Let Us Sing of the Days That Are Gone…Peter Bogdanovich: A Cinema of Silent Exchanges
“When You and I Were Young, Maggie”
Music by James Butterfield
Lyrics by George Johnson
I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.
And now we are aged and grey, Maggie,
And the trials of life nearly done,
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie,
When you and I were young.
When Daisy Miller (Cybill Shepherd) sings an excerpt from this song in a scene in Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller (1974), the poignancy which registers within the audience does not arise solely out of the intrinsic sadness of the song itself. Indeed, Daisy sings the song cheerfully, almost as though she were unaware of its sadness (Bogdanovich gave this specific piece of direction to Shepherd because he felt that a character as young as Daisy would be oblivious to the song’s deeper meaning). No, the song’s poignancy in this scene arises mostly from an awareness the audience has of the particular relevance it has to the characters and story, and from the way these things are magnified by Bogdanovich’s exquisitely formulated mise en scène. It is as great, and as poignant, a moment as the singing of “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, followed by the iris out, in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or the singing of “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” over the final dolly shot out of the church in Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950).
As the scene proper begins, Daisy asks the callow young man (who does not know that she loves him until it’s too late) Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown), if he would like for her to sing a song for him with her friend Giovanelli (Duilio Del Petre) accompanying on the piano. Daisy is sitting on a piano bench with Giovanelli in a two shot as she asks, “Would you like that?” Winterbourne is shown in medium close-up as he answers, “Very much.” In the next shot, Daisy steps up from the piano bench and the camera dollies back slightly to accommodate her, Daisy and Giovanelli still both in frame. Daisy begins singing:
I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below
Bogdanovich cuts on the line change to a dolly in to Winterbourne’s face. The camera holds on his face as Daisy continues:
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.
Again cutting on the line change, Bogdanovich then gives Daisy a close-up; the long lens indicates that we are seeing her from Winterbourne’s perspective. Daisy goes on:
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
As Daisy sings the line, “Where first the daisies sprung,” she for the first time during the song looks towards Winterbourne, at which time Bogdanovich breaks his pattern of cutting precisely on line changes. In this cut back to a “big head” close-up of Winterbourne’s rapt face, it is the eyes of the two characters that provides visual and emotional continuity between the two shots. The emotional climax of the scene has occurred and Bogdanovich cuts back to a medium shot as Daisy concludes her song.
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.
And now we are aged and grey, Maggie,
And the trials of life nearly done,
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie,
When you and I were young.
Daisy laughs a bit to herself as she finishes. Bogdanovich then cuts to a medium close-up of Winterbourne applauding enthusiastically. An over-the-shoulder shot from Winterbourne’s perspective follows as Daisy curtsies. Bogdanovich then cuts to a wide shot of Daisy’s mother (Cloris Leachman) entering the room.
It’s a song of lost youth that Daisy is singing, but because Bogdanovich visualises this scene from Winterbourne’s point-of-view, we are allowed to feel the parallel meaning it will come to have for him: that of lost opportunities and missed chances embodied in his complicated relationship to Daisy. Thinking Daisy an outrageous American flirt, Winterbourne – an American who has spent too much time in foreign parts – realises only after her death that she was, as Giovanelli puts it as the two stand beside her grave, “the most innocent” and that she loved him. But Winterbourne fights his attraction to her during life and so Daisy’s song becomes an elegy for a life together between them that was never to be. During the cast reprise at the end of the film, an orchestrated rendition of the song is heard. Bogdanovich himself chose the song (it isn’t named in Henry James’ novella), which was written in 1866.
No director in contemporary American film makes fuller use of what might be called “subjective cinema” as Peter Bogdanovich. In the international realm, only Roman Polanski is his peer. Everyone has their reasons in Bogdanovich’s universe and we see those reasons clearly because he shows us the world from “everyone’s” perspective. His spaces always appear as if in flux, jumping as he does from one character’s perspective to another from scene to scene, and sometimes within scenes. In The Cat’s Meow (2001), for example, a big birthday party is thrown for movie producer Tom Ince (Cary Elwes) aboard William Randolph Hearst’s (Edward Herrmann) yacht. Towards the end of the party scene, Bogdanovich shuttles between Hearst watching Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) dance flirtatiously with Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) to Ince watching Hearst watching Chaplin and Davies, and then storming off in a jealous fit. In just under two minutes of screen time, and with not a line of dialogue, Bogdanovich permits us entry into the worlds of two different characters, making us privy to their thoughts and feelings with the utmost clarity.
As we can see, Bogdanovich’s signature visual move is similar to Hitchcock’s in Rear Window (1954): to crosscut a shot of a character looking at something followed by a shot from that character’s point-of-view showing what he or she is looking at – frequently it’s another character and the moment is infused with love or regret. But for the director, this is simply bare bones classical filmmaking.
Peter Tonguette: One of the stylistic touches I love most in your films is when you cut between characters looking at each other in silence, sharing a moment or a feeling. I see scenes like this in almost all of your films. I think of Karla and Jacy at the end of Texasville (1990). Or Chaplin and Davies at the beginning of The Cat’s Meow. Many times in They All Laughed (1981). Is this a touch you’re conscious of or is it just something you like?
Peter Bogdanovich: Well, I think it’s something that’s essential to the film medium, those silent moments. And it goes directly back to silent movies. If you look at the talking pictures of virtually any director who began in the silent era – or who was influenced because he grew up in the silent era _ you will see moments like that, where there’s no dialogue, where people look at each other. There are moments that mean something and it’s up to the viewer to take away what they mean. To me, that’s really classic filmmaking. It’s those silent moments that often make stars. They did in silent pictures and they did in talkies. Those are the moments when the audience feels closest to the people. You’re almost inside their heads.
And that also has an enormous amount to do with whose point-of-view the moment is coming from. Who’s looking at who, who are you with? It all has to do with camera placement and size of the image. To take a very clear example from John Ford’s Mogambo : watch the way the first scene between Gardner and Gable is shot and you see that all the shots are slightly tighter on Gardner than they are on Gable. Gable’s a bit looser. And so the impression you’re getting is that you’re seeing Gable from her point of view. You’re closer to her, therefore you are with her.
I do that sort of thing all the time. The audience isn’t conscious of it, but I’m constantly going to a bigger head of one person and a smaller image of the other person. It gives you the sense that you’re with the person who has the bigger shot, seeing things from their perspective (1).
