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The Essentials: Peter Bogdanovich’s 9 Best Films

The Essentials: Peter Bogdanovich's 9 Best Films

Even anti-establishment, counter-cultural “revolutions,” such as the one that occurred in Hollywood throughout the 1970s, can become a hegemony of sorts. But in a time when iconoclasm became the norm for a brave new generation of young filmmakers, seemingly intent on outdoing each other in terms of finding not just new stories to tell but wholly new ways to tell them, Peter Bogdanovich stands slightly apart. Not because he was not part of that crew, that fabled Altman/Coppola/Friedkin/Ashby/De Palma/Scorsese/etc./etc. pantheon  he indisputably was. But because with Bogdanovich one seldom gets the sense that he wanted to rip into or tear down what had come before. He always wanted to build upon it, and always wore his unapologetic love of classical Hollywood cinema on his sleeve. In fact, many of his best films have a Janus-like aspect to them, partially of the moment, forward-looking, progressive, full of exuberance and an optimistic sense of the wide-open possibilities of the contemporary filmmaking landscape. But they also look back, overtly and admiringly, to the products of the very system he and his peers were responsible for largely dismantling.

This encyclopedic knowledge of, and encompassing love and nostalgia for, the filmmaking past is one of the things, along with his peerless craft and sly wit, that makes revisiting Bogdanovich’s films such a pleasure for the modern film critic. With the director himself having been a well-respected critic before he turned his hand to actual moviemaking, perhaps it’s only natural that he’s become kind of the poster boy for the cinephile-director, the filmmaker who is, indivisibly, a film lover too. But while, as a result of this, many of his films feature metatextual flourishes, in which Bogdanovich comments on contemporary filmmaking practices by referring to those of the past (think of “What’s Up, Doc?“‘ and how it reframes 1930/40s screwball tropes at the dawn of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, or the conscious aesthetic choice to shoot “The Last Picture Show” in anachronistic black and white, or “Targets“‘ overt clash between the old guard and the new), he is in many ways the least post-modern of filmmakers.

READ MORE: Interview: Peter Bogdanovich On ‘She’s Funny That Way’ And The Bodily Liquid Obsession Of Modern Comedy

There is a sincerity and a calm intelligence to the way he refers to classical tradition  he pays homage where lesser filmmakers might nod and wink for camp value. Far from deconstructing what went before, his is a cinema of reconstruction, in which his simple love for the films of Welles and Ford and Hawks colors everything he does and practically leaps off the screen into your lap. That he has been able to do that so often and so winningly without seeming derivative, and has along the way made several truly original outright masterpieces that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the films he so admires, just goes to prove what an innate, natural filmmaker Bogdanovich is  he just happens to be one cinema’s most erudite students as well.

With his most recent movie, “She’s Funny That Way,” which stars Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, and Will Forte opening in theaters this week (our review is here), here are our nine favorite Bogdanovich films as a timely reminder, if such were needed, of our blog-mate‘s particular, peculiar, and highly individual genius.

“Targets” (1968)
If Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature is not a great film it’s only because it’s really two films. One is a slightly anonymous Roger Corman cheapie, inventively shot by regular Bogdanovich collaborator Laszlo Kovacs (“Five Easy Pieces,” “Easy Rider“) and discomfitingly prescient in its plot, which sees an ordinary young man turn mass murderer, first at home, then as a highway sniper, then at a movie theater. But the director’s incipient talents and concerns are most served by the second storyline, in which Boris Karloff, who owed producer Corman two days’ work, plays Byron Orlock, a riff on Karloff himself  an aging star famous for playing Hammer Horror-style monsters. Corman’s only other stipulations (that the film come in on budget and use 20 minutes of footage from Karloff and Jack Nicholson-starrer “The Terror,” which became the film-within-the-film) mean Bogdanovich and co-writer Polly Platt had leeway to create something quite fascinating: a kind of double-feature-in-one-sitting. The shifts from one strand to the other feel jarring, but there’s also a certain energy released in these collisions  indeed throughout you can sense Bogdanovich’s palpable thrill at being behind a camera, and the relish with which he ascends a very steep learning curve. And yet there’s already nostalgia here too. “All the good films have already been made,” claims his onscreen character, Sammy Michaels (named in deference to Sam Fuller), as he covetously watches Howard Hawks‘ “The Criminal Code.” It’s a crisis of confidence brought about because Orlok, feeling old and irrelevant, has decided to retire before shooting Sammy’s passion project  because classic storytelling feels like it has no place in this confusing new world, where lumbering bogeymen have been replaced in the collective fear unconscious by Matt Damon-alike psychos whose bland exteriors carry no hint of the depravity beneath. Yet when the parallel storylines do finally converge in a brilliantly staged closing sequence, the old-school Orlok reduces the young, motiveless murderer to a snivelling wreck in a meta act of wish fulfillment, which is partially so satisfying because it so untrue: the ’70s were coming and Karloff’s generation was being batted aside with ease by Bogdanovich’s. With his very first film it feels like wanted to pay tribute to, and almost even grieve at the passing of that torch. 

