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Remembering Peter Bogdanovich: From Maverick Director to Classic Hollywood Raconteur

The "Last Picture Show" and "Paper Moon" director died January 6 at age 82.

THE THING CALLED LOVE, director Peter Bogdanovich on set, 1993, © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Peter Bogdanovich

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The passing of director Peter Bogdanovich January 6, at the age of 82, marks the loss of a maverick director (“The Last Picture Show,” What’s Up, Doc?,” “Paper Moon,” “Saint Jack,” “They All Laughed”) who also kept the spirit of classic Hollywood alive with his entertaining anecdotes and spot-on impressions. He was truly a bridge to the past that served as his muse and eventually mourned the decline in Hollywood storytelling. To Bogdanovich, the difference between the classical and post-modern Hollywood was a full course meal versus an hors d’oeuvre.

The first time I interviewed Peter was for a story about “Mask” in 1985 when I was with The Hollywood Reporter. He was in the midst of a legal battle to obtain the rights to some Bruce Springsteen songs for his biopic about Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), the sweet teenager who suffered from lionitis, and his struggle to survive with his mom (Cher). Rocky adored Springsteen’s music, which was a source of constant joy for him, but Peter lost the battle, suing Universal in the process. However, he finally triumphed by restoring the Springsteen tracks for a director’s cut DVD release in 2004.

My encounter with the director was straight out of “Sunset Boulevard.” In fact, he lived off Sunset across from UCLA on Copa de Oro, in a house previously owned by Orson Welles. Peter was no Norma Desmond, but he clung to old Hollywood in a way that was surreal and sometimes mournful. He greeted me by asking about the derivation of my surname. It was a replay of the first time he met Orson Welles, who asked the same question. While discussing “Mask,” I immediately endeared myself to Peter with my own passion for classical Hollywood cinema. He smiled, knowing that he could regale me with the full performance of anecdotes and impressions. He confided that “Mask” had elements of Ford’s cavalry pictures with the supporting cast of bikers, and that was the reason he hired Harry Carey Jr., who was a Ford regular (“The Searchers”).

Staying in the western vein, he talked about close friends Ford and Howard Hawks, and reiterated how Ford envied the performance that Hawks got out of John Wayne in “Red River.” And when Peter tried to direct “Lonesome Dove” (which he co-scripted with Larry McMurtry of “The Last Picture Show”), he attempted to lure Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. But Wayne said no: “Why would I want to make a movie about the death of the western?” Which Peter completely sympathized with. Besides, Ford already did that with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” with Wayne and Stewart. So Peter left the project and it became the celebrated miniseries with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

I suddenly found myself in a role reversal of Peter’s celebrated stint as an Esquire writer, who came to Hollywood from New York to launch a directing career by first interviewing many of the senior directors past their prime. It was the greatest possible internship, cozying up to Welles, Ford, Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and many others. Only my aim was strictly journalistic and I continued to interview Peter on and off into the 21st century. The most memorable exchange occurred in a Los Angeles Times feature about his collection of filmmaker interviews, “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors” (Ballantine Books).

For fun, I did it as a Q&A in the style of “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” Indeed, we discussed the differences between the two interviews with Hitch, and Peter insisted that he had the advantage over Truffaut because he didn’t need a translator, and he also unearthed unique insights. For example, he got the Master of Suspense to explain the difference between English and American audiences: In England, men decided what to see, and in America, it was the opposite. Hitchcock learned this from producer David Selznick when making “Rebecca” and altered his storytelling accordingly.

Speaking of Hitch, Peter recalled what it was like attending the first press screening of “Psycho” in New York in 1960. It was late morning and when Janet Leigh was shockingly murdered in the shower by Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, he had never heard such screams coming from critics before. Even he shrieked. But Peter’s best anecdote about Hitch was when he rode an elevator with him in New York. As people gathered inside, Hitch suddenly began describing a grisly murder that grabbed everyone’s attention. That is, until he slyly cut short the anecdote to get out of the elevator with Peter. Hitch merely smiled at Peter and delighted in explaining that the rouse was one of his favorite routines.

We also discussed Peter’s films. While he naturally held “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon” in the highest regard, Peter also had a soft spot for “Saint Jack,” the melancholy drama starring Ben Gazzara as an American pimp in Singapore (in which he cast George Lazenby, the one-off Bond from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” as a gay politician who gets blackmailed). Yet Peter singled out “They All Laughed,” the romcom with John Ritter, Dorothy Stratten, Gazzara, and Audrey Hepburn, as his best picture. Of course, he had deep emotional ties to the movie, considering his love affair with Stratten, who was murdered before the film’s release by estranged husband Paul Snider (the subject of Bob Fosse’s biopic, “Star 80”). But he had the time of his life making the romance in the vein of Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not.” And he couldn’t stop raving about Ritter’s comic timing and the promise that the beguiling Stratten showed (reminiscent of Cybill Shepherd in “The Last Picture Show”). But more than anything, he believed that it best expressed his storytelling ethos about love and romance with old Hollywood.

In fact, I was a champion of “They All Laughed” as well, finding it totally charming and sublime. But we had our only disagreement concerning the re-edited version of the movie. Peter trimmed the very long setup in an attempt to gain wider acceptance and to give the movie (which he distributed himself) a second chance at success. However, I argued, the extended setup was necessary in establishing the delicate tone and all of the secret romances. Years later, Peter restored the opening for a director’s cut DVD, so in retrospect we were in agreement about his masterpiece. And, in the end, the maverick prevailed by trusting his original instincts.

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