In Mask (1985), one such moment comes in the scene directly following Rocky’s (Eric Stoltz) high school graduation. Rocky, a physically deformed teenager, has a crush on the beautiful Lisa (Alexandra Powers), who is in his class. Bogdanovich opens the scene with Lisa and her boyfriend, Eric (Craig King), walking across the school parking lot and catching Rocky’s eyeline. They look to him (us) in medium shot and wave. Bogdanovich cuts to Rocky, surrounded by several friends, waving back. The next cut takes us to a close-up, shot on a very long lens, of Lisa. She mouths “Have a great summer” before being instantaneously whisked away by a cabal of celebrating family and friends. Rocky looks solemn as Bogdanovich cuts back to a medium close-up of him, not responding outwardly. We have one more view of Lisa’s carefree world as she strides into the distance, arm-in-arm with the others. Rocky’s mom, Rusty (Cher), and her army of biker friends enter the frame just as Bogdanovich dollies back from Rocky looking achingly on into Lisa’s world.
It’s a remarkable moment in a remarkable movie – one which universalises Rocky’s story and makes his struggle relatable to anyone who has ever been a teenager or gone through high school. What makes it even more remarkable is that the film, which feels as personal, as heartfelt, as anything he’s ever directed, didn’t originate with Bogdanovich. It was the first directing job he accepted in the years after the brutal 1980 murder of actress and model Dorothy Stratten – with whom he fell in love with during the making of his greatest film, They All Laughed – and it was, at first, very much a job: a way to keep financially afloat during some tough times. Ironically, it was a memory he had of Stratten which inspired him to put so much of himself in the film. Stratten had seen on Broadway the theatrical production of The Elephant Man and became fascinated by the story of John Merrick, who suffered from a condition similar to that of Rocky in Mask.
PB: After she was killed, I was curious to know everything I could about her. So I went to see the play on Broadway, with David Bowie in it by this point. And I got it. The connection. Which was, when we’d walk down the street in New York, go to the park or go down 5th or wherever we walked – everybody stopped and looked at her. I mean, dogs stopped. You think I’m kidding. It was extraordinary. People just stopped and looked and turned. This was not because she was in Playboy. It was that she was so striking. And to such a degree, you have to understand, that it didn’t photograph. She looks great in the picture – and in other pictures – but not as good as she really looked. That’s what’s so weird. She looked better than that. And I would say to her, “Jesus, everybody’s looking at you.” She’d say, “No, they’re looking at you.” I’d say, “Dorothy, they’re only looking at me to see who you’re with.” She’d say, “Well, no they’re not.” She’d be in denial. I pressured her and said, “Does that really bother you?” She said, “Oh yes, I hate it.” “Why?” “Well, I always feel like there’s something wrong with me, like I have ice cream on my dress or something. I don’t know what it is.”
So it isn’t just simply that she was unaware of her own impact, but that she felt uncomfortable by being set apart. Her beauty set her apart every bit as much as the Elephant Man was set apart by his ugliness. It was an entirely physical thing – not a thing from the soul – that people were reacting to. That’s how she took it.
When I got Mask, it had a very poor script which took place over ten years of Rocky’s life and it just didn’t work. There were some good ideas in it, but it was completely rewritten. I did nine drafts with Anna Hamilton Phelan. But when I got the 100 page first draft, I wasn’t really in the mood to make a picture, but I had to. I needed the money. I felt a little blessed that it came, because it was the true story of a kid like that and so it connected with me to Dorothy. That’s the personal thing you felt in it.
Yes, the two scenes I’ve just described above are seen from the point-of-view of the male, but there have been few filmmakers more generous to, or in awe of, women. In Bogdanovich’s films, women are frequently the kindest and wisest of his characters: truly the fairer sex. He has been influenced by the English poet and novelist Robert Graves, a writer Orson Welles first encouraged him to read. In his two-volume The Greek Myths, Graves posits that women were in some ways the “dominant” gender in the pre-historic world, goddesses being worshipped along with gods in Greek mythology. In The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Graves makes a case for the figure of the goddess as an inspiration to poets throughout the millennia. Welles, whose own late films bear the mark of Graves’ influence, took the lesson from all this to be that the attitude of men toward women should be one of, as he put it to critic Kenneth Tynan in a 1967 Playboy interview, “total adoration”. That’s a fair description of the portrayal of women in Bogdanovich’s cinema, too, but in truth, there has always been a profound sympathy for and love of women in Bogdanovich’s cinema and one can trace it back to his earliest films, long before he ever read Graves.
PB: I think generally speaking, the women in most of the pictures I’ve made are very strong. And I think the point-of-view is often from the women’s perspective. They All Laughed, which I made before reading Graves, was of course the furthest I ever went with that. That’s a movie about the sisterhood if ever there was one. It’s a kind of instinctual sisterhood as opposed to a theoretic one or a didactic one. It’s like a ‘We’re all in this together’ kind of thing.
I have seen that with certain women. And I’ve also not seen it. But I chose to show it at its best because the film is a bit of a fantasy. And, of course, in that movie they do manoeuvre the entire situation, which is actually the main point in Shaw’s “Man and Superman”.
In They All Laughed, three private eyes from the Odyssey Detective Agency (Ben Gazzara, John Ritter and Blaine Novak) are hired to keep an eye on two married women (Audrey Hepburn and Stratten) suspected of adultery. The detectives wind up falling hard for the women they’re following, thus complicating their current relationships with a bevy of other women, including country-western singer Christy Miller (Colleen Camp) and carefree cabbie Sam (Patty Hansen), who has the uncanny ability to always drive up at just the right moment.
They All Laughed is a film bursting with goodwill, with a spirit of inclusiveness and a generosity which shades even the immensely sad parting of Gazzara and Hepburn which concludes the film. In his book length tribute to Stratten, 1984′s “The Killing of the Unicorn,” Bogdanovich summarised the aim of his picture with great eloquence: “If They All Laughed was going to be the way I wanted it to be, its characters would behave with politeness and good humour, there would be grace in their sadness, and stoicism in their dealings with love” (2). It was a film packed with family, with friends, even with coworkers. Blaine Novak was a distributor who Bogdanovich knew and liked; he wrote him into the picture. Bogdanovich’s two young daughters, Antonia and Alexandra, were cast as Gazzara’s daughters. His secretary at the time, Linda MacEwen, appears as a secretary and sometime-girlfriend of the head of the detective agency, Leon Leondopolis (George Morfogen, another longtime friend of Bogdanovich’s and also a co-producer on They All Laughed). (MacEwen’s real name was Linda Ewen, but Bogdanovich said that that was hard to pronounce and to change it to MacEwen for the film.) Sean Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn’s son, began working on the film as Bogdanovich’s assistant, but eventually wound up on screen as a friend of Stratten’s character.