READ MORE: Interview: Peter Bogdanovich Talks ‘Cold Turkey,’ The Endless Frustration Of Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side Of The Wind,’ And More

“The Last Picture Show” (1971)
Thanks to the somewhat surprising success of “Targets,” the road was paved for Peter Bogdanovich to go on to direct three bonafide American classics in a row  the filmscape of the bountiful 1970s would be forever changed for the better  starting with “The Last Picture Show.” One of the most profoundly felt coming-of-age stories to ever grace a silver screen, it’s the kind of slice-of-life that cuts deep into the gaps within existences, delicately focusing on those human interactions which have within them the power to change one’s perception of the surrounding world, woven together with soulful moments of amiable or poignant reflection. Based on Larry McMurtry‘s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Last Picture Show” grips you, but gently, novelistically, within minutes, making it instantly clear that its roots lie in literature, and its reach is deep. Young Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) is growing up fast with best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and high-school prima donna Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, making her screen debut) in a Texas town that’s two blocks left of nowhere, at times interacting with, at times just standing witness to the town’s array of hopelessly sentimental (and sentimentally hopeless) characters. Of these, Ben Johnson‘s Sam “The Lion,” Ellen Burstyn‘s no-nonsense Lois, and Cloris Leachman‘s lonely housewife Ruth make a lasting impression on Sonny, while every single character  from Randy Quaid’s slow-witted schoolboy Lester to Eileen Brennan‘s quick-witted café waitress Genevieve  make a lasting impression on us. It’s no wonder many of them, like Shepherd, Leachman, and Brennan, would go on to become something akin to Bogdanovich’s rep company, appearing for him multiple times, usually to great effect. The director and his team treat the black-and-white canvas of “The Last Picture Show” with an impressionistic eye, conjuring up a sense of everlasting romance through moods, glances, and world-weary sighs. Burstyn, Bridges, Johnson, and Leachman were all nominated for Academy Awards, with the latter two walking away winners, but it’s the sum of all its parts and parcels that truly makes “The Last Picture Show” Bogdanovich’s “Citizen Kane.”  

“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)
The throwback tendencies of Bogdanovich’s latest, “She’s Funny That Way,” arguably make it feel old-fashioned, but the director’s most successful take on the screwball genre, “What’s Up, Doc?” managed to somehow refresh the films it was so obviously referencing. Then again, ‘She’s Funny’ really most references “What’s Up Doc?” so it can’t help but feel even more rarefied than this most artificial and constructed of genres usually does: Bogdanovich is perhaps at his best when homaging great filmmakers other than Peter Bogdanovich. “What’s Up, Doc?” however, endures  a magnum of champagne that has lost none of its cork-popping fizz in the intervening decades. Hanging a madcap romance on a labyrinthine plot involving four identical suitcases that contain underwear, Top Secret documents, prehistoric lumps of rock, and priceless jewelry, depending on which occupant of a particular San Francisco hotel they belong to, the film really exists to showcase Ryan O’Neal‘s best stuffy, Cary-Grant-in-“Bringing Up Baby” schtick and Barbra Streisand‘s proto Manic Pixie. As Judy, the rapid-fire, silky-haired, flibbertigibbet polymath who claps eyes on O’Neal’s Howard and decides to essentially bully, stalk, and misrepresent herself into his heart, hers is the quintessential behavior that would get you thrown in prison in real life, but that somehow seems charming onscreen. A lot of this is down to real chemistry with both stars on spritely, self-deprecating form. Streisand, still some way off her diva-ish years, even pokes fun at the national obsession with her nose in a fab rendition of Cole Porter‘s “You’re The Top.” And O’Neal sends up his romantic lead persona when Judy bats her eyelids and quotes, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” the inane catchphrase to his career-making hit, “Love Story,” and he fires back “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Funny because it’s true. With wonderful supporting performances from a flouncy Kenneth Mars and Bogdanovich secret weapon Madeline Kahn, an endless supply of quick-fire asides, and a genuinely funny slapstick climax featuring the San Francisco hills, a pizza delivery bike, a step ladder, and a sheet of plate glass, “What’s Up, Doc?” is the kind of featherweight pleasure that no one, not even Bogdanovich, sadly, quite makes anymore. 

