Reel Streaming: Peter Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 66
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The news of director Peter Bogdanovich’s death on January 6 was crowded out by the blitz of publicity about Sidney Poitier’s passing the same day at 94, along with coverage of the one-year anniversary of the capitol insurrection. The gifted Bogdanovich, who started out as a movie journalist, critic and curator before moving into filmmaking in the late Sixties, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease in Los Angeles at 82.
Few filmmakers have launched their careers with the kind of critical acclaim and box-office success that Bogdanovich received as one of a handful of blooming directors in the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s. He came up alongside such soon-to-be-luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Coppola and Brian De Palma. Following his directorial debut with the 1968 Roger Corman-produced crime thriller Targets and a 1971 documentary on the director John Ford, Bogdanovich came out blazing with three acclaimed smashes: 1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and 1973’s Paper Moon.
Proving his deftness and self-assuredness at helming nostalgic dramas, adult romances and screwball comedies, Bogdanovich’s trio of films were immediately embraced as being among the finest homegrown movies of their time. By the end of the Seventies and the close of the “American New Wave” era (as it was also dubbed), they had already attained classic status. Not bad for a director who at 35 was regularly being compared to Orson Welles. But Bogdanovich still had nearly 50 more years to go and the majority of his work over those following years—starting with his disastrous 1974 Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller starring then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd—didn’t deliver on the reputation he had garnered at the dawn of his career. Just like his friend Welles.
There were a handful of bright spots. The dramas Saint Jack (1979) with Ben Gazzara, Mask (1985) with Cher and Eric Stoltz, The Cat’s Meow (2002) with Kirsten Dunst and Cary Elwes, and the comedy Noises Off (1992) with Carol Burnett and Michael Caine were all critically well-received, though Mask was the only one to click at the box office. But there were even more critical and commercial hiccups. There was the Cole Porter-fueled musical comedy At Long Last Love (1975) with Shepherd and Burt Reynolds. a real train wreck of a movie that demands to be gawked at; the silent film era comedy Nickelodeon (1976) with Reynolds, Ryan O’Neal and John Ritter; the romantic comedy They All Laughed (1981) with Ritter, Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratten; and the dizzying comedy Illegally Yours starring the uncomfortably matched Rob Lowe and Colleen Camp.
It didn’t get much better for Bogdanovich at the box office or on critics’ notepads in the Nineties, with Texasville (1990), a follow-up to The Last Picture Show featuring a returning Jeff Bridges and Shepherd; or the country music-themed The Thing Called Love (1993) starring Samantha Mathis and River Phoenix. Through it all, talented, high-profile actors clearly still wanted to work with him—the 2014 romantic screwball comedy She’s Funny That Way featured Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans and Kathryn Hahn—but Bogdanovich’s name and early-Seventies output didn’t energize audiences into checking out what he had cooking.
The latter half of his career found Bogdanovich helming a number of movies for network and cable TV. The first was 1996’s To Sir, with Love II, a tepidly received and now barely remembered sequel to the 1967 British film starring Sidney Poitier, who returned to recreate one of his most enduring roles.
What else? Bogdanovich acted in dozens of film and TV productions over the past two decades, most notably in a recurring role as psychiatrist Dr. Eliott Kupferberg in four seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos (an installment of which he also directed). And he took part in the completion and restoration of Orson Welles’ Hollywood satire The Other Side of the Wind, which went into production in the Seventies and was finally released in 2018 following decades of legal and financial complications. But with exception of She’s Funny That Way, the New Hollywood survivor’s days as a theatrical filmmaker were behind him.
In what could be termed a happy ending, nearly 50 years after his seminal AFI-commissioned documentary Directed by John Ford, Bogdanovich returned to similar film-on-filmmaking terrain for his final feature, the well-received 2018 documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration, an appreciation of silent film legend Buster Keaton’s artistry and influence. Most notable is that Bogdanovich splinters the usual chronological narrative, skipping Keaton’s mid-career golden period and moving forward to his decline and later years. He then doubles back to give Keaton’s greatest accomplishments their due in the final third of the film. In other words, Bogdanovich saved the good stuff for the end. If only Bogdonavich’s career had played out like that.
The great director Billy Wilder famously declared, “You’re as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” By that standard, Bogdanovich was very, very good indeed.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.