PB: I had this idea that I wanted to do something about the romantic life: the difficulties of romance, men and women at that time in history, at that moment. And I wanted to make it in the form of a comedy that was sort of bittersweet. I wanted to use things that happened to us, to all of us, to Benny and me and whoever I knew who had been through similar kinds of ordeals in terms of romance and love.
I wanted to use that and make it very personal, but I decided I didn’t want it to be what didn’t exist then, but I didn’t want it to be one of those ‘artistic’ films, one of those independent films. I wanted it to be a picture for everybody that was basically a romantic comedy with a bittersweet touch. In other words, make a very personal story but within what used to be known as ‘the rules of the game’. By that I mean, you disguise your personal intentions by putting it within a genre. So basically we made it kind of a detective picture.
But as Bogdanovich indicates, what we have in They All Laughed is a screwball comedy deepened with the realism brought to it by those who made it.
PB: The picture’s really about the people who are playing the parts. In other words, it’s actually about Audrey and Ben – who had an affair – and it’s about John and Dorothy – and John is me. I’m also Benny a little bit too, so it’s complicated. I was right in the middle age-wise. And then Audrey’s character is totally based on Audrey. It’s absolutely her biography. She’s in a loveless marriage, she’s staying in it because of the kid, and she fell in love with Ben Gazzara (and another after him.)
And Dorothy’s story – except for the fact that her husband was lethal as opposed to somewhat benign – was also Dorothy’s story. She was caught in a situation where she was in a loveless, hopeless marriage and was looking to get out.
PT: It sounds as though it was personal not only for you, but for everybody involved.
PB: It was. It was personal for everybody. And everybody knew it. It was easy to play.
Dolores (Stratten) is seen almost exclusively from the point-of-view of Charles (Ritter) until a climactic scene in a roller derby, the setting where he first makes physical contact with her. Bogdanovich opens with a close-up of Charles’s face peering around from behind a wall. He looks and sees Dolores and her friends lacing up on a bench. Bogdanovich cuts back to the close-up of Charles, by now looking around and scoping the place out; what has he gotten himself into? The next shot of Charles’ POV is done on an even longer lens as Dolores is seen rolling onto the rink. We briefly return to the close-up of Charles as he swallows his anxiety and exits frame. In a brilliant piece of comic editing, Bogdanovich follows this shot with a long shot of Charles – who is, we see now, wearing roller skates – attempting to make his way towards the rink. His colleague Arthur (Novak) tries to stop him but before he can he is sidetracked by a group of women begging for his attention. Physically inept Charles is headed for the abyss.
Bogdanovich gives us a wide shot of Charles approaching the edge of the rink, still stumbling on his skates. Charles walks closer to the camera and into a medium-shot before we cut again to his perspective. We see a left-to-right pan across the whole rink until we eventually find Dolores skating. Again we cut to a close-up of Charles, who sees her as we do. Again from Charles’ perspective, we see her skate past him. Charles then walks out of his close-up towards the rink to follow Dolores, back to the camera, as he stumbles his way in. In the next shot – the 12th of this scene so far – Bogdanovich suddenly abandons Charles’ point-of-view – through which we’ve seen Dolores all through this scene and all through the film so far – and places Dolores in control of her own universe. The camera dollies back with her as she skates in the centre of the frame. Charles is now in the background, approaching on the right hand side of the frame, mugging with a smile as he’s finally about to meet the love of his life, before he falls to the ground. Dolores exits frame.
With one shot, Bogdanovich has summarised his vision of the world: it’s the women who are in control – gracefully and perfectly – and the men struggling – and frequently failing – to keep up. It’s a moment to rank with Katharine Hepburn’s unintended collapsing of the dinosaur at the close of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938).
In a more dramatic vein, this vision was expressed in Bogdanovich’s great, underrated sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971), Texasville. In a key scene, Duane (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Karla (Annie Potts) are having an argument in their bedroom. The argument is about nothing in particular – just about Karla and Duane and his old girlfriend Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) and about life and the middle age they are all experiencing. Karla, her head perched up by several pillows, is lying in bed in the foreground of the shot, watching television off-camera. Duane wanders around the room in the background, arguing with the ever-patient Karla and making a general ruckus of himself. At one point, Karla says, “You don’t understand a single thing about women and you never will.” Incensed, Duane protests that he knows a few things about his wife after twenty years of marriage. “How many things are there to know about anybody?” he asks. Karla says that there are only three or four things to know about him, but there are about a million things to know about her. Duane says, “Name a few.” “New things everyday,” Karla says, as the camera begins to dolly in to her. Duane, by now, is on the extreme left side of the frame looking out a window, in spatial terms utterly marginal to the action and eventually completely squeezed out of the shot. Karla continues:
They don’t have names, Duane. They can just be feelings. Like these little plants I read about in National Geographic. They only bloom one hour in twenty years. I have little feelings like that. One might only bloom once during our whole marriage. You could be sitting right here, two feet away, and never notice it.
The first cut in the scene comes as we see a close-up of Duane looking on to his wife. He turns to the window. In the scene’s final shot, we see him looking at his own reflection in silence. As impressive as this scene is from a filmmaking standpoint, the richness of its dialogue must also be acknowledged: the words are taken directly from the novel by Larry McMurtry, whom Bogdanovich considers to be the finest writer of regional dialogue around.
Texasville may always live in the shadow of its practically canonised predecessor, but it is arguably the superior film. The genuine tragedy of The Last Picture Show – epitomised in its iconic final shot – has been replaced by a widened perspective which accepts and can laugh at its characters’ flaws and follies. Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared its seriocomic attitudes to that of Leo McCarey (3) – a comparison which seems validated by Bogdanovich’s own intentions.
PB: I was actually kind of scared to do it. I did it because I thought that I couldn’t really not do it. I sort of felt like I had to do it. It seemed obligatory. I didn’t think we’d necessarily do well by comparison because the first film is more romantic simply because it’s about young people. Even though mainly the sex is funny, young love has a sort of poetic, touching quality. Whereas middle-aged love sort of has to be treated as comedy. No matter how painful it is, if you’re going through a mid-life crisis, somehow it’s funny. Simply because it’s hard to get serious about it. [Laughs] Even though it’s very serious.
