Monday, May 13, 2024

Director Essentials: Peter Bogdanovich

by Patrick Bromley
A director whose work I failed to fully appreciate when he was still with us.
Peter Bogdanovich is a filmmaker whose name I've have known for as long as I was aware of the Hollywood New Wave cinema of the 1970s. I knew the movies he directed -- had even seen a few -- and knew of his love affairs with the likes of Cybil Shepherd and Dorothy Stratten. I could picture his thick-rimmed glasses and the scarf he wore around his neck. I knew him as a writer and as a talking head, but I didn't really know his work. It wasn't until he passed in early 2022 that I ran most of his filmography and realized I had been missing out on a unique and brilliant director for far too long. Yes, he had several misses and yes, he eventually moved away from the personal director he was in the 1970s to a for-hire guy, but even his for-hire movies are special. His is a filmography I've come to love.

1. Targets (1968)
Peter Bogdanovich's first movie was born out of a few extra days of filming the producer Roger Corman (RIP!!) had with actor Boris Karloff after filming The Terror. Bogdanovich and co-writer Polly Platt (who also worked as production designer) quickly devised the story of fading Hollywood star Byron Orlock (Karloff) appearing at a drive-in theater to promote his latest movie at the same time that a sniper (Tim O'Kelly) begins randomly murdering innocent people. Both stories are totally compelling, with Karloff giving what is maybe the best late-period performance of his career. The movie is clearly inspired by the case of Charles Whitman and is meant to be about how fictional horror can no longer compete with the real-life horrors of the late 1960s, but even Bogdanovich could never have predicted just how ahead of his time he was with Targets

2. The Last Picture Show (1971)
Bogdanovich's breakthrough film is one of the seminal films of the 1970s, a coming of age drama about young people -- among them Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and holy shit Cybill Shepherd -- growing up in small town Texas in the 1950s. Sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, The Last Picture Show contrasts the drab existence of a lifeless, dead-end town (rendered in gorgeous black and white photography and perfect production design, again by Polly Platt) with youthful hopes, dreams, excitement, and confusion, much of it around sex. I love the way Bogdanovich and co-writer Larry McMurtry (adapting his own novel) puncture nostalgia by looking back at the '50s with 1970s-era (era) frankness and honesty. While it's not my favorite of his films, this is probably the director's one true masterpiece.

3. What's Up Doc? (1972)
Always the most old-fashioned and classical of his 1970s contemporaries, Bogdanovich followed up The Last Picture Show with a screwball comedy throwback starring Ryan O'Neal in his second or third best performance as a harried musicologist whose life is turned upside down when he meets Barbara Streisand at her daffiest. I put off seeing this movie for a long time I think because I was confusing it with Funny Girl; once I saw it, I was mad at myself for going so many years without it in my life. It's delightful and hilarious and scored Bogdanovich another huge hit, allowing him to continue making whatever kinds of movies he wanted for pretty much the rest of the decade.

4. Paper Moon (1973)
Bogdanovich reunited with Ryan O'Neal -- and added O'Neal's young daughter Tatum -- for another old-fashioned comedy, this time a Depression-era (era) story about a con man (O'Neal) who is saddled with a precocious nine-year old with whom he ends up teaming for scams. Though the project didn't originate with Bogdanovich -- it was originally going to be directed by John Huston -- his affection for and ability to recreate classic Hollywood is on full display in ways that go beyond just Lazlo Kovacs' black and white photography, though his use of deep focus and long takes also contribute to a movie that feels old fashioned in the best way. It's not quite a subversion of the films of this period but it's more than just an exercise, too.

5. At Long Last Love (1975)
Truth be told, there are a couple of movies that could go in this slot from the period of Bogdanovich's career when he, like a lot of '70s filmmakers, bought into his own hype and making movies that were less commercial and more self-indulgent. I'm not complaining; I like seeing Bogdanovich indulge himself and he certainly earned the right with his first few movies. Nickelodeon, Daisy Miller, and At Long Last Love all fall into the same category of Bogdanovich's work, in which he flew too close to the sun with his period homages and was critically and commercially destroyed for his efforts. This is my favorite of those three, a classical musical using the songs of Cole Porter and starring Cybill Shepherd, Burt Reynolds, Madeline Kahn, and Eileen Brennan. There's more music than plot and I've realized I'm not really a Cole Porter guy, but the performances are incredibly charming (save for Duilio Del Prete, who is fine but doesn't sparkle the way the others do; I wish Bogdanovich hadn't gone all in on him) and Bogdanovich shoots it in classical style, in extended wide takes and all the songs recorded live. 

6. They All Laughed (1981)
What feels like an outlier in Peter Bogdanovich's filmography on first viewing slowly reveals itself to be his most personal and heartfelt film. Three New York City private detectives investigate women for infidelity, only to wind up falling for them and pursuing them romantically. The director's first contemporary-set film since Targets has charm to spare, with a great ensemble cast, genuine Big Apple atmosphere, and a beautiful bittersweet turn from model-turned-actor Dorothy Stratten, the director's partner who was tragically murdered by her husband before the film was released. There's a great documentary about Bogdanovich's career and the making of this movie called One Day Since Yesterday. It's a must watch for fans of the filmmaker. 

