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The Peter Bogdanovich Syllabus

The director, who died at 82 on Thursday, was a master craftsman who used his wealth of film knowledge to create singular hybrids of the old and new

AP Images/Ringer illustration

“Comedy has to be built carefully,” Peter Bogdanovich told Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri in 2018. At his best, the New York–born filmmaker was a master craftsman, drawing on his love and knowledge of classic Hollywood style and conventions to create hybrids of the old and new. In a rollicking road movie like Paper Moon, about an experienced con man who takes a preteen apprentice on a cross-country odyssey, every moment feels familiar yet bereft of cliché; Bogdanovich didn’t just know how the comic mechanisms worked, but also how to keep them purring just below the surface. While rarely lumped in with the generation that reinvented Hollywood in the 1970s, Bogdanovich’s love of old genres—especially screwball comedies and musicals—yielded the same sort of postmodern pleasures as Francis Ford Coppola’s updating of gangster picture myths in The Godfather. (To wit: If Bogdanovich is to be believed, he was offered the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel first.)

Bogdanovich was a raconteur and a gossip—in addition to the sterling books of film criticism he published during his 20s, he wrote and directed numerous behind-the-scenes books, articles, and documentaries, appearing in most as a vivid, polarizing character in his own right. Always good for a quote and gifted at intertwining narcissism with self-deprecation, he dined out on his ’70s successes while also owning the commercial failures (Saint Jack, They All Laughed) that led to his declaring bankruptcy by the mid-’80s. In time, there would be comebacks for this compelling fallen figure—retrospectives and late triumphs, including a killer recurring guest role on The Sopranos and the release of his friend and hero Orson Welles’s long-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, a movie in which Bogdanovich brilliantly played a version of himself. He leaves behind not only several classics but a wide, varied, and almost uniformly idiosyncratic body of work—movies, performances, essays, books, and one-liners. Here’s our attempt at a Peter Bogdanovich syllabus.

The Wild Angels (1966)

As a young film critic, Bogdanovich hooked up with B-movie maestro Roger Corman, whose mercenary showmanship belied a similar appreciation for auteurism and aesthetics. (Among other things, Corman was responsible for distributing some of Ingmar Bergman’s key works in America.) Discussing potential collaborations together, Corman got Bogdanovich to do uncredited rewrites on a biker picture featuring Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, and Diane Ladd—a brilliant assemblage of hipster talent. As a portrait of posturing malcontents wearing their antisocial tendencies on their leather sleeves, The Wild Angels helped to define counterculture cool toward the end of the 1960s and anticipated the beautiful losers of Easy Rider. It also showed that Bogdanovich had a knack for road-movie narratives, which would bloom more fully in picaresque comedies like What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon.

Targets (1968)

One of the creepiest and most resonant American movies of the 1960s, Targets imagines a meeting of monsters between clean-cut Vietnam infantryman Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) and aged horror-movie icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff). The conceptual pun is that both men are “veterans,” and Orlok—played by Karloff as a barely veiled riff on his own legacy—is eager to leave the Hollywood trenches, only to get caught up in an unfolding tragedy as Bobby steers his Charles Whitman–esque killing spree toward a Reseda movie theater. Lee Harvey Oswald was famously apprehended at a matinee, and Bogdanovich’s film plays with the iconography of the JFK assassination as surely as it satirizes—and sancitifes—the old Universal movie monsters, imagined here as harmless, emasculated anachronisms. By juxtaposing the encroaching, simmering psychosis of a politically divided America against the innocently lurid imagery of its B-movie fantasies, Bogdanovich parlayed his cinephilia into a confidently postmodern style; the film is a clear forerunner of Quentin Tarantino’s pop-cultural morality plays (alternate title: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). Released into a zeitgeist reeling from the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Targets alienated mainstream audiences before being reclaimed as a cult masterpiece.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

“Nobody wants to come to shows no more,” remarks a character late into Bogdanovich’s Oscar-nominated commercial breakthrough—a crisply photographed, black-and-white eulogy for a small-town Texas cinema and the innocence of the kids who patronized it. Ben Johnson won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as the regal theatrical impressario Sam the Lion, whose death on New Year’s Eve throws the sleepy oil town of Anarene into a state of crisis. Instead of just piling on nostalgia for an idealized postwar America, Bogdanovich locates the hairline fractures along racial, sexual, and cultural fault lines that would explode in the decades to come. Everywhere, things are less wholesome than they seem. The cast is amazing—not only Johnson and the similarly Oscar-winning Cloris Leachman, but also an impossibly young and charismatic Jeff Bridges as a sensitive high-school stud who falls out with best pal Timothy Bottoms over preening homecoming queen Cybill Shepherd. Written and acted with a bittersweet ambivalence miles more sophisticated than George Lucas’s contemporaneous Eisenhower-era salute American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show has aged as well as any key New Hollywood drama, right down to its final, deeply moving gesture of generational connection and communion.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