As in all of Bogdanovich’s films, Texasville is preoccupied with the past. In this case, it’s not a past era which particularly occupies his attention as much as the troubled, lingering pasts of his characters and the way their histories impact their present-day lives. With the exception of Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion, whose death in the first film had an almost mythic quality, and Ellen Burstyn’s Lois Farrow (mother of Jacy), all of the principle characters from The Last Picture Show return in Texasville, which takes place roughly thirty years after the first film, in the same town as before, Anarene, Texas. Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), the focus of the first film, has drifted into the periphery, living out his days as Anarene’s mayor, plagued by memories of his youth. Duane has done slightly better, accruing a fortune in the oil business and living in a house utterly besieged by an assortment of children, grandchildren, and “guests”.
There’s another great film on middle-age in the Bogdanovich canon: Song of Songs (1995), by far the best film in Showtime’s Picture Windows series, and one of Bogdanovich’s very best. The film is the story of a husband, Ted (George Segal), who commits adultery but feels secure that his wife Angie (Brooke Adams) has never strayed from their marriage, only to have that illusion shattered with a startling revelation. Bogdanovich’s sympathy for his female characters is again evident in this film, despite the fact that for dramatic purposes the majority of it is seen from Ted’s perspective. In a few key moments, though, Bogdanovich allows us to see through Angie’s eyes, such as when he shows her looking in from the kitchen as the man she loves dances at a birthday celebration. We may not know at this moment precisely why she looks the way she does, but the shot anticipates revelations to come; nothing in Bogdanovich’s work is arbitrary.
Bogdanovich’s obsession with the past, and the longing one feels in his films for a better time, manifests itself most intriguingly in one of three Robert Graves novels he’s been planning to adapt for the screen for nearly twenty years, “Seven Days in New Crete” (titled “Watch the North Wind Rise” in America, Bogdanovich’s title for his film adaptation is a combination of the two: “Seven Days To the North Wind.”) The story is, at first glance, unlike anything the director has ever attempted.
PB: It’s a time-machine story. A guy materialises from now to a thousand years into the future. But there’s no technology in the world that he’s brought into. It’s a part of the world where no technology exists, they live in a kind of prehistoric social order. It’s kind of an experiment, a thousand years hence. And he’s brought into it for seven days and it’s what happens to him in those days.
And so even Bogdanovich’s one hypothetical foray into the realm of science fiction dovetails with his (and Graves’) attraction to a sometimes ambiguously idyllic past. “We must retrace our steps or perish,” one character in “Watch the North Wind Rise” says. I don’t think there’s a more perfect description of the philosophy behind so much of Bogdanovich’s cinema. As early as Targets (1968), there was a tangible expression of mournfully voiced outrage at the course the world has taken in these so-called modern times: Targets has the kindly old horror star played by Boris Karloff expressing his doubts that his brand of horror movies have any currency or relevance when put up against the horrors of real life in America in the late 1960s. Bogdanovich says that the 2003 death of Graves’ widow Beryl, with whom he was close, has caused him to re-focus his attention on his Graves adaptations. Given Bogdanovich’s profound admiration for Graves, and the sympathy his own work expresses for Graves’ view of the world, it may prove to be one of the great pairings of filmmaker and author, to go along side Orson Welles and Isak Dinesen (4).
If Sonny in Texasville is weighed down by his memories, Duane is offered a chance to relive his past when Jacy, the girl who drew the two friends apart in high school, returns to town after a brief and highly unspectacular B-movie career and a personal tragedy: the death of a child. In the director’s cut of Texasville available on laserdisc, there’s a marvellous scene between Duane and Jacy in which she watches John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) – a film Cassavetes wanted Bogdanovich to direct before he made it himself. It speaks directly to Jacy’s loss.
PB: There are two reasons for it. I tried a number of different things to see what would work best for the story – it’s Cybill’s story, because Jeff falls asleep – and I tried Mogambo because I loved Ava Gardner’s strength in it. But that didn’t work. Then of course that whole thing was cut out of the release version, so I didn’t have to worry about it. But then for the director’s cut, I had to address it and we got the permission to use Gloria. Because there was a little boy in the scene and she’d lost a little boy. I thought that would help connect her to the picture. Why is she crying? Because her son died and there’s Gena Rowlands with a little boy.
And of course it was a tip-of-the-hat to Cassavetes who was the first person to read the script of Texasville. When I finished the first draft of it, I sent it to John first and he said, “What a life. You gotta make this picture.” He loved it.
The influence of Cassavetes may particularly be felt in Saint Jack (1979) and Bogdanovich’s films since then. They feel looser, somehow, more character-based than his earlier work. Saint Jack – Bogdanovich’s first film following a self-imposed hiatus from moviemaking which lasted for three years – was a turning point in more ways than one.
PB: What I think Saint Jack represented was a return rather than a turning. It was a return to basics. And a step in another direction as well, the way I see it. Both At Long Last Love  and Nickelodeon  had been compromised rather a lot in how they were released – and also even in the way that they were finally cast and conceived and so on. There were problems with those two films of a kind that I hadn’t had on the other ones up to that time. And that’s why I stopped making pictures for three years. Some of the press thought it was because I couldn’t get a job – this is nonsense. I turned down a lot of money during all the time that I was not working. I was constantly turning down pictures. I realised that I had to go back to basics. After having travelled around the world twice during those years, and having an interesting time with Cybill, I realised I had to go back and make something the way we did Targets. Very low-budget, down and dirty.
It turned out to be Saint Jack and I think it was a great experience. And it was a particular decision inspired a little bit by Cassavetes of course, but also by Gazzara when we worked together. We kept saying, ”Let’s try to avoid those obligatory scenes that every movie has. Let’s see if we can do a movie without any of them.” It was like trying to make an entire movie based on a premise that Howard Hawks once said to me. He said, “You know, there are scenes that an audience knows it’s gonna get. And when you don’t give it to them, they’re so happy!”
From Targets on, Bogdanovich has excelled at evocatively photographing real places. Many of his films open with slow, elegant pans right-to-left, surveying the geography of a place – The Last Picture Show, Saint Jack, Mask and Texasville all open with such shots.
PB: I’ve always felt that the place is a character in the story. Like Los Angeles was in Targets or San Francisco was in What’s Up, Doc?  or Anarene in The Last Picture Show. The place where it happens is very important and is as much of a character as anything. Just like the theatres are in Noises Off… .
