “Duke’s already got a book.”
I heard Peter Bogdanovich tell this story after a screening of The Searchers (1956) at the TIFF Lightbox in 2010. He also told the story about when Orson Welles phoned him for the first time and told him how much he wanted to meet, and how he replied, “That’s my line.” And the story about how, over a big bag of Fritos during a break in shooting The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Orson asked Bogdanovich if he would finish the movie if Welles was somehow unable to, and how he has carried this on his conscience ever since. I was 21 at the time, and had probably already read these stories many times in the books that were among the bedrock texts of my cinephilia, but I was happy to hear them again. If I saw Paul McCartney live, I’d want to hear him sing “Yesterday.” Sometimes (like just a moment ago), I like to repeat these stories in the first person as if they happened to me, for the same reason that I like to sing certain songs at karaoke: I didn’t write them, but they’re part of me.
Even at that point a dozen years ago, Bogdanovich had become a sort of living mausoleum to the past—both his own and Hollywood’s—so I was surprised by how immense his loss felt to me when he died at age 82 in January of this year. As a filmmaker he had not been a vital force for decades, and as a writer, critic, and pundit he has always looked strictly backwards, but as a cultural signifier he remained a potent force to the very end. In 2018, he was active in the posthumous completion and promotion of Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix; that same year, his final feature-length directorial credit, the Buster Keaton documentary The Great Buster, derived much of its impact from his authoritative and opinionated voice as narrator. In 2019, he was called upon to play a film director for an in-joke cameo in It Chapter Two, and in 2020 his life was central to two high-profile documentary podcast series (Turner Classic Movies’ The Plot Thickens and Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This) that offered wildly different takes on the meaning of his career. The subtext that unites all of these projects is that this man was “Hollywood” personified, and for this same reason he continues to mean a great deal to me. I like him well enough as filmmaker, but as a human embodiment of so many ideas and narratives about the art and business of moviemaking, he is peerless.
Indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to be seriously interested in cinema without Bogdanovich occupying a big space in one’s brain—so many roads of 20th-century film culture lead to him. It begins with his time as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in the early ’60s, where he became, with Andrew Sarris, a key American proponent of a provocative idea pioneered in France that Hollywood studio directors like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were not merely proficient technicians, but also great artists. His legacy at MoMA includes such notable achievements as rescuing Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1939) from obscurity and enshrining it as a masterpiece of screwball comedy, and promoting the counternarrative that Welles, who was regarded by many in the mainstream press as a (bloated) shadow of his former self, may not simply be a self-destructive egotist but rather a victim of a Hollywood system that was inhospitable to artists with such uncompromising visions. Bogdanovich’s energetic advocacy put him into contact with many of the filmmakers that he championed, which led to him preserving their memories (and, perhaps, colourful enhancements of their memories) in longform interviews. Accordingly, his monographs on Ford, Hawks, Fritz Lang, and Allan Dwan remain crucial documents on these auteurs, even though, like the newspaperman in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he was often happy to print the legend. Maybe Edgar G. Ulmer shot Detour (1945) in four days, and maybe he didn’t—Bogdanovich was a movie buff, not a fact checker.
But what he really wanted to be was a filmmaker, and after Frank Tashlin reminded him that, hey, we make movies in Hollywood, he headed west. He brought all of his cinephilia with him for his first and best films, Targets (1968) and The Last Picture Show (1971), which positioned him as a bridge between the Old and the New Hollywood. Targets grew from a vague assignment from Roger Corman to assemble a new Boris Karloff movie out of a few shooting days and repurposed footage from the Karloff-starring The Terror (1963); from this, Bogdanovich fashioned a meta-movie about an iconic horror star (Karloff, playing himself in all but name) who realizes his more innocent brand of fright is outmoded in a modern world of random mass violence (embodied in Tim O’Kelly’s blank slate of a cornfed, baby-faced sniper). A similar old-meets-new aura permeates The Last Picture Show, which blends its elegiac, self-consciously Fordian mise en scène with up-to-date sexual frankness. In both films, Bogdanovich makes pointedly symbolic use of Golden Age Hollywood icons (Karloff in Targets and Ford regular Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show) as totems of an irretrievable past, and doubles down on that cinephilic nostalgia by staging both of their respective climaxes at movie theatres (a drive-in playing The Terror in the former, a soon-to-close small-town cinema screening Hawks’ Red River  in the latter).
The critical and popular success of The Last Picture Show launched Bogdanovich to the forefront of a generation of young directors who seemed to be bringing a new artistic freedom to American cinema, and burying the old guard in the process. Welles was clearly working through ambivalent feelings when he cast Bogdanovich in The Other Side of the Wind as Brooks Otterlake, the trendy filmmaker who becomes the Prince Hal to the Falstaff of John Huston’s Jake Hannaford. However, in the introduction to his 2020 book-length interview Picturing Peter Bogdanovich, critic Peter Tonguette offers a reactionary take on the New Hollywood and Bogdanovich’s place within it: “Tapping into the antiestablishment mood of some in the country, films such as Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Woodstock (1970) seemed to be multiplying—like a virus. For all their differences, they had much in common: they were morally incoherent and visually ugly, bearing scant relationship to the art form built by the likes of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Orson Welles.”
