Esteemed filmmaker, film critic and journalist Peter Bogdanovich is cinema’s biggest namedropper without a doubt, but he’s definitely aware of his good fortune. “I know I actually knew all these people,” Bogdanovich said in reaction to audience laughter over his ceaseless references, quotes and anecdotes about legendary cinema icons and friends like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and John “Jack” Ford. “I really did know them, it’s amazing. I know, I pinch myself.”
Perhaps cinema’s most consummate raconteur, Bogdanovich certainly knows how to tell a story which made Thursday night’s screening of his 1981 picture, “They All Laughed” at BAM’s Cinematek, moderated by filmmaker and friend Noah Baumbach, wickedly entertaining. A screwball-ish comedy with melancholy romantic twinges that took some of its cues from both the freewheeling John Cassavetes and the subjective POV of silent films, “They All Laughed,” centers on three detectives (Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Blaine Novak), their various romantic entanglements and the women they fall in love with whom they’ve been hired to follow (Audrey Hepburn, in her penultimate big-screen role, Colleen Camp, Dorothy Stratten, and a fetching Patti Hansen).
Along with early ’80s pictures like Michael Cimino‘s “Heaven’s Gate,” Francis Ford Coppola‘s “One from the Heart,” and William Friedkin‘s “Cruising,” “They All Laughed” is generally regarded as an entry in the final chapter of the New Hollywood golden age period. While poorly received at the time, and subsequently met with surrounding tragedies that hurt its release, the comical, heartfelt and personal picture has risen in stature over the last few years, with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Baumbach all noting their personal affection for it. Anderson appeared on the 2006, 25th Anniversary edition DVD in a Director to Director conversation with Bogdanovich and Tarantino would show his fondness for the film by asking Bogdanovich to do the uncredited DJ voice in “Kill Bill” (throughout “They All Laughed,” whenever a radio disc jockey is heard, it’s Bogdanovich himself who is supplying the voice). Tarantino would even list the film in a personal top 10 he released in 2002.
Ultimately, “They All Laughed,” is both externally and internally bittersweet. A film that was a joyous return-to-form experience for the filmmaker (at least personally), but one that was marred by devastating tragedies to some of the central cast members.
Bogdanovich says it’s the most personal of his films — his two daughters also played Gazzara’s kids — and certainly his favorite of all of them. “It might not be my best film I made, but it’s my favorite for personal reasons, obviously.” Here the director’s talking about his romance with former Playboy pinup-turned-actress Dorothy Stratten, with whom he was deeply in love, who co-starred in the picture and was murdered by the jealous, estranged husband she had left to be with Bogdanovich, a few short months after the picture was done (you may remember the Bob Fosse movie about this grisly subject “Star 80,” and/or Bogdanovich’s unfortunately titled memoir about the tragedy, “The Killing Of The Unicorn“).
Based on real-life experiences, the director said the film, that he co-wrote with actor Blaine Novak, was written with each actor specifically in mind and much of the backstory was true material from their lives. “Ben and Audrey did have an affair and she was in an unhappy marriage which she stayed in because of her son,” Bogdanovich said of the real-life detail mirrored in the picture. Ritter’s bumbling and lovelorn detective was based on Bogdanovich, as was Gazzara’s older character, an aging man who is still skirt-chasing. “I was right in the middle of both their ages,” he said.
“Can you talk for a long time while I drink water?” a parched Bogdanovich said at one point to Baumbach and then — for those that might not know the history of his work well — the filmmaker took a detour and conveniently tracked back to the beginning of his career, detailing how he quickly fell out of favor with Hollywood and never returned to his golden-boy status.
“I made three pictures in a row that were successful, then I had three films that were not successful,” he said, referring to his early triumvirate of immutable classics that made him into a ’70s wunderkind. These pictures include “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?” and “Paper Moon,” the first of which nabbed him a Best Director Oscar nom and had critics heralding the picture as “the most impressive work by a young American director since ‘Citizen Kane‘,” and the last of which earning four Oscar nominations, including a win for a 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal (she is still the youngest person to ever win a competitive Academy Award).
But after that meteoric rise to fame and critical acclaim, Bogdanovich would hit hard times. “You only get discovered once and after that you’re a pisher,” he said wryly, but noted that “What’s Up, Doc?” was the second most successful film of that year after “The Godfather,” adding that the iconic mob family picture was something he was asked to direct first. “But that’s another story.” (Truth be told ‘Doc’ was the fifth highest-grossing film that year, but hey, who’s counting?).
1974 would bring the ill-conceived costume drama, what he calls his pre-Merchant-Ivory picture, “Daisy Miller” starring his muse Cybill Shepherd. It was well-received critically, but it wasn’t successful. “It won the the Best Director award in Brussels which doesn’t mean shit in Hollywood,” he laughed. 1975 would bring a certifiable bomb, “At Long Last Love,” a musical starring Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, which he refers to as “the debacle,” while a review in the Village Voice summed most critical consensus at the time by calling it “At Long Last Lousy.”