For his wonderful To Sir, with Love II (1996, which the director wanted to call “From Sir, with Love”, an indication of how little the film really has to do with the first To Sir, with Love beyond Sidney Poitier’s superb performances in each film), Bogdanovich took his company to London just to get five location shots, including the film’s opening shot of Thackeray passing the camera in a cab, the imperious beauty of a great city behind him. On the commentary track featured on the DVD of Saint Jack, time and time again Bogdanovich mentions that particular buildings or areas featured in the film are now gone, gone in order to make way for progress. One can tell from the way he photographs Singapore in the film – savouring every detail, every pan across its skyline a tribute to it – that he knew that he was shooting a vanishing place.
The essential modus operandi of Saint Jack – location shooting, allowing actors to work out their own dialogue, and an overall sense of immediacy and off-the-cuff-ness to the proceedings – was carried over to the making of They All Laughed. Robby Muller, his brilliant and resourceful cinematographer from Saint Jack, was brought in to shoot the movie.
PB: Well, they are two island movies – Singapore and Manhattan both being islands.
The end credits of each film conclude with thankyous to the respective people of Singapore and Manhattan, “on whose island,” the title cards read, “this picture was made.” And whose people, one might add, it was made with. Saint Jack especially makes extraordinary uses of non-actors who Bogdanovich and his company simply ran across during the making of the film.
In They All Laughed, shots on New York City’s Fifth Avenue – an impossible location – were grabbed incognito, the camera crew masked by extras. Few films showcase a New York City as beautiful as this or as immortal. Bogdanovich doesn’t merely photograph New York; as he did with Singapore in Saint Jack, he captures the intangible “feel” of the city in such moments as John (Gazzara) and Angela’s (Hepburn) evening walk through its rain swept sidewalks. Is there a more romantic image of New York in cinema than the film’s opening title sequence? In it, Sam is seen driving across the Manhattan Bridge mid-morning, looking out on to the majestic sight of the Brooklyn Bridge just beyond. Bogdanovich himself experienced the same sight when he was once driven across the Manhattan Bridge; it was that experience which gave him the idea to open the picture that way. But the city fills a greater role than merely an ornamental or incidental backdrop. So much time is spent on its sidewalks and streets and in and out of its shops, hotels, and restaurants that we begin to feel that we could navigate our way through them ourselves, that we’re inhabiting the same spaces as the film’s characters. At such moments, They All Laughed becomes almost a non-narrative study of an urban environment.
As with Saint Jack, the precise dialogue of many scenes was worked out only on the day of shooting.
PB: The whole picture was not improvised, because I wrote it. But most of the dialogue was written at the last minute or rewritten a lot or expanded or contracted or just written the night before on almost the entire picture.
Bogdanovich has continued to work in this fashion on virtually all of his films since Saint Jack, his scripts subject to continual revision by and input from the actors. This approach shouldn’t be confused with improvisation, as such; it is simply related to Bogdanovich’s desire for his dialogue to have the sound and flavour of authenticity and to invite those who might know more about a particular character than he does to participate in the creation of that character’s voice. Speaking of his sad, funny, evocative The Thing Called Love (1993), about young people trying to catch a break in the music business in Nashville, Bogdanovich says:
PB: It was completely rewritten as we went with the actors. A lot of stuff was improvised and then written down and then learned. The actors and I all worked on that endlessly. I told them that I wanted to get their point-of-view. They were in their early ’20s. I wasn’t. I wanted to know their attitude, how they would react, how they would feel. I didn’t want it to be phoney. So they were all involved.
Like most of Bogdanovich’s films, They All Laughed is not scored, but it does have musical interludes courtesy of Colleen Camp’s Christy Miller. Christy specialises in country-western tunes.
PB: Originally when I first wrote it, she was going to be a jazz singer in New York. You know, like Andrea Marcovicci doing jazz standards. Something like that. And then I spent some time in New York and country music had become slightly in fashion in New York. I thought that was sort of funny, because it came so late to New York. [Laughs] And it seemed funny to me to have a country-western singer in New York.
It’s Christy’s music that the film’s characters fall in love to. There are three songs she performs in clubs over the course of the film. Always present during her performances is at least one member of the film’s cast and the music relates in a very non-schematic way to what is unfolding in his or her story. It is in the final one of these scenes that Christy sings “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again” as Charles asks Dolores – at last! – to marry him and she agrees. It’s a genuinely magical moment and one planned with the utmost care in terms of fitting the music to the action.
PB: It was very hard to do. I can’t believe we did it this way, but we did: we had a Moviola on the set and we had the lyrics typed out and I sort of guessed approximately how long I’d be in each place with the lines of the song. I figured by the number of words in the tune approximately – within a word or two – where the cuts would be. And that’s how we shot it. So that the main action only took a certain amount of time. And I timed it in such a way that it would work that way. All those cuts there were fitted in like a mosaic into that song.
Bogdanovich’s care in staging this scene paid off. It is a grand symphony of looks between characters, glances, nods, acknowledgements.
There’s a third wonderful scene of singing in Bogdanovich’s cinema to join the list along with “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” in Daisy Miller and “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again” in They All Laughed. In Nickelodeon, Bogdanovich’s tribute to the silent movie pioneers (Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh are thanked in the end credits), a remarkable scene unfolds as John Ritter’s character, cameraman Franklin (“Frank”) Frank, sings “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” on the piano.
Frank goes to the piano just as Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal), the director among a gang of maverick movie people, learns that the actress he has pined over for most of the picture, Kathleen Cooke (Jane Hitchcock), is engaged to be married to movie star Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds). As the rest join in singing in celebration of their announcement of marriage, Leo is isolated in the scene, obviously disheartened. Marty (Stella Stevens) sees him looking at Kathleen off in the background as everyone else is huddled around Frank. Bogdanovich switches to Leo’s perspective as he walks away, heading to Buck, also off in the background. Leo lights a match for his old comrade. “Moved in on me, didn’t you, pal,” Leo says. “You got to be fast on the draw, counsellor,” Buck says and then exits the frame. Leo is now completely alone, Buck off-camera, the rest of the movie people in the out-of-focus background, singing, carousing, celebrating. As the scene draws to an end, Bogdanovich dollies back away from Leo in a camera move he often uses to express sadness or loss. At the end of Sam the Lion’s by now legendary monologue about old times in The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich’s extraordinary slow dolly-in to Sam, combined with an astonishingly timed burst of sunlight in the sky as he speaks, makes this one of the great individual scenes of the 1970s), the camera dollies back, too. Daisy Miller, too, ends with an extended dolly out, a long take moving away from Winterbourne as he stands beside Daisy’s grave. It’s the final shot of the movie.