Tonguette regards Bogdanovich as a champion of traditional values, both aesthetic and moral, in the midst of this widespread degeneracy, and in their conversations Bogdanovich more or less agrees. “Looking back at the pictures made by my contemporaries…very few of them seem to deal with people,” he says at one point. “I mean, they all deal with stereotypes or gangster figures who are sort of stereotypical or aberrations of human behaviour, like Raging Bull (1980), but not real human beings. They’re sort of monsters.” This is a surprising statement not just to those of us who recognize the humanity in Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta, but also to anyone who has seen some of Bogdanovich’s ’70s movies, which can be all too willing to retreat from reality. For instance: his stilted, career-derailing Cole Porter musical At Long Last Love (1975), which asks the question “Why can’t we make ‘em like they used to?” and then spends two hours proving that a few weeks of tap lessons can’t magically turn Burt Reynolds into Fred Astaire.
As a programmer and critic, Bogdanovich was a powerful champion of the auteur theory; as a filmmaker, he became increasingly used as a case-study of its limits. When his career took a downturn, a narrative emerged that his real secret weapon was his ex-wife Polly Platt, who worked on his first four movies. Officially a production designer, her countless large and small contributions to the films included suggesting the plot of Targets, bringing Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show to his attention, and pushing for Tatum O’Neal to be cast in Paper Moon (1973). When Platt left, Bogdanovich’s artistry (or at least his box office) never fully recovered. This narrative received its fullest articulation in “Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman,” the 2020 season of You Must Remember This, in which Platt is made symbolic of all the women in below-the-line film-industry positions whose importance has been erased by the cult of the director. As a historian and public figure, Bogdanovich is the ideal foil for Longworth, whose career-long interest in interrogating the dream factory’s myths stands in sharp contrast to his starry-eyed, print-the-legend approach.
Almost concurrently with Longworth’s podcast, Turner Classic Movies made Bogdanovich the subject of the first season of its own podcast, The Plot Thickens. Titled “I’m Still Peter Bogdanovich,” it repositioned him as a model of perseverance in a cruel industry where “you’re only as good as your last one,” and placed special emphasis on the defining catastrophes of his post-wunderkind years: the murder of his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten by her ex-husband in 1980, and his financially ruinous decision to self-distribute the film they made together, They All Laughed (1981). When Bogdanovich resurfaced from personal and professional self-isolation in the mid-’80s, he worked largely as a director for hire, and when studio offers dried up in the early ’90s he swallowed his pride and turned to TV movies, embodying a modern version of another kind of Hollywood archetype: the modest B-movie craftsman who toiled on Poverty Row. Few of these TV efforts, which include a Disney Channel comedy and a biopic of Pete Rose, play to his obvious strengths, but the downbeat biopic The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004) stands out for chronicling another Hollywood figure with a life marked by tragedies and stormy love affairs.
During this period, Bogdanovich chose another sour Hollywood story as his theatrical comeback attempt. The Cat’s Meow (2001) is based on urban legends surrounding the death of fading silent-era star Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), who passed after a weekend excursion on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann). The official cause of death was heart failure, but legend has it he was shot by Hearst, who mistook him for Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who the jealous newspaper baron suspected of making time with his mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). It’s easy to imagine a younger Bogdanovich using this real-life Hearst story to flex some of the Wellesian visual muscles he brought to his silent-cinema valentine Nickelodeon (1976), but The Cat’s Meow is the work of a humbler filmmaker, shot as unfussily as one of his TV movies. In his conversations with the director, Tonguette perceptively identifies in The Mystery of Natalie Wood and The Cat’s Meow evidence of Bogdanovich’s growing disenchantment with Hollywood, which developed in concert with his personal and professional woes. “There’s an innocence in Nickelodeon. And that innocence is all gone by the time of The Cat’s Meow and Natalie Wood,” Bogdanovich replies, adding, “It’s the truth as opposed to fiction.”
Nevertheless, even as Bogdanovich’s directing career was ebbing further in the ’90s and 2000s, his status as an ambassador to Hollywood’s Golden Age was strengthened with the publication of two mammoth books of interviews and anecdotes (Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s in It), plus his steady stream of scholarly DVD commentaries. His work as a film historian will endure because it has become film history, and the story of his life and career will endure for the same reason. As for his films, my Twitter feed in the days after his death was full of appreciation for his consensus classics, as well as revisionist takes on his many curios and films maudit: Saint Jack (1979) is his real masterpiece, the director’s cut of the belated Picture Show sequel Texasville (1990) is greater than its forebear, She’s Funny That Way (2015) is better than you’ve heard, et cetera. At the very least, I feel certain that Targets will keep growing in stature—which reminds me of a memorable moment I had with Orson when we were filming The Other Side of the Wind. We were talking about Greta Garbo, and, in my pedantic way, I said, “Isn’t it a shame she only made two really great movies?” Orson puffed on his cigar for a moment and said, “Well, you only need one.”