As a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art, Bogdanovich had long advocated for the swiftly paced screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, whose Western Red River makes a cameo near the end of The Last Picture Show. Proceeding from the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Bogdanovich whipped up his own Hawksian comedy in the form of What’s Up, Doc?, which is loosely based on a novel by Herman Raucher but patterned almost beat for beat after 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. To stand in for Cary Grant’s dazed straight man figure, Bogdanovich tapped Ryan O’Neal, best known for the sappy Love Story; as his dizzy love interest, he secured Barbra Streisand, a natural comedian and then one of the biggest box-office draws in the world. The jokes range from gloriously old-fashioned—pratfalls, puns, and a slapstick demolition derby during a parade—to wryly self-reflexive; upon being told that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” (the much-quoted catchphrase of Love Story) O’Neal responds, directly to the camera, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” The standout performance comes courtesy of Madeline Kahn as O’Neal’s humourless fiance, Eunice Burns, a woman with a misguided sense of dignity who exists as the butt of every gag. In the end, Bogdanovich’s uneven homage to Hawks ends up glorifying its subject in an ironic way: It shows how even a very gifted young filmmaker on the way up couldn’t touch the master.

“The Kane Mutiny” (1972)

The rumor is that Bogdanovich’s withering retort to Pauline Kael’s essay about the making of Citizen Kane was ghost-written by none other than Orson Welles. If so, the opening salvo makes for a pretty good joke. “Welles has made better films,” Bogdanvoich avers of his hero and frequent drinking buddy before pointing out that the issue at hand is not Citizen Kane’s greatness, but the fact that Kael’s piece—whose privileging of cowriter Herman Mankiewicz as the screenplay’s driving force ended up being the indirect inspiration for David Fincher’s Mank—is “loaded with error and faulty supposition that it would require at least as many words as were at her disposal to correct, disprove and properly refute it.” Considering that Kael had been less than enamored of Bogdanovich’s own body of work to that point, including a pan of What’s Up, Doc?, it’s possible to read more than a little bit of bad vibes into the piece, which includes the revelation that Kael borrowed another unnamed writer’s research—a high irony considering her thesis about stolen credit.

Paper Moon (1973)

Tatum O’Neal became the youngest actor to win a competitive Academy Award for her role as preteen scammer Addie in Paper Moon—a more successful exercise in 1930s pastiche than What’s Up, Doc? right down to its beautifully re-created Depression-era backdrop. This time, instead of doing double takes and looking befuddled, Ryan O’Neal exploits his natural charisma as a grifter whose paternal affection for his orphaned partner doesn’t totally offset his wariness; his Moses is just as prone to bickering and bartering with Addie as protecting or indulging her. The masterstroke of casting a real-life father and daughter in a story about the creation of a surrogate family was credited by Bogdanovich to his ex-wife and collaborator Polly Platt, while the film as a whole vibrates with a charm and tenderness at odds with the filmmaker’s prickly persona. While it doesn’t sanitize or sentimentalize the Depression, it generates the same sort of cunning, humane social vision as vintage Preston Sturges.

Saint Jack (1979)

Following the big-budget period pieces Daisy Miller and Nickelodeon—both less well-received than his early-’70s hits—Bogdanovich took advantage of the fact that his then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd had the rights to Paul Theroux’s novel about an American hustler in Singapore. The story goes that Shepherd had originally wanted Orson Welles to direct the film, and that when Bogdanovich opted to do it himself, it caused a falling-out between the longtime friends. It’s easy to see what both filmmakers saw in Theroux’s story about a waylaid would-be pimp whose dreams of opening his own glitzy, full-service brothel put him in the crosshairs of the local triads. After all, it’s an edgy, politically incorrect parable of creative passion under pressure, and a ready-made allegory for moviemaking. Jack Nicholson was under consideration for the title role, but Ben Gazzara is brilliant, filtering rakish, easy, all-American charm through an underdog outsider’s constant, churning sense of alertness. The chaotic making of Saint Jack is documented in Ben Slater’s 2006 book Kinda Hot, and captures Bogdanovich—who also appears in the film—as a mirror of his protagonist: relentless, talkative, adaptable, and in over his head in a culture that views him as an emissary of exploitative Western imperialism. The movie was shot under a false title so as not to arouse local suspicions and was ultimately banned in Singapore and Malaysia. In the U.S., it was a casualty of the end of the new Hollywood, struggling at the box office as audience tastes shifted toward special effects and sequels.

The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980 (1984)

Described in The New York Times as “part tribute, part self-justification, part accusation,” Bogdanovich’s 1984 book about his relationship with Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten—who starred in his 1981 comedy They All Laughed before being murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider—doubles as a withering critique of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire, identified by the author as a predatory institution exploiting not only the bodies and sexuality of its models but irreprably damaging their senses of self-esteem and independence. Bogdanovich also takes shots at director Bob Fosse, whose Stratten biopic Star 80 was based on a Village Voice article that had painted him unflatteringly as a struggling director “who needed a hit badly.” For Bogdanovich, Star 80’s prurient violence and dread went beyond the demands of artistry into the realm of exploitation. Even while narrating personal tragedy, Bogdanovich couldn’t help but practice a form of film criticism.

Mask (1985)

Bogdanovich’s biggest box-office hit since Paper Moon was a relatively conventional drama about an unconventional family; in an unexpected callback to The Wild Angels, Bogdanovich reentered the world of motorcycle gangs to tell the true story of Rocky Dennis, a disfigured teenage boy who dreams of biking across Europe. The film won an Oscar for its makeup design, while Bogdanovich’s big swing—casting Cher as the protagonist’s freewheeling mother, Rusty—connected and then some. Cher got a Best Actress prize at Cannes, although the glory was mitigated by a very public feud with the director. She claimed that Bogdanovich was hard to work with, leading to a series of mean-spirited rebukes on his end, including comments in a 2019 Playlist interview that Cher “can’t act” and “didn’t like men.” “Her eyes have the sadness of the world,” Bogdanovich continued. “You get to know her, you find out it’s self-pity, but still, it translates well in movies. I shot more close-ups of her than I think in any picture I ever made.”

The Sopranos (2000-2007)

The best interview ever recorded with David Chase is this one with Bogdanovich, which deals with almost every important aspect of The Sopranos from conception to execution to legacy. Of course, Bogdanovich isn’t interacting with Chase simply as a critic or observer of the series. As Dr. Elliot Kupferberg—the nosy, flexibly ethical, massive-water-bottle-toting psychiatrist of Lorraine Bracco’s Jennifer Melfi—the longtime director placed a provocative frame around the show’s psychoanalytical dynamics. If Melfi was meant as a sounding board for Tony’s inner life—and a surrogate for the show’s audience—Elliot was like a dry, obnoxious voice from the peanut gallery, simultaneously critiquing her ongoing interest and commitment to an obvious sociopath while pressing her, fan-like, for gory details. On a show displaying more varieties of recognizably obnoxious human behavior than probably any other ever made, Bogdanovich was a reliably hateful presence, right up until “Blue Comet,” when he calls out Melfi on her enabling once and for all:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Few rock stars of the 1970s and ’80s were as easy to take for granted as Tom Petty: hooky, whiny, and reliable, he hung around the Top 40 not by changing with the times but by keeping the faith. At their best, Petty and his band played a kind of straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll as inescapably American as Bruce Springsteen, but because he rarely wrote protest songs—focusing more on character studies or affairs of the heart—critics took him for a lightweight. Bogdanovich’s fleet, four-hour profile documentary clarifies Petty’s political bona fides and documents the turbulent but ultimately affirmative history of his band—the ornery, competitive spirit that had them racking up hits past their time. Runnin’ Down a Dream is a slick, accessible piece of filmmaking that finds Bogdanovich in an uncharacteristically populist mode. It doesn’t mystify Petty, or intellectualize him, or turn him into a myth. Instead, it shows a talented, hard-working star doing his thing. And the concert scenes are terrific.

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

As the obsequious up-and-coming writer-director Brooks Otterlake in Orson Welles’s ’70s Hollywood satire The Other Side of the Wind, Bogdanovich spoofed his own image, fawning over John Huston’s two-fisted auteur protagonist as he had in interviews with John Ford. When Welles was unable to finish the film for a myriad of reasons, Bogdanovich stood by his friend, and several decades later—long after Welles’s death and the pair’s falling-out over Saint Jack—he fulfilled his promise to help take the project to completion. Restored and released in 2018 by Netflix with editorial contributions by a host of collaborators, The Other Side of the Wind is wild, funny, ragged, masterly, ambitious, and singular.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.