PB: That’s why filmmaking has gotten so decadent because the technique has been lost. There’s close-ups when there doesn’t need to be. A close-up means nothing anymore because virtually all films are shot in close-up.
PT: And I think it’s a real failure on the part of critics not to talk about the visual language of filmmaking because that’s what it all is when it comes down to it. Film is a visual medium.
PB: That was the idea. That’s what I thought it was too: the orchestration of images and angles. It doesn’t mean you don’t have good dialogue. It just means you need to tell it visually. It’s not enough to just photograph people talking.
There’s another beautiful scene in the flawed Nickelodeon, a film which the director himself readily admits was compromised in several aspects (5). Earlier in the film, Kathleen Cooke literally stumbles into Leo Harrigan’s life. She trips as she steps aboard a trolley car which Harrigan is in the process of exiting. At this point in the film, Harrigan is an attorney who, through a series of accidents, has suddenly found himself in the picture business writing scenarios. He has just completed what amounts to his first “story conference” with his new boss, the blustering H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith), who instructs him to make his next scenario “a real lollapalooza.” Distracted and mumbling to himself, he has just dropped the contents of his suitcase inside the trolley. We see Kathleen’s perspective of Leo on the ground picking up his belongings; she’s “blind as a rat” and so Leo is out of focus in the shot. When he finally steps up, he rushes past her, ignoring her repeated calls of “I beg your pardon.” Their eyes meet only after he’s off the trolley; Kathleen rushes to a window and asks, “Are you all right?” Leo, still mumbling to himself, stops in mid-stride; we see him in an over-the-shoulder shot with the back of Kathleen occupying the left foreground of the shot and Leo, outside, occupying the right background. The next cut brings us to a close-up of Kathleen as she asks, “What?” Still muttering to himself about Cobb’s instructions, Leo says, “Lollapalooza,” and then: “Hello.” The two speak for several moments – Kathleen inside the trolley, Leo outside – until the trolley begins to pull away. Leo rushes alongside for several moments, the two exchange names, and his world is never the same as she vanishes into the distance. Bogdanovich irises-out on Kathleen’s face.
It’s a little like the wonderful, lovely moment in What’s Up, Doc? when Howard Bannister (O’Neal) picks up a rock on a shelf inside a hotel drugstore and finds Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) behind it. “What’s up, doc?” she asks and Howard’s universe is altered for all time. Unlike Leo Harrigan, who is instantly in love, it takes Howard Bannister most of the film to realise that Judy is for him – but that she is.
One is reminded here of the films of King Vidor, and Luc Moullet and Michel Delahaye’s observation that love between a man and a woman in Vidor’s films is often portrayed as being instantaneous; no confirmation of feeling is needed beyond an exchange of looks between two characters (6). Blake Edwards says on the commentary track featured on the DVD of his masterpiece Days of Wine and Roses (1963), “It was easy to fall in love in those days. All you needed to do was make a film with Lee Remick.” So, too, it is easy to fall in love in Bogdanovich’s cinema. Ten minutes into They All Laughed – before we’ve been formally introduced to any of the characters or their precise relationships to each other – Charles and Arthur are trailing Dolores when Charles signals to Arthur that he’s in love. We understand this to be true without a word of dialogue.
PT: I think, for example, of when Charles sees her on the street and signals to Arthur that he’s fallen for her, when he does that wonderful gesture of his heart beating.
PB: Yeah, that’s a great moment with John Ritter. There’s so much of that kind of stuff in the picture. That shows you their understanding of each other and tells the whole story and there’s no dialogue. And it’s really on Times Square. That was magical. It was the first couple of days of shooting.
In his films since They All Laughed – particularly in Texasville and The Thing Called Love – Bogdanovich has preferred the mode of serio-comedy. But there are some – Bill Krohn, the longtime Los Angeles correspondent of Cahiers du cinéma, to name one – who feel that Bogdanovich is perhaps most at home in the realm of screen farce. The director has for years been ridiculed by story-oriented critics for modelling the plot of What’s Up, Doc? on Bringing Up Baby, but that shouldn’t let admirers of pure cinema – as opposed to those reviewers for whom plot is everything – from appreciating What’s Up, Doc? for the visual marvel that it is. The car chase in San Francisco is one of the monuments of physical comedy in the contemporary cinema; a sequence so immaculately conceived and executed that it could stand on its own as a two-reeler (although it may be even more impressive because it so effortlessly connects with the rest of the picture). Twenty years later, Bogdanovich’s skills at staging comedy on screen proved to be as sharp as ever in Noises Off…. It’s taken from Michael Frayn’s brilliant, hilarious play detailing the unmaking of a stage farce called “Nothing On”, but Bogdanovich’s film is pure cinema.
PT: What were some of the challenges in adapting Noises Off… to the screen?
PB: Well, the big problem with that one was how to do the play as a movie. The play is very theatrical, it virtually all takes place in a theatre. Hitchcock had warned me that when you take a hit play, don’t open it up. You ruin the very thing that you bought, which is the construction. That’s what makes a play a hit. He’s so right.
Consequently, Bogdanovich did very little in terms of “expanding” Noises Off…
PB: In adapting Noises Off…, I did the same thing that I had done – actually with more difficulty – on a Georges Feydeau bedroom farce which I still haven’t made. I’ve worked on it, I’ve constructed a screenplay. The trick on Noises Off… was to not open it up too much but to open it up just a little bit. Mainly in the intermissions where the play takes a break.
I saw a production of the play in New York – it was a big success – sometime in the ’80s and part of the dynamic of the theatrical experience was, and is, are the actors going to survive this night? Because it’s really hell to play it, up and down those stairs, and doors, and, you know, it’s not easy. They’re doing it without a cut, so to speak. Curtain up and then curtain down. So I thought if I did the same thing in the way I shot it, it wouldn’t create the same tension in the audience because the audience knows obviously they got through it because it’s a movie. But it would create the same tension in the actors that they would have on the stage, which would communicate itself, I thought, enough to bring some of that experience into the movie.
So, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve looked for it, there’s an enormous number of long pieces, long takes, where the shot goes on for pages.
