It’s an exciting time to be a film geek of a certain order (i.e., me). Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is expected to see daylight sometime next year and now I learn this morning that this new romantic comedy by Peter Bogdanovich will be getting a limited release as of August 21.
It’s his birthday today — I was going to do a more general post, but now we have She’s Funny That Way to look forward to. To say that our optimism is cautious is to put it mildly. While Bogdanovich has made some of our favorite films, he’s also made quite a few bewildering and horrendous turkeys. We’ll get to both in half a tic, but I do want to first insert some reasons for optimism: the new movie is backed by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and stars Owen Wilson, Joanna Lumley, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Jennifer Anniston, Tovah Feldshuh and Bogdanovich past masters Cybill Shepherd, Austin Pendleton and Tatum O’Neal among many others (I’m aging myself – -I have no idea who those younger actors in the credits are). A lot of people seem to have gone to the wall on his behalf in order to make a success out of this thing, out of admiration, or for old time’s sake, or whatever. On the other hand…it’s co-written by his wife Louise Stratton, has gotten mixed reviews thus far, and is in the same genre (ensemble rom-com) as most of his most terrible movies. So: we’ll see. I am keeping an open mind, and am hopeful.
Why do I care?
Well, to be of my age is to have seen and re-seen two of his important films at a crucial time, and to have been deeply impacted and highly influenced by them. I refer not to his first great film, 1971’s The Last Picture Show (though) it’s beautiful as I didn’t see until it was 20 years old. I refer instead to his next two pictures, What’s Up, Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).
The former film is of course Bogdanovich’s tribute to the screwball comedy and directors like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Somehow, through whatever alchemy, he managed to create a near flawless comedy. There’s the brilliant farcical script (by Bogdanovich, Buck Henry and two other writers) about confusion resulting from several matching bags, which puts me in mind of Mack Sennett, which further puts me in mind of French farce. There’s the impeccable casting, especially Barbara Streisand in what I consider her greatest screen role, and an ensemble composed ENTIRELY of genius character actors, including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, and John Hillerman and about two dozen others. The weakest link is probably Ryan O’Neal as the romantic lead. He does his job, and he doesn’t spoil the picture by any means, and he’s even funny, but…..well, he’s in VERY distinguished company here, isn’t he? Lastly, in addition to Bogdanovich’s masterful direction of the cast, it’s shot by Lazlo Kovacs and edited by Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for editing Jaws), and every shot feels perfect, as does the rhythm (which is so CRUCIAL to comedy).
Ya wanna see how cinematographers and editors and directors and actors can all collaborate to make great comedy? Look at one of my favorite moments in the film, when Kahn, as O’Neal’s fiance is given a wrong address and stumbles upon a bunch of gangsters in the middle of torturing somebody in an abandoned waterfront warehouse. Doesn’t sound funny, but it’s hysterical — it’s all in the feel.
At any rate, I probably watched this film on tv 15 times as a kid, and it became a sort of seldom-matched gold standard for me. This film has a joke, a line, or a gag every second. So do the great comedies of yesteryear, and that is what I DEMAND from a comedy. Anything less is lazy-ass shit.
Paper Moon influenced me in an entirely different way. There was one immediate element to grab me in this one — a kid. Tatum O’Neal is just a couple of years older than me, and in movies like this and The Bad News Bears (1975) she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this film is SO evocative of the period (The Depression), it gets the mis en scene so right, I was in awe even as a child. The 70s were halcyon days for nostalgia about past decades; my whole love for vaudeville is filtered through that era’s look BACK at earlier decades. And I really loved the LOOK of Ryan O’Neal’s character in this movie, the mustache and hat — and the character of the door-to-door con man. A big impression.
Now, I haven’t seen all of his films, but I’ve seen many of them, and I’m surprised to find that there’s only three in the bunch I found downright terrible. His early AIP movie Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff is extremely interesting and even a classic of its kind. Daisy Miller (1974) gets a bad rap. I think it’s a near perfect adaptation of James’ novel but for the crucial drawback of Cybil Shepherd’s tone-deaf performance, a near literal bull in a China closet. The director was not thinking with his brain when he made the movie, know what uh mean? Mask (1985), Noises Off (1992) and The Cat’s Meow (2001) are all well-realized, perfectly competent if unambitious films, neither bad nor remarkable. (My kids even really love Noises Off).
But the bad ones…are quite bad. I tried to watch Nickelodeon (1976) when researching Chain of Fools but found it unwatchable….I couldn’t get more than about ten minutes in. It’s set in the silent era, and I saw him trying to slam that same breakneck, Hawksian pace in. It’s not a one-size fits all thing. It either suits the material and the performers or it doesn’t. I saw the cast trying too hard, and I couldn’t watch it. I’ll have to go back and give it another shot at some point. But I did watch all (or most of) They All Laughed (1981) and Illegally Yours (1988), and found them both abysmal. The former film has its points of interest: the cast includes the ill-fated Dorothy Stratton, as well as Audrey Hepburn (in one of her last, increasingly rare film appearances), and Ben Gazzara (with whom Hepburn had had a relationship)…and a bespectacled John Ritter, trying very hard as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in. But the movie is almost completely incoherent, and (it should go without saying) not funny. And Illegally Yours, which features a bespectacled Rob Lowe as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in, is even a notch or two below that.
Still….we like and respect Bogdanovich as a critic, author, actor, and most of the time as a director, so we hope this new one is good. Or, at least, good enough.
To learn more about comedy film please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc