Just heard that Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939) has passed away at the age of 82 of “natural causes”. That’s pretty young nowadays to succumb to the call of Thanatos, so I wasn’t expecting this news for at least a few years. The post you’re reading has been sitting in the hopper a long time, and was scheduled to be published this July, on his next birthday. Expediency will necessitate a truncated tribute today, to which I will later add, his legacy being so broad and voluminous.
People seemed to love to hate Bogdanovich. I don’t fault women for doing so, for reasons everybody heard in Karina Longworth’s popular podcast about B’s first wife and creative partner Polly Platt. For his personal peccadillos, women get to hate Bogdanovich all they want, and with my blessing. But I feel that, his unsavory private life aside, critics, journalists, and the industry have hated his movies all too much. They have hated him with the glee of a pack of hyenas disposing of a carcass. They have have hated him like a swarm of zombies surrounding the last man in a phone booth. They have celebrated his stumbles. They have downgraded flawed or mixed films in their minds to flaming car wrecks. They have hated him so much that they were willing to put a bullet in entire genres rather than support his efforts to keep them alive.
The dislike was largely visceral, I think. People didn’t like his affect, which is as much as to say that he was affected. He was. I wasn’t the slightest bit shocked to learn that he was great friends with Jerry Lewis. In interviews, his manner dripped with self-regard in the same way. For a while Lewis was even wearing an ascot like Bogdanovich. Ha! Bogdanovich wore an ascot! People liked to punish him for knowing he was brilliant. What was he supposed to do, pretend? But New Yorkers don’t do humble, nor should they. Because that’s bullshit.
Bogdanovich directed two of my favorite movies What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), which I wrote about here. Of his remaining films I have also had cause to mention or write about Targets (1968), At Long Last Love (1975), The Cat’s Meow (2001), The Great Buster (2018) etc. He was also instrumental in getting Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind before the public. I’ll have much more to say about his whole body of work betimes, which ranged from top notch to execrable, as will happen. It’s been a while since his last masterpiece, but he also doesn’t just make piles of steaming shit as many people love to imply. The fact that he made his best movies with Platt doesn’t mean he’s nothing without her.
Bogdanovich obviously had his foibles, and made a lot of errors that marred his work after breaking up with Platt. He often cast people who were out of their depth. This could be said about many directors however (John Ford, whom B. made a documentary about in 1971, springs immediately to mind). There are several of B’s movies which come pretty close to perfect but for a bad performance or two at the heart of them. (I’m thinking of Daisy Miller and Nickelodeon in particular). He seemed too star struck in those cases to do what it took, either kick butt or replace the bad egg. In later films he often seemed wedded (to a fault) to milking the Hawksian steamroller thing he’d gotten so much mileage out of in What’s Up Doc? But it didn’t always play, wasn’t always appropriate, and his actors couldn’t always handle it. It overstayed its welcome, to put it mildly, but Bogdanovich kept going back to it like a gambler sticks with a losing number — it’s gotta hit again sometime! Like Woody Allen, he cast a series of bespectacled actors clearly meant to stand in for himself, and over the years they descended in prestige, from Ryan O’Neal to John Ritter to Rob Lowe. And he directed the last movies (the “Last Picture Shows”, if you will), of Audrey Hepburn, River Phoenix, and yes, Dorothy Stratten.
I’m sorry he’s gone, because it’s a given that he left behind a long list of unrealized projects — just like his mentor Welles. He was someone who was capable of brilliance. And have no fear: he paid for his hubris. He experienced plenty of misery. He was in love with Hollywood, and THAT is one cruel, capricious object of adoration. Yet somehow, heroically, it never wiped the smarmy expression off his face, which is to say it never licked him.