With so many scenes taking place on a set, with actors rehearsing and finally performing a play, it would have been easy for a lesser director to become lazy about visualising the story. Not Bogdanovich. Noises Off… is a film conceived in visual terms, not in performance terms, which is to say that he concerns himself with realising the story through imagery, not just capturing what the actors do. Indeed, as theatrical as Noises Off… is, Bogdanovich’s commitment to subjective cinema remains constant. The many long takes Bogdanovich references above – of the actors on stage rehearsing and performing “Nothing On” – are conceivably seen from the point-of-view of the production’s weary, battle worn director, Lloyd (Michael Caine), who sits in the auditorium for most of the film and descends onto the stage only when utter chaos erupts. The God’s eye view is his. But Bogdanovich’s quiet moments between people – the things which so distinguish his films – are here too; the farce that is the body of the film comes to halt for a few fleeting frames as Lloyd and his girlfriend/leading lady Brooke (Nicollette Sheridan) exchange glances at one point. There’s something a little extraordinary about a director who finds room for such scenes in nearly every – nay, every – film he makes.
Bogdanovich loves movies. Is there a more purely romantic image in his cinema than the tracking shot in Nickelodeon which glides along a row of violinists accompanying D.W. Griffith’s The Clansmen (to be retitled The Birth of a Nation for its New York debut, Alice informs Leo) during its premiere? But in recent films his attitude towards Hollywood – if not the movies themselves – has grown darker. The Cat’s Meow and The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004) are both Hollywood stories and they are both real-life tragedies. Perhaps this darkening view of his former home is partly due to Bogdanovich’s move back to New York (where he was born and raised) in the mid-’90s.
PB: It helped me a lot to move back to my hometown. It gives me a totally different kind of perspective on the time in Los Angeles and the time in the New York. I lived in New York for the first twenty five years of my life and then moved to California for a long time. Now looking back – since ’97, I’ve been back here – it makes a big difference. I think it gives me more objectivity.
It’s a monstrous business, you know. It’s hell. It’s pretty much like any other kind of business. The merchandise happens to be human as opposed to cars or cookies.
Natalie Wood is unique among biopics of its ilk in its commitment to visualising Wood’s story from her point-of-view. Present-day interviews with those who knew or worked with Wood are interspersed throughout the film, functioning as a kind of Greek Chorus which stands outside the story of her life, but there’s barely a scene in the drama itself which isn’t weighted towards Wood. Most daring of all is Bogdanovich’s choice to remain with the actress as she’s drowning to her death. The only “God’s eye” shot in the entire film occurs after Wood has died and it has a shatteringly powerful impact when taken in context with the visual design of the rest of the film.
Death in the cinema of Peter Bogdanovich is never taken lightly. In his darkest films, it hovers above life. In “A Dime A Dance”, a stunning adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich short story made in 1995 as part of Showtime’s noir series Fallen Angels, a cold-blooded murderer of dance-hall girls “dances” with the corpses of those he’s killed. In the film’s first scene, Bogdanovich dissolves from a high angle shot of the killer “dancing” with the body of his latest victim to a similarly-positioned high angle shot of the dance-hall itself with its carefree bodies in motion. The way that Bogdanovich connects the two images is such that the murderer and his victim appear to be dancing in the dance-hall: death overlaps into life. He repeats the dissolve at the beginning of The Cat’s Meow, dissolving from an image of Thomas Ince’s coffin to the yacht which he was murdered on. Again, the images are matched: the image of the coffin shot so as to match in shape and size the image of the yacht.
Graveside scenes conclude both Daisy Miller and Mask; on the soundtracks during these scenes, we hear dialogue either being spoken by the deceased (Mask) or the deceased being discussed among the living (Daisy Miller), a statement about the ways in which death does not represent the end; Rocky and Daisy will always be present in the lives of those left behind. The on-screen death of Natalie Wood is actually an anomaly in Bogdanovich’s cinema; usually death occurs off-screen and we learn of it as the characters learn of it. In Daisy Miller, Winterbourne is on his way to visit an ailing Daisy when he learns that she has died. He enters the lobby of the hotel she is staying at, carrying flowers. He swings open the door and heads up the stairs. But Bogdanovich stays outside. On the door is a lace curtain, through which his camera views the entire action of the scene in one single continuous long shot. Winterbourne is halfway up the stairs when a hotel employee presumably tells him the news; we can’t hear clearly because Verdi’s “La donna e mobile” is playing in the background, drowning out the voices. It’s a scene filmed with incredible restraint. Winterbourne walks back down the stairs, opens the door with the lace curtain, and exits frame. Bogdanovich doesn’t cut until the door swings silently back into place.
The next scene is the film’s final scene and it’s of Daisy’s funeral.
Bogdanovich writes in the introduction to his amazing book of interviews with directors, Who the Devil Made It (1997), that They All Laughed was “…the last film to this date that I myself conceived and brought to fruition” (7). In the years since that film, then, Bogdanovich has been obliged to direct films which he’s not originated. Yet it would be ridiculously inaccurate to say that the resultant films aren’t personal, just as it’d be painfully reductive to say that the director (or any director) can only excel when he’s directing from a script of his own writing.
There are, for instance, numerous, minute references to the work of Robert Graves all throughout the Bogdanovich pictures made in his so-called “for-hire” period. In Mask, Rocky and Diana (Laura Dern) sit beneath a tree and cut an apple. She mentions the shape the core of the apple forms when the apple is cut a certain way – the shape of a star – and that it signifies good luck. There’s more to it than that; Bogdanovich hoped when he made the scene that a stray audience member or two would look up the whole version in “The White Goddess”.
PB: [T]hat directly relates to “The White Goddess” because there’s a lot in “The White Goddess” about the apple and what it means, why it’s called the fruit of immortality, why it has sanctity – it has to do with the five-point star you find if you cut it crosswise.
To be sure, these are incidental touches. Bogdanovich’s perfectly realised mise en scène is a far greater contribution to make to a project if one had to prioritise his contributions. And yet these little touches are also Bogdanovich’s way of making these films his own, of sprinkling his sensibility throughout them. As Bogdanovich himself has often written, John Ford would alternate personal films with “one for them” – but the “ones for them” are still John Ford films. I brought this up to Bogdanovich during one of our conversations:
PB: Well, I think that’s true. I think I was doing that. It’s true even of a thing like Noises Off… I tried to serve the text, but it’s also personal; I know those kinds of people, I know that kind of world. And I know it’s not that exaggerated. [Laughs] So it’s hard to keep myself out of them. Some projects are more personal than others. Some projects you can invest yourself more into.
That being said, Bogdanovich has on his plate currently a whole roster of intensely personal projects which he’d like to see realised in the near future. There are to begin with his trio of Graves adaptations. But the most tantalising from an auteurist perspective, perhaps, is “Wait For Me”. Bogdanovich says he has been working on the screenplay for the film on-and-off for nearly twenty years. The idea for the story was the first one he had following Dorothy Stratten’s murder.
