Friday January 07, 2022
Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022)
One of the saddest things I’ve heard in recent years—which, let’s face it, has been a time of immense sadness—was on the TCM podcast “The Plot Thickens” when they ran a seven-part series on the life and career of director Peter Bogdanovich.
I already knew some of it, of course. Early career as a movie critic, fascination with the legends of Hollywood like John Ford and Howard Hawks, work with guerilla filmmaker and B-movie legend Roger Corman; and then that early, nearly unprecedented success as a director. In the first years of the 1970s, he came to the plate three times and he hit three homeruns: “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” Bam, bam, bam. The first was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including picture, director and screenplay, and two in each of the two support categories, both of which it won: for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. “What’s Up, Doc?” was a comedy so it didn’t get AA consideration—though Madeleine Kahn was nominated for a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Female Newcomer” (losing to Diana Ross), and the trio of top-level screenwriters, Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, won the WGA. But “Moon” was nominated for another four Oscars, and won a supporting award for Tatum O’Neal, age 10, the youngest recipient ever.
Think of all that. Think of that high. One wonders if he thought it was all so easy. Plus the affair and then relationship with Cybill Shepherd. Dude had it all. Had anyone ever rose so quickly?
Did anyone ever fall so fast?
You know in “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs keeps hitting homeruns and then meets Kim Basinger and keeps striking out? Maybe Cybill Shepherd was Kim Basinger. Or maybe Polly Platt, Bogdanovich’s first wife and creative partner, was Wonderboy. Either way, in the next three years, he made: “Daisy Miller,” “At Long Last Love,” and “Nickelodeon.” Whiff, whiff, whiff. Yer out.
And then the sad thing. After he and Shepherd split in the late ’70s, he started up a relationship with Dorothy Stratten, a Canadian model was the 25th Anniversary playmate and then Playmate of the Year 1980. She left her husband, Paul Snider, for Bogdanovich. Less than two months later, Snider murdered her before killing himself.
Again, I already knew some of this. But from a distance I’d always assumed it was an act of jealousy. “The Plot Thickens” podcast suggests another motive.
Snider was a nothing from nowhere, and Stratten was his ride to unprecedented access, all the way to the Playboy Mansion in Hollywood, California, and face-to-face meetings with his idol, Hugh Hefner, the man who had it all. That was Snider’s real goal: to be like Hef. Apparently he was sad but fine with the breakup; he already had a new girl he was promoting. As long as the gates to the Playboy mansion stayed open.
They didn’t. In the podcast, Bogdanovich talks about an annual party held at the mansion, a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party, where everyone shows up in pajamas. But he and Dorothy, newly minted, newly enamored, didn’t show up that summer. “Neither Dorothy nor I felt like it so we didn’t go,” he says in the podcast. Later, Hefner asked him about it. “He said, ‘Would it help if I told the husband he can’t come here except with Dorothy?’ … And this is where I made a big mistake. I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ I thought to myself: She doesn’t want to come here and I don’t want to come here, either, but what am I going to say? No, it wouldn’t help? So I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ And then he banned him from the mansion.”
According to people who knew Snider, that’s what did it. It wasn’t the divorce from Dorothy; it was the banishment from the mansion which came about because of a surfeit of politeness. Hef wanted to hang with Stratten and Bogdanovich, they didn’t want to hang with him but were too polite to say so, and Snider was dangled as an excuse. Who wants to hang with whom? Yeah, I guess it would help.
It wasn’t jealousy. It was access. Horrifying.
And then Bogdanovich kept going down; he kept finding tragedy. Dorothy had a bit part in his next film, “They All Laughed,” which starred Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara and John Ritter, but he thought 20th Century Fox didn’t have much confidence in the film and would give it just a limited release. So he purchased the distribution rights, created his own distribution company, and distributed it himself. And lost millions. He declared bankruptcy in 1985.
In the 1980s, Bogdanovich directed “Mask,” which was respected, and the Rob Lowe comedy “Illegal Yours,” which wasn’t. In the’90s he tried to return to form with a sequel to “Picture Show.” Nope. Then the backstage comedy “Noises Off…” Worse. Then tragedy again. He directed “The Thing Called Love,” starring River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in the middle of its release. The movie lost millions.
And that was that. Bogdanovich wound up doing TV movies. He began to act more regularly, most famously playing the shrink’s shrink in “The Sopranos.” His directing projects in the 2000s often focused on sudden Hollywood death or sudden media disgrace: 1920s producer Thomas Ince, 1960s legend Natalie Wood, baseball great Pete Rose.
In the last year or two I spent a lot of time with Bogdanovich. I bought and read his books of interviews with Hollywood legends, “Who the Devil Made It” (about directors) and “Who the Hell’s In it” (actors). I bought and watched (several times) his 2018 documentary on Buster Keaton, “The Great Buster,” and hoped for more such docs from him—love letters to Hollywood artists.
His life would make a great movie. In the 1970s he was called a Wellesian wunderkind, which, rather than a compliment, should be a curse, considering what happened to Welles, and now what’s happened to Bogdanovich. “Follow your bliss,” we are told and Bogdanovich did. It worked for a time.