Book Review: PICTURING PETER BOGDANOVICH

In the last couple of years, it seems like Peter Bogdanovich has maintained a fairly prominent presence in the media. Certainly, he’s no longer a household name with younger generations, but he’s still quite visible. In 2018 we got Orson Welles‘s long-languishing passion project The Other Side of The Wind, featuring a prominent performance by a much-younger Bogdanovich. He also narrated a documentary on Buster Keaton.

More recently still he was featured on TCM’s podcast The Plot Thickens where host Ben Mankiewicz took a fairly in-depth look at the man’s tumultuous and forever intriguing life in Hollywood. Picturing Peter Bogdanovich does well to contribute even more to his aura and adulation. If we can say it, the content feels even more intimate than TCM’s effort.  This is in part because author Peter Tonguette takes a figure who already seems approachable and punctuates the dialogue with his own experiences — this is a critical examination founded on the bedrock of friendship.

Call Me, Peter

Many of us know what it is to venerate someone to the point of healthy (or unhealthy) obsession — whether it be athlete, author, artist, musician, or filmmaker. They often lead us down new avenues of thought and cultural inspiration. In my case, one of my heroes led me to read Kierkegaard and try to temper my ear with the “Flamenco Sketches” of Miles Davis, among other diversions. They challenged my intuitions, but I was drawn to them nevertheless.

For Peter Tonguette, Peter Bogdanovich is such an idol, and he’s as effusive in his praise as he is open about his relationship with the man. As such, his ode to the director can be bisected into two halves. The first is about Tonguette’s own foray into the works of the actor/historian-turned movie director. It’s the genesis of their relationship weaved together with more conventional observations about his filmography.

There are a handful of obvious takeaways detailing why Bogdanovich resonated with Tonguette from the outset. First and foremost, he is a director who does not assemble an accumulation of shots; there’s an actual point of view to his movies. Likewise, he took his caché of knowledge to tell stories visually like all the great masters before him, often voting for diegetic sound as opposed to conventional film scoring. It meant he had to rely on his confidence in his shots and the world he was evoking; the images stand on their own two feet.

Book Review: PICTURING PETER BOGDANOVICH
They All Laughed (1980)- source: BFI

For those familiar with Bogdanovich’s films, it’s not necessarily a revelation — because even someone less-heralded as yours truly has penned reviews about him. But Tonguette goes a step further with the fandom. Starting back in 2003, in his early 20s, he began a correspondence and then a full-fledged friendship with the man who has often been an enigma in Hollywood.

In another glowing observation, he compliments how Bogdanoich captured Dorothy Stratten in They All Laughed, “It is no overstatement to say that few actresses in film history have been photographed so exquisitely—maybe Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century or Grace Kelly in Rear Window or Marilyn Monroe in her last, unfinished
film, Something’s Got to Give.

For many, he is one of the great titans of the so-called New Hollywood of the 1970s. But he is a self-proclaimed romantic infatuated with the old world and with it the former Hollywood. He aided in resurrecting the reputations of men like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks because he genuinely cared about their work. He also became a sort of protege of Orson Welles.

Tonguette never makes any sort of claim that he is Bogdanovich‘s disciple, in the way Bogdanovich was following in the footsteps of Welles, but you do see the same kind of reciprocation. What’s more, he went from a mere fan to a friend, and I think all of us dream of meeting our heroes and forming a bond. And whereas some of us are fickle moviegoers — only desiring the highlights — he’s engaged with Bogdanovich‘s entire career. There’s a particularly apt line where he likens the veteran director working in TV, to “Allan Dwan going to work for pay cable.”

Anecdotes

I mentioned picking up the thoughts of Kierkegaard based on the lyrics of one of my favorite musicians, and it’s true that there’s something compelling about learning about the inspirations and formative literature people have strewn about their lives. In passing, Bogdanovich mentions some heavy hitters. He notes, “Steinbeck and Saroyan and Hemingway and Fitzgerald—those guys. And then Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Dylan Thomas. I like Dickens a lot, too.”

Book Review: PICTURING PETER BOGDANOVICH
Holiday (1938)- source: Columbia Pictures

One of the most intriguing assertions by Tonguette comes when he says there is no other film “closer in spirit to Peter Bogdanovich’s work than [George] Cukor’s Holiday. Its joyful, life-affirming spirit calls to mind What’s Up, Doc? and especially They All Laughed, in which the characters are perfectly happy to shuck rules in the name of love.”

