Just as his hero, Orson Welles, is remembered mainly for Citizen Kane, the first of the 16 films he directed, the name of Peter Bogdanovich, who died on January 6 at the age of 82, will for a long time likely be associated primarily with The Last Picture Show (1971), the first of the 17 films he directed (not counting a 1971 tribute to John Ford and two earlier low-budget flicks for schlockmeister Roger Corman).
Picture Show, based on Larry McMurtry’s 1966 coming-of-age novel and co-written with McMurtry, is a classic. Set in the 1950s and filmed in gorgeously evocative black and white, it was a tender portrait of a group of young people in a one-horse Texas burg who — with the exception of the town beauty, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) — seem destined to go nowhere in life.
Like Kane, Picture Show is a meticulous piece of craftsmanship, visually stunning, remarkable in its restraint, and yet ultimately very powerful — a picture (to borrow from Yeats) “cold and passionate as the dawn.” Like Kane, which was released when Welles was 25, Picture Show, released when Bogdanovich was 32, looks for all the world like the work of a seasoned master of the art of filmmaking. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and for its direction, screenplay, and cinematography, as well as for performances by four actors, two of whom (Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman) won.
By the time Welles directed Kane, of course, he’d made a huge name for himself in the theater and radio but knew almost nothing about movie-making. Bogdanovich, by contrast, came to Picture Show as an established film scholar, film critic, film editor, film actor, and film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art. He’d written definitive monographs about Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and would later publish the highly regarded books Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (1997) and Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2004).
Then came Bogdanovich’s great tragedy. On August 14, 1980, his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten, that year’s Playboy Playmate of the Year, was shot to death by her estranged husband.
Picture Show, with its stark realism, slow pacing, minimalistic dialogue, and cast of sensitive young unknowns, was succeeded by the Technicolor cartoonishness of What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a funny screwball comedy starring two marquee names, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neil, and full of slapstick gags and rapid-fire repartee. To view the two pictures back to back makes for the most dissonant double bill imaginable.
After What’s Up, Doc? came another black-and-white movie, the charming Paper Moon (1973), with Ryan O’Neal as a small-time con man in the Depression-era Dust Bowl and Tatum O’Neal, then eight, as his unlikely sidekick. (She ended up being the youngest actor ever to win an Oscar.) Daisy Miller (1974), an adaptation of the Henry James story, was Bogdanovich’s first stumble: it was pretty to look at but didn’t really work, largely because of the miscasting of Cybill Shepherd in the title role.
Like Welles, Bogdanovich used many of the same actors over and over again — usually in remarkably different roles — so that watching several of his movies in a row can be disconcerting. You put on Daisy Miller, and there, in elegant period costumes, strolling around Rome, are Cybill Shepherd, Eileen Brennan, and Cloris Leachman, who in your head are still the high-school girl, the diner waitress, and the coach’s wife from dreary Anarene, Texas.
After Daisy Miller, Bogdanovich decided he wanted to make a Cole Porter musical. Voilà — At Long Last Love (1975). The actors — including Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds — couldn’t sing. Reviewers called it one of the worst pictures ever. All these years later, to be sure, it’s fun to watch; but at the time it was a massive flop. So was Nickelodeon (1976), about the silent-film era.
Then came Bogdanovich’s great tragedy. On August 14, 1980, his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten, that year’s Playboy Playmate of the Year, was shot to death by her estranged husband. The murder sent Bogdanovich reeling, and in a way he never quite recovered. It led him to write a book entitled The Killing of the Unicorn (1984), and it seems to have rendered him incapable for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of his life, of summoning the artistic discipline — or focus, or energy, or drive, or ambition, or whatever it was — that had made his best early movies possible.
Welles had enjoyed a relatively brief Hollywood honeymoon only to spend the succeeding decades pursuing an increasingly scattershot and outside-the-system directorial career. The same thing happened to Bogdanovich after Stratton’s death. Like the older Welles, the older Bogdanovich was experimental, mercurial, less interested in reaching for artistic perfection or commercial success than in trying new things, exploring new locales, casting non-actors in key roles, and shooting on the fly. Like Welles, he spent a good deal of time raising money and running out of money and enthusiastically talking up projects that never came to fruition.
To be sure, several of his later films won critical praise. Mask (1985), about a boy with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Saint Jack (1979), a gritty picture, shot entirely in Singapore, about an American expat (Ben Gazzara) who works as a pimp, won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. Like almost all of Bogdanovich’s later movies, it’s very interesting to watch, less for its intriguing plot or exquisite cinematography than for its exploration of character and atmosphere.
Then there’s Texasville (1990), the sequel to The Last Picture Show. The earlier picture was a poem in black and white, poignant and elegiac. By contrast, Texasville, shot in unremarkable color, was pure prose — a rather clunky dark comedy, set thirty years after the original, in which one of the main characters from the earlier film, Duane (Jeff Bridges), has become a rich businessman but is now on the verge of bankruptcy.
His teenage son is knocking up all the local housewives, and Jacy (Shepherd), now a movie star, has returned home from a long sojourn in Italy and apparently seduced Duane’s wife. Reviewing Texasville for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote that it “comes off like an exceptionally slow episode of Dallas.” As with Coppola and Godfather III, it feels almost like an act of desecration for Bogdanovich to have created this middling follow-up to his magnum opus.
Like Welles, Bogdanovich spent much of his third act being a raconteur on talk shows. One of his later movies, The Cat’s Meow (2001), tells a story that he’d first heard from Welles about the mysterious 1924 death of Hollywood mogul Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. It’s enjoyable enough, but looks and feels like a TV movie. Finally, in 2019 Netflix released The Other Side of the Wind, a film that had been left unfinished by Welles when he died in 1985 and that Bogdanovich painstakingly edited down from some 200 hours of exposed celluloid. Welles’s last film project, then, is also Bogdanovich’s.
Another director might have been bitter about the bumpy turn his once promising, even golden, career had taken. But Bogdanovich never groused — not publicly, anyway. He always said that the horror of Dorothy Stratten’s murder had made it impossible to get upset about such petty things as the success or failure of a movie. Besides, so long as he had another project on the drawing board, he seemed to be content. In addition, more than most filmmakers of his caliber, he appears to have been always just as happy to spend his time in TV interviews or at film festivals promoting good new movies by other directors, or the enduring classics of American cinema, as he was to push his own work. Admirable, that.