Bogdanovich would lament that it was a compromised effort and that part of that was his responsibility and error. “They [the critics were] right, the version that was released was not the good version I’m afraid, and I suffered for that. It’s a long story that I won’t go into, but there was a lot of compromise, a lot of pressure and a lot of shit going on.” The version that Bogdanovich says they should have released is ironically streaming on Netflix OnDemand now. “As we speak somebody’s watching it right now and saying, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good picture.’ “
Then came 1976’s “Nickelodeon,” a comedy starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal with Burt Reynolds, loosely based on the life of Cecil B. DeMille. “The subject was very precious and close to my heart, much like ‘At Long Last Love,’ ” he said, “but they both were compromised, as will happen in Hollywood.” The picture was one that the filmmaker envisioned in black and white with no stars, but Columbia Pictures nixed those ideas (including the use of his beloved Cybill Shepherd). “It was ugly, but we got through it,” he said. However in 2009, thirty-three years after the fact, Bogdanovich had the movie re-released on DVD in black and white. Apparently this was the plan from the get-go. “[Cinematographer] László Kovács and I kept in mind that we might one day be able to print the color [film] into black and white, and eventually we did. We finally convinced the powers-that-be to let us put the DVD out in both versions — the color and the slightly longer black-and-white version,” he told AMC in 2009.
Perhaps peaking too early in the 70s with the aforementioned unimpeachable trifecta, subsequent missteps sidelined Bogdanovich from becoming the most peerless director of that era, and this is an assessment he agrees with. “I took three years to figure out what had gone wrong,” he said. “Because two of my sacred projects had been screwed up badly and I felt like I had lost my way, so I had took that time off. People said, ‘Oh he can’t get a job,’ but I actually turned down several million dollars to direct pictures that I didn’t want to make, and I didn’t want to work until I figured out what was wrong.”
Bogdanovich traveled the world twice with Shepherd during this down time and then decided he had to make films that returned him to his roots. “I had to make them my way,” he said, “without any interference, without any compromise. And if it meant doing it for low money, that didn’t matter. What mattered was the integrity of the picture.”
He then wanted to make “Saint Jack,” but Paramount, the studio that was interested, wanted Paul Newman. Bogdanovich wanted John Cassavetes actor Ben Gazzara (who would star in “They All Laughed”) and he walked, took the picture to Roger Corman (his “Targets” mentor) and made it in Singapore for the low price of $1 million.
1981’s “They All Laughed” would follow, a loose and uneven but underrated screwball comedy that’s won the affection of Baumbach and the aforementioned Tarantinos and Andersons of the world. “I decided to make it my way no matter what,” Bogdanovich said. While it’s a personal look at the romantic entanglements of himself and his friends, the filmmaker also decided to take inspiration from friends and fellow filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks who often cloaked their personal stories in the garb of a genre picture — in this case a detective story. “I didn’t do any research about detectives,” he said to much audience laughter. “I never even went into a detective’s office, but that didn’t matter to me. That’s not what it was about, that was just the disguise I hung my hat on.”
Baumbach noted that “They All Laughed” has a loose Cassavetes-like feeling and while not directly influenced by his work, Bogdanovich admitted he was chasing a similar feeling of freedom and “air” that his pictures had. “John was a real revolutionary and an iconoclast. He broke all the rules and proved there are no rules,” he said. “When I first saw ‘Women Under The Influence‘ I hugged John and said, ‘I don’t know how the fuck you do it, but it is extraordinary. Whatever you do, keep doing it.”
Most of the shots in the film were stolen. Extras were hired to stand around the camera to hide hit on the streets of Manhattan and the trucks and the majority of the crew were blocks away while a very small, guerrilla-like stealth team would shoot the picture. Civilians would sometime recognize them, realize what they were doing and yell at the production and Bogdanovich would yell back, “It’s a gift to New York, you’ll like it, I promise!”
While not entirely improvised, Bogdanovich wrote some scenes almost immediately before they were shot, handing pages to his actors and telling them to quickly learn the lines. Many of these ideas came from the sage words of his famous friends: “Orson Welles told me once, ‘You know the terrible thing about pictures is that they’re canned,’ ” the director said in his best basso-voiced Welles impression. “And so [that technique] gave it a certain freshness. The fresher it is, the better.”
Bogdanovich also referenced similar virtues displayed by John Ford. “I asked John Ford once about something in one of his pictures and he said, ‘Ahh, it was just an accident!,’ ” he brayed in Ford’s comically annoyed drawl. ” ‘Most of the good things in pictures happen by accident.’ ” He told the story to Welles and asked him if he thought Ford’s words were true: “Yes,” Welles said, “in fact, one might say a director is a man who presides over accidents.”
After Stratten’s tragic murder, film studios were reluctant to release “They All Laughed” due to the bad publicity. Unbowed, Bogdanovich bought the negative back and released the film under his Moon Pictures shingle in conjunction with PSO (now known as Lionsgate), but the lackluster reviews and marginal business would lead Bogdanovich to lose millions and file for bankruptcy in 1985.
Still, as unfortunate as that ending is, the 71-year-old filmmaker is not embittered about the experience one bit. “It was a very loving picture. It was the happiest time of my life. I look back on it now and it’s been like thirty years or so — it was definitely the high point in my life.”