“Paper Moon” (1973)
The breadth of cinematic joy covered in “Paper Moon”‘s snappy hour-and-twenty-or-so-minutes is near-impossible to measure in words, so, here goes nothing. Peter Bogdanovich concluded his trifecta of ’70s masterpieces with an eternally adorable road-trip comedy-adventure featuring Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray and O’Neal’s 9-year-old daughter, Tatum, as Addie Loggins. Moses finds himself stuck with Addie after he pays respects to her recently deceased mother, and gets forced into driving her to her aunt’s place. With a name like that, it doesn’t come as a shock to either us or Addie that Moses Pray  a man who could be her father because they’ve “got the same jaw”  is a con-artist, swindling whoever he can whichever way possible (but mostly by peddling Bibles to widows). In a glorious twist that ensured “Paper Moon”‘s status as a well-ahead-of-its-time classic, Addie not only starts to participate in Moses’ finagles, but turns out to have an even more brilliantly conniving streak than him. The dynamic achieved between father and daughter O’Neal here is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The battle of wits over Nehis and Coney Islands, barroom dancers (Madeline Kahn‘s unforgettable Trixie), and $200.00, have the kind of symbiotic energy that takes the unassuming viewer completely off-guard, with the realization of just how boundlessly entertaining, heart-warming, and outright hilarious it all is always hovering one step behind the hijinks on screen. Tatum O’Neal famously became the youngest person to win an Academy Award, but it only takes one viewing to see how impossible it would’ve been not to award her. She is a total revelation as Addie; through gestures, expressions, and succinct line-delivery, she goes toe-to-toe with her dad (who is, needless to say, absolutely brilliant as well), often stepping all over him and making a strong bid for Strongest Female Character of the ’70s. Alvin Sargent’s exhilarating screenplay, Bogdanovich’s intricate direction, László Kovács‘ beauteous black-and-white photography, and all the supporting characters whose casual demeanors and idiosyncrasies seamlessly blend into the picture’s tenderness, make “Paper Moon” nothing if not a cinematic miracle.

READ MORE: Peter Bogdanovich Talks Blu-Ray Recut Of ‘At Long Last Love,’ Cybill Shepherd, And Billy Wilder

“Daisy Miller” (1974)
More here because it’s essential to an understanding of Bogdanovich’s career than necessarily because it’s his greatest film, his Henry James adaptation certainly has more spark and verve to it than the same year’s deathly dull “The Great Gatsby,” with which it competed in the “handsomely mounted period literary adaptation” stakes. While it’s tempting to ascribe many of the film’s issues to the source novel (Daisy is explicitly a shallow, capricious, and not terribly interesting character, even as written on the page), there are directorial choices on Bogdanovich’s part that falter too, especially if we consider he was, at this point, coming off an all-time, hall-of-fame, one-two-three of “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” Perhaps he can be forgiven for imagining he was infallible. But “Daisy Miller,” which he made under the auspices of The Director’s Company, a short-lived experiment in an auteur-led production company that he founded with Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin, feels like a much more constricted film than his last several had been, and while Cybill Shepherd attracted a lot of the critical ire at the time, it’s not so much her fault as it is Bogdanovich’s that she’s so irritatingly unlikable in the role. In that, in fact, she’s actually pretty great as Daisy, delivering her silly, girly flirtatious doublespeak like she’s a screwball heroine, and perhaps even giving the character more charm than she deserves. But you cannot escape the knowledge that Bogdanovich was absolutely captivated by Shepherd  the camera practically fawns over her, and treats her with a dazzled adoration that those of us not actually blinded by love find a little puzzling: why are we supposed to be so entranced with this callow little idiot? Barry Brown plays the befuddled suitor through whose eyes we see the story, and Eileen Brennan, as always, enlivens the film in a non-comedic role as the stentorian society matron who is scandalized by Daisy’s inappropriate behavior, but even they, and a great Cloris Leachman as Daisy’s ineffectual mother, are in orbit around Shepherd’s Daisy, who is asked to do little more than chatter, flirt, and twirl her parasol. But while curiously devoid of subtext or satire, the film is gorgeous to look at, dressed in resplendent finery, and is infinitely better than the musical misfire “At Long Last Love” that followed, taking Bogdanovich’s Shepherd obsession to its event horizon.
“Saint Jack” (1979)
If much of Bogdanovich’s output feels slightly out of step with the experimental, counter-cultural vibe of his contemporaries’ work, perhaps the closest he ever hewed to his generational zeitgeist was with this 1979 picture, based on the Paul Theroux novel of the same name. Of course, part of that similarity is in surface detail: the film stars Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara and is shot by Wim Wenders (and later Jim Jarmusch) collaborator Robby Müller  all three would reteam on “They All Laughed.” But “Saint Jack” is probably Bogdanovich’s loosest film, the one that feels most Cassavetian in execution, in which classical plotting, let alone the kind of manic screwballishness that characterizes the director’s comedies, is entirely absent in favor of a low-key, episodic character portrait embedded in a gritty, exotic, and relatively little-filmed locale. Gazzara plays Jack, an affable American expatriate, who’s been living so long in Singapore that he’s part of the scenery in its Red Light district, where he runs a hotel/brothel that caters to visiting tourists. Unfolding over the course of a few years, what structure the film has is lent by the recurring character of William Leigh (a superb Denholm Elliott), a somewhat naive Englishman who comes by once a year from Hong Kong to do the books for Jack’s Chinese bosses. As unlikely as it seems, the worldly, gregarious Jack finds a lovely understated sense of fellow feeling with the quiet, starchily decent William, perhaps because the latter seems to fit into the mold of the brash Brit expat even less than he does into Jack’s seedy milieu of prostitution and protection rackets. Things change, life happens: Jack forms an attachment to one particular woman, runs afoul of a Triad, and is dispossessed, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with a suave CIA agent (Bogdanovich). But often we don’t see how these things play out, as Bogdanovich assembles the film impressionistically, so that it becomes less a linear narrative and more a thoughtful exploration into the quandary at the heart of Jack’s expat experience: is it possible to truly belong somewhere where you will always be a foreigner?