What draws me to this observation is the fact, it’s so easy to draw the parallels to Howard Hawks and Bringing up Baby. But Holiday has a place right there too with Bogdanovich wilfully admitting it left an impression on him. Coincidentally, he also watched it with Dorothy Stratten on a double bill with It Happened One Night. Not too shabby.

It also came as a minor curiosity that Bogdanovich became personally fascinated with the works of Robert Graves. I know little about his writings but gleaned that the director pored over details of mythology in the wake of Dorothy Stratten’s death. Tonguette surmises, “Maybe, through absorbing the work of a writer who loved and venerated women, Bogdanovich could preserve the memory of the woman he loved and venerated.”

He admits his upbringing was not very religious and, nevertheless, the death of someone he loved caused him to consider the most pressing matters of life, among them mortality and eternal love.

Part II: Q & A

The Q & A portion is equally ripe for dissection, and it shows just how serpentine a career in movies can be — there’s a continuous ebb and flow. If it’s not apparent already, Bogdanovich no doubt had some of the highest highs and lowest lows.

It’s fascinating to listen to him, getting a sense of how he shot different movies — because he has the eye of a director — but he’s simultaneously a romantic, an actor, and a historian looking to keep the old ways alive. As an aspiring storyteller, I was particularly fascinated by how some of his projects morphed and evolved based on studio involvement or other dashes of happenstance and inspiration.

Take the generally maligned Nickelodeon, which was fashioned as an ode to early films during the turn of the century. It was meant to be in black & white — and creatively this makes sense — instead, it was released in color. Would it have fared better otherwise?

Likewise, At Long Last Love, was envisioned as an old-timey movie musical built around a repertoire of tunes by Cole Porter. However, Bogdanovich himself acknowledged he could never quite get it right, and the film suffered with audiences upon its initial release.

Book Review: PICTURING PETER BOGDANOVICH
At Long Last Love (1975)- source: Twentieth Century Fox

However, a different cut of the movie was found, years later, from one of the editors at Fox, and Bogdanovich admitted to liking it far better than his version. He never seems like a particularly modest man, but he does know what he likes. Stripped away from their cultural moment and the initial backlash, it’s just possible movies like At Long Last Love or Daisy Miller might find a new audience.

Other projects never got made at all including an epic-sounding western that Bogdanovich penned with Larry McMurty set to star no less than three of the great Hollywood icons: John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. When Wayne backed out on the behest of irascible old John Ford, it never happened.

And there was another movie Bogdanovich conceived with Cybil Sheppard, which would have been his version of a Hitchcock movie. It was to be set on a train going from San Ysidro to San Francisco where John Ritter was envisioned as a man-on-the-run coaxed into the cloak-and-dagger back alleyways of S.F by a femme fatale. Alas, it was not to be.

Conclusion: Picturing Peter Bogdanovich

If Tonguette’s very personal examination of Bogdanovich is to be summed up, there’s no other way to go about it than going back to some of their recollection together — recounted as only movie lovers would — and Peter Bogdanovich is a very particular kind of aficionado:

“Sometimes I caught him in the middle of watching a movie on television—The Third Man or Adam’s Rib
or Battling Butler—and he would ask me to call back after it was over. At those moments, he seemed like every other serious movie buff you’ve ever known: a good movie can’t just be switched off. More often, there was
music playing in the background—usually Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra or something classical, maybe Mozart.”

The fact that Bogdanovich was an “old soul” as a 30-year-old makes it all the more evident now in the new millennium. He never lost the sense of romanticism or optimism in the old way, despite all the travails of his life, some unforeseeable, others self-inflicted.

But why do people often single out movies like The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and even They All Laughed as timeless favorites? It’s elementary, but Tonguette might have something when he suggests, “In appealing to the masses, [Bogdanovich] nonetheless manages to connect with the individual audience member, convincing each of us that what is happening on-screen reflects our own lives.”

Like the masters of old — the Fords and the Hitchcocks — he took the framework of films and utilized genre conventions to tell deeply personal stories. Like Howard Hawks or Allan Dwan, he rarely let his directorial style get in the way of a good story. Like George Cukor, he coaxed extraordinary performances out of his casts. At times, he’s been a man of gravitas as well as a Hollywood outcast like Orson Welles.

However, lest any of us forget it, beyond all the accolades and the equal measure of misfortunes throughout his career, Peter Bogdanovich constantly asserts himself as a personal director. What’s more personal than befriending a member of the audience? Because, in the dark, we all have a shared experience of seeing our own lives reflected on that screen. It brings us together.

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