These days, the history of cinema is treated like the history of just about anything else: with a combination of neglect and ignorance, willful or otherwise. Just take a gander at the hits of the past year, or even the past five: Is there a single film that continues the rich tradition of American filmmaking inaugurated by Griffith, Ford, and Wyler? In an industry now dominated by sequels, remakes, and comic book adaptations, there are few signs of the legacy of Broken Blossoms, How Green Was My Valley, or The Best Years of Our Lives—films that used the properties of cinema to tell stories about the trials and joys of being human. One can only surmise that the moviemakers of today, while ostensibly inheritors of this incomparable legacy, are so certain of their own genius that they feel no need to acquaint themselves with the past.
A glorious exception to the rule in modern American movies was filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week at age 82. Among his peers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, Bogdanovich, whose classic films included The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), was alone unmoved by the innovations and desecrations of contemporary Hollywood. In a 1973 article, Bogdanovich, who was a film scholar before he began directing, lumped together color photography, split-screen effects, and sound as “at best, adornments, at worst, self-indulgent decadence.” Throughout his career, he openly acknowledged the filmmakers on whose shoulders he stood, including Ford, Hawks, and Welles.
It’s one thing to talk about the superiority of early movies and the superficiality of modern movies, but Bogdanovich, born in New York in 1939 to a Serbian father and an Austrian Jewish mother, put his theories into practice. Yes, he made most of his movies in color (though a few of the best were in black and white), and yes, he never went so far as to make a silent film (though many of his best sequences expressed emotions without words), but in all other ways, he defied nearly every fashionable trend.
In 1971, the year that The Last Picture Show was released, American audiences had for some years subsisted on a steady diet of gritty, grimy movies, often influenced by the most outré cinema of Europe: Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, M*A*S*H. Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, Bogdanovich’s film—his second, following the 1968 thriller Targets—was something altogether different: The story took place in small-town Texas in the 1950s but did not condescend to either its setting or time period; it featured well-rounded characters played by actors of dignity and gravitas, especially Ben Johnson as town patriarch Sam the Lion and Cloris Leachman as unhappy housewife Ruth Popper (both won Oscars); it was photographed in black and white; it featured a soundtrack consisting not of rock music but country-western standards.
The Last Picture Show, then, was something of a dare: Would the public sit for a film with such old-fashioned values? The verdict was instantaneous and affirmative. Newsweek called it the best film by a young American director since Citizen Kane, and audiences responded with enthusiasm. For his part, Bogdanovich interpreted the film’s success this way: Moviegoers had not changed so much since the days of Ford and Hawks after all. Yes, there was a youth market, but there was also a large swath of ordinary people looking for quality mainstream entertainment—the “silent majority,” you might say.
Since his next films—the screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? and the Depression-era portrait of father and daughter con artists, Paper Moon—hit critical and commercial pay dirt, Bogdanovich could be forgiven for thinking he cracked the code. This led to charges of arrogance that persisted until the day he died, but can we blame him for being sure of himself after this trio of hits? He placed the unlikely bet that audiences were not completely coarsened, and he was right.
Yet he wasn’t right forever. Concurrent with Bogdanovich’s rise, other films continued to traffic in increasingly explicit, boundary-pushing content—and the public responded to those films, too: These were also the years of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Here’s what Bogdanovich once said to me about the films of his contemporaries: “They all deal with stereotypes or gangster figures who are sort of stereotypical or aberrations of human behavior, like Raging Bull, but not real human beings. They’re sort of monsters.”
In making films that presented a far milder view of human nature and induced far simpler emotions—the tears of Picture Show, the laughs of Doc?—Bogdanovich was increasingly functioning as a one-man show, seeking, on his own, to shift the mainstream away from the margins and back to a sensible center; he was surely the only major director to make three G-rated pictures in the 1970s.
Yet one man, no matter how successful, cannot inaugurate or sustain a renaissance: In 1975, the same year that his Cole Porter-inspired musical At Long Last Love came out, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released; it turned out that audiences would rather subject themselves to random jolts than tap their toes to “You’re the Top.” The tagline to What’s Up, Doc? was “A screwball comedy. Remember them?” Well, audiences remembered them for a few years, but they forgot again in a hurry.
Thus, Bogdanovich’s much-commented-upon downfall—he endured numerous flops, including At Long Last Love—must be understood this way: He had learned an art form that was on the verge of becoming antiquated, briefly won the interest of the public, and then, just as quickly, lost their attention. The standard line on Bogdanovich is that he lost his touch, but in fact, he just couldn’t hold the attention of moviegoers.
In many ways, Bogdanovich’s films were portraits of innocence: the innocence of a horror film star (Boris Karloff) coming into contact with a real-life killer (Tim O’Kelly) in Targets; the innocence of a high-spirited dame (Barbra Streisand) who causes traffic accidents merely by sauntering across a San Francisco street in Doc?; the innocence of Daisy Miller (Cybill Shepherd), a debutante from Schenectady unprepared for the whispers of Rome, in Daisy Miller. And, in clinging to the methods and attitudes of the past, Bogdanovich was himself the ultimate innocent.
There’s a revealing passage in his book The Killing of the Unicorn, a portrait of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, who was the love of his life and was cast in his greatest film, 1981’s They All Laughed. Before the film came out, and before she and Bogdanovich could build a life together, she was murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider. “D. R. was a small-town girl who tried, against her better instincts, to be a ‘liberal, modern’ woman,” Bogdanovich wrote, trying to account for how Stratten, from Vancouver, British Columbia, found herself in the nightmare world of Playboy. “Neither she nor I had ever really dealt with the difference between the Old World culture of our parents and the ruthless American way we found outside the home.”
In so many ways, Bogdanovich was, like Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock film, the man who knew too much: He couldn’t shake his conviction that movies, like America itself, had once been better, purer, more innocent, and he wasn’t going to play by the new rules. Anyone is free to like or dislike his later work; those with an open mind will discover that They All Laughed is a marvelously melancholy evocation of what it’s like to be in love in Manhattan in the spring, and Noises Off (1992) is an expert cinematic translation of Michael Frayn’s brilliant stage farce. But, whatever you say about these and other films, Bogdanovich never made a film that partook in easy cynicism or was ugly or vicious.
So pure a man is unlikely to darken the doors of a Hollywood studio ever again.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director.
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