“They All Laughed” (1981)
The shaggiest of shaggy-dog comedies, Peter Bogdanovich’s under-appreciated and underseen early ‘80s romantic comedy received something of a revisionist reappreciation in the mid aughts thanks to the DVD release of the long out-of-print film, a touring theatrical release, and plaudits given by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Noah Baumbach among others  all of whom Bogdanovich has worked with in some capacity since. But with 20th Century Fox trying to bury it at the time, and the director’s attempts to self-release it a year later not proving very successful, it’s still possibly the most underseen title on this list, and if it’s not quite a classic on the level of his greatest pictures, it certainly doesn’t deserve the lingering opprobrium associated with it. Taking its title from the George and Ira Gershwin song of the same name, Bogdanovich’s quirky ninth effort centers on a trio of private detectives (John Ritter, Ben Gazzara, and Blaine Novak) investigating the infidelities of two different women, the wife of a European tycoon (Audrey Hepburn, in one of her last performances, coaxed out of semi-retirement by Bogdanovich) and another New Yorker (Dorothy Stratten, whose death would overshadow the film; she and Bogdanovich were seeing each other when she was murdered by her estranged husband). Of course, all the detectives fall for the women they’re tailing — one going so far to try and cheat on his own wife, a country singer played by Colleen Camp — and mishaps, misunderstandings, and hijinks ensue.  Co-starring Patti Hansen as a taxi driver who roves in and out of the plot, “They All Laughed” isn’t quite hilarious, but it is charming, amusing, and features winning warmth. Shot by the great Robbie Müller, its sunny, lensed-on-the-New-York-streets vibe adds an endearing off-the-cuff element as well (and it looks killer in 35mm). Bogdanovich would become lifelong friends with most of this cast (Ritter was one of his closest buddies), and it shows; its fetching qualities trump its baggy, wandering plot. “They All Laughed” is certainly not a perfect film, but its homespun quality, palpable camaraderie, and playfully loose performances make for a movie that’s easy to harbor deep affection for nonetheless.