7. Mask (1985)
After a hellish start to the '80s -- Bogdanovich's lover Dorothy Stratten was murdered and he wound up declaring bankruptcy -- the filmmaker returned to the director's chair for one of his biggest hits. Bringing a sensitivity to his subjects not seen since The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich tells the true story of Rocky Dennis, a teenage boy with craniodiophyseal dysplasia (played by Eric Stoltz under Oscar-winning makeup), and his biker mother Rusty (Cher, who should have won Best Actress for her work here). Though different in some ways from the movies he was making in the 1970s -- even if it's still technically a period piece -- Mask is a lovely and moving coming-of-age story about maternal love and people who choose to live on the fringes of society, as well as those who don't. Be on the lookout for Bogdanovich's preferred Director's Cut, which restores the Bruce Springsteen songs originally intended to appear in the film but replaced by Bob Seger cuts for the theatrical release.

8. Texasville (1992)
After the disastrous experience of Illegally Yours in 1988, Bogdanovich needed a surefire win. It made sense for him to return to his beginnings with a follow-up to The Last Picture Show, again based on author Larry McMurtry's novel Texasville. Most of the cast members return for what has to be one of the first instances of a "legacy sequel," which picks up more than 30 years after the events of the first film. The whole thing feels broader than its predecessor -- a product of its time, no doubt -- but it's also more cheerful and upbeat, too, a victory lap celebration of these characters that also manages to find things to say about aging, love, loss, and legacy. The new 4K Criterion disc of The Last Picture Show offers Texasville as a bonus feature, including a black and white version. I get it for the sake of consistency, but it's the wrong choice for this movie. It belongs in color.

9. Noises Off (1992)
If there's a candidate for "most underrated" movie in Bogdanovich's filmography, it's this one. Adapting the hit Broadway show for the screen, the director maintains the same structure play used in which the first half shows everything going wrong during the dress rehearsal of a British sex farce called Nothing On, while the second half goes backstage for two performances of the play in which everything goes even worse on the road to its Broadway debut. Bogdanovich's ongoing fascination with show business and his penchant for comedy both lend themselves well to this incredibly funny film, the one in the director's filmography that's most deserving of rediscovery. It feels stagebound because it is -- a movie about actors and the theater. The cast, which includes Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, Michael Caine, Marilu Henner, and John Ritter (who by this point was part of Bogdanovich's regular company), absolutely kills. The DVD can be found pretty cheap (there is no Blu-ray) and I suggest you pick it up.

10. The Thing Called Love (1993)
While he made a few more movies in the 2000s (including a very good Buster Keaton documentary and The Cat's Meow, the director's return to the period piece), The Thing Called Love is my last favorite Bogdanovich movie even though it was another for-hire gig (he replaced original director Brian Gibson). While it's best known these days for featuring one of the last performances of River Phoenix and one of the first performances of Sandra Bullock, The Thing Called Love is a solid musical drama about aspiring country songwriters struggling and falling in love in Nashville. Like The Last Picture Show, it captures a specific time and place really well. Like They All Laughed, the specter of its late star hangs over the film like a weight of sadness, a reminder of a promising life cut far too short. Like At Long Last Love, it's basically a musical, albeit one in which songwriters perform rather than people breaking into song. It's not exactly a victory lap for Bogdanovich, but it is a reminder of what makes him and his movies special.


  1. I had Targets checked out from the library a couple of months ago when I was on a 70s conspiracy thriller kick and for some dumb reason didn’t get around to it before it was due back. So, back to the library I go. Great list. So happy to see 9 and 10 made it.

  2. Haven't seen Mask for so long, early 90s i'd say, it was on tv all the time. Didn't even know it was Bogdanovich

    1. Funny, i'm currently listening to the Evolution episode and Adam mention Bogdanovich, and Patrick mention his working on this list.

    2. I think I was running some of his filmography at the time but not yet making the list. I swear I haven't been writing it for two years.

  3. They All Laughed desperately needs a blu-ray release, such a great and sweet film, simply blown away by the performances in general, especially Coleen Camp, I still have her country tunes stuck in my head!

    1. To follow up on One Day Since Yesterday (the title taken from a song from They All Laughed), here is an interview with the director, Bill Teck:

    2. Cool! Thank you! Love that doc.

  4. Noises Off stars both Caine and Reeves!? So they did TWO adaptations of amazing plays!? (the second being the incredible Deathtrap). {queue johnny carson voice} "i did not know that."

    1. ive only seen the play, which i loooved. actually most of these flicks are gaps for me...definitely need to dig in.....thanks dude!

  5. I'm pretty deficient in Bogdanovich--of his narrative features, I've only seen Targets and Last Picture Show--so this article is a great guide for picking and choosing my way through (eventually).

    I also wanted to give a shout-out to Bogdanovich's awesome Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers doc, "Runnin' Down a Dream."