“Mask” (1985)
There’s nothing as tragically unhip as sincerity, which means that Bogdanovich’s mid-80s hit, based on a true story that literalizes the idea of The Beauty Within, cannot but feel terribly unfashionable now  almost a byword for the kind of mawkish, sentimental Housewife’s Favorite that keeps the Lifetime Channel going. But fashion be damned, because “Mask” is really good  the best possible version of itself  marked by great performances across the board, that, from the opening frame, conspire to make you forget the manipulation machine in which you are involved. Helping that process too is Bogdanovich’s filmmaking, which, again coupled with Kovacs’ understatedly romanced cinematography, keeps a certain cool remove in place, allowing the actors’ bigger moments to feel true and tremendous, without becoming histrionic. Based on the real, short life of Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz, in Oscar-winning make up), a boy afflicted with a rare disease that curtailed his life as well as disfiguring his face, the film is also (perhaps primarily) a defense of “alternative lifestyles.” Rocky’s mom, Rusty (deserved Cannes Best Actress-winning Cher), is a single mother, maintaining a drug habit and an unapologetically casual sex life, who has embedded Rocky into an unconventional “family” of bikers, and yet the portrayal of her style of motherhood is inherently, immensely sympathetic. Glowing with pride and love and complete acceptance when she looks at her “freakish” son  for all her flaws and fuck ups, she’s simply one of the greatest screen mothers ever. Sam Elliott is ruggedly masculine as her on-again off-again biker beau, Laura Dern has a lovely freedom in her role as the blind girl Rocky falls for, and the collective Greek chorus of bikers and schoolkids are solid in sometimes very shorthanded roles. Perhaps best of all here is Stoltz, who plays Rocky with a sensitivity that is touching, but also with the cocky humor and oddly secure confidence of a good-looking guy, underneath it all. The conclusion may be pat  hell, the whole thing is way too neat to be anything like life  but it’s executed with such guileless faith in the goodness of its intentions, that if you’re not crying, you’re simply not watching.

READ MORE: Watch Owen Wilson And Imogen Poots In Clip From Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘She’s Funny That Way’

“The Cat’s Meow” (2001)
The late ’80s and the ’90s in general weren’t hugely kind to Bogdanovich (even he concedes that awful 1988 Rob Lowe vehicle “Illegally Yours” was one of his worst), but he came back into critical favor with, if not a roar then at least a kittenish purr, making 2001’s “The Cat’s Meow.” A long-gestating project reportedly based on an anecdote related to Bogdanovich by Orson Welles, it saw him return to a luxurious period setting (this time an immaculately appointed 1920s yacht on which a variety of famous people are having a party) and deliver a nicely observed, gently acidic tragicomedy  the exact vein that many of his most successful films tapped. It’s not quite one for the ages, but the sprawling cast, most of whom play real-life people, gamely mine the script’s twists: Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst; Kirsten Dunst as Hearst’s love, Marion Davies; Eddie Izzard as a flirtatious Charlie Chaplin; Joanna Lumley as romantic novelist, Elinor Glyn; Jennifer Tilly as gossip columnist, Louella Parsons; and Cary Elwes as the doomed producer, Thomas Ince, whose mysterious death aboard the yacht the film purports to explain. While it’s based on a gossipy, salacious true story, and suggests that Ince was the victim of mistaken identity and a bullet that was intended for Chaplin, with whom Hearst believed Davies was having an affair, the film is less splashy than that sounds, more muted and melancholic in tone, despite some funny, bitchy, bitten-off dialogue. Set into her sumptuous ’20s costuming like a pearl, Dunst cuts an almost tragic figure as the woman that these “great” men might fight and kill for, with the shallowness of the high-life partying lifestyle evoked not just in its decadence and excess but also in its emptiness. Everyone aboard has an agenda, and so the film takes on a certain satirical element as the yacht becomes a metaphor for Hollywood itself, where life is cheap, secrets are leverage, and to be loved is to be trapped and owned. Attractively played and handsomely mounted, it’s a slight film, “solving” an insoluble mystery that no one really remembers nowadays anyway, but it does boast that unusual texture of sadness, and a best-ever description of lonely, exotic Hollywood as “a place just off the coast of Planet Earth.”

Next tier down, there are some other Bogdanovich titles that, if not quite essential, still have flashes of greatness. “Texasville” is a reunion/sequel to “The Last Picture Show” that is perhaps better viewed in isolation rather than as a middle-aged echo of greatness past; “Noises Off” is an entertaining, if stage-bound, all-star adaptation of a rambunctious play; and “The Thing Called Love” is a warm hearted, if rather low-stakes, drama featuring nice performances from Samantha Mathis, Sandra Bullock, and River Phoenix. And, of course, Bogdanovich has always popped up regularly as an actor, most notably in his recurring role on “The Sopranos.”

Did we miss out your favorite Bogdanovich film? Anyone out there eagerly agitating for the rehabilitation of “Illegally Yours“? Let us know below, or just use the comment box to further sing the praises of “Paper Moon,” because goddamn if that film isn’t just about perfect.

–with Nikola Grozdanovich and Rodrigo Perez

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