PB: While I was finishing They All Laughed, before Dorothy was killed, I was thinking about the next picture I was going to make and it was going to be with Dorothy. And I wasn’t sure who was going to play the lead, but it was very much a character like me, so it might have been John Cassavetes I was thinking of, someone dramatic who would be funny, theatrical, and real. It was about an orchestra conductor and a Dutch girl he meets when he goes to Amsterdam to conduct. She’s a violinist and he falls for her. He brings her home to Los Angeles. And it was called “The Return of the Count” because he’s a count, some kind of middle-European count. Again, I was going to do what I did on They All Laughed, which was I was going to take my own life stuff – with my kids and people that I knew who worked with me or whatever – and kind of change it enough to make it a romantic comedy about an orchestra conductor and a girl he falls for who doesn’t speak English. Dorothy was going to play it. And of course when she was killed, that just went away and I didn’t have an idea for quite a while to do anything.
The first idea I had had to do with ghosts. I started thinking about a ghost comedy. Not insignificantly, another one of my favourite films when I was 10, strangely enough, was a film called The Ghost Goes West, which was directed by the Frenchman René Clair.
Bogdanovich says that his “ghost comedy” is the most ambitious screenplay he’s ever written.
PB: [T]he basic plot was about a movie director who, when the movie begins, is in deep shit, can’t get work anywhere, is going bankrupt, has been married originally three times, has three daughters, three ex-wives, and the last one was killed in a plane crash six years before the movie starts – a plane crash which had killed two of his best friends as well.
At one stage, John Cassavetes was going to play the character of the director, Charles Bennedict, who is an exaggerated version of Cassavetes, Woody Allen, and Bogdanovich himself. But Bogdanovich was still struggling with the material even after Cassavetes’ death in 1989.
PB: I just never could solve it. I didn’t know what was wrong with it. I realised that it wasn’t complicated enough, so I made it a movie director with six ex-wives and six daughters. [Laughs] And instead of it playing all in Paris, I moved it around to about five different cities in Europe – Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest, Prague. I expanded it and rewrote it several times.
Bogdanovich says he now has a version of the screenplay that he’s satisfied with; he doesn’t know when exactly he’ll make the picture, but he imagines that casting it will be his biggest challenge because of the sheer number of characters involved and the fact that each has to be recognisable and memorable in order for the film to work. The film, he promises, will be very fast-paced
He wants to visualise ghosts as they never quite have been before in movies.
PB: They sort of disappear and then appear, dematerialise and then materialise. But they’re always transparent. The way I want to do it is that there are an awful lot of ghosts who come in for a line and they’re out.
Here again Bogdanovich returns to the theme of the ever-constant impact the dead have on the living; perhaps it’s a theme that finds its perfect expression in Bogdanovich’s plans for “Wait For Me”, in which the ghosts are ever-present, waiting for the right moment to interject. “Wait For Me” would undoubtedly be the most personal film Bogdanovich has ever made and, the director says, it could turn out to be his best.
Another pet project has Bogdanovich returning explicitly to his strengths at screwball comedy. “Squirrels to the Nuts”, written by Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten, takes its title from a line in Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946). In the Lubitsch film – Lubitsch’s last completed picture – Jennifer Jones plays a plumber’s niece who finds herself on the job one day fixing a sink. When Charles Boyer asks if that’s what Cluny wants to do for the rest of her life, Cluny replies that she has other things she’d like to do in life but that her uncle says she doesn’t know her place. As Bogdanovich recounts the scene…
PB: And he gets very upset. He says, “That’s just ridiculous because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What is your place? What is my place? What is anybody’s place? You know what your place is? Your place is what makes you happy! If someone goes to Hyde Park and feeds nuts to the squirrels, it’s all right. But if they feel like feeding squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say, nuts to the squirrels?”
I always thought it was a great title, “Squirrels to the Nuts,” for a comedy. The phrase becomes an issue in our picture as well.
The plot for “Squirrels to the Nuts” sounds nearly as frantic as that of “Wait For Me”, though it eschews what one assumes will be the bittersweet tone of “Wait For Me” for what Bogdanovich promises to be a screwball comedy squarely in the What’s Up, Doc? tradition.
PB: It’s sort of a mix of What’s Up, Doc? and They All Laughed. It’s not bittersweet at all. It has a certain element to it that isn’t so much sad as it is edgy. And kind of farcical.
I wrote it for John Ritter – sad that that won’t happen. But it’s very much of a kind of screwball comedy. One of the leading characters is an escort, a call girl. Because there are three or four characters who have had affairs with her and they all fall in love with her.
At this writing (May 2004), however, Bogdanovich is set to direct another biopic, this time a feature for ESPN on the fall from grace of Pete Rose. Just in its sheer unexpectedness in following two stories of Bogdanovich’s adopted home, Hollywood, Hustle: The Pete Rose Story is sure to confound those who wish to typecast this filmmaker. The breadth of subjects Bogdanovich has explored over his career is vast; it is the themes and styles he cultivates from his subjects that is personal and focused.
Whichever one of these very promising-sounding projects Bogdanovich is able to make first, it seems safe to assume that it will contain many scenes of people just looking at each other.
PB: All those silent exchanges… I mean, They All Laughed is filled with them. And they’re all meaningful. Sometimes you don’t know what they mean and they’re ambiguous. Somebody who saw the film early on said, “God, this is revolutionary! This is, like, new. I’ve never seen this before.” I said, “What do you mean? It’s silent pictures.” Most of what’s carried along even in the plot is how people look, how they seem, how you feel they are as opposed to what they say necessarily
The dedication Peter Bogdanovich’s films evince to the capturing on film of silent exchanges is rare indeed in the world of moviemaking today. To whatever extent the classical Hollywood syntax remains in use today, it is in large part thanks to this commitment—which makes him singular in the contemporary film universe. In some ways, this means that his vision of cinema belongs to a different age, but that makes his drive to move forward, to make more films, and his refusal to compromise in the way in which he makes them even more commendable and astounding. The past evoked so well by the cinema of Peter Bogdanovich gives us reason for hope in the future.
For their kind assistance, special thanks to Iris Chester, Bill Krohn, Meghan McElheny and James Stoller. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the very generous cooperation and support of Peter Bogdanovich.
Directed by John Ford (1971)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
Paper Moon (1973)
Daisy Miller (1974)
At Long Last Love (1975)
Saint Jack (1979)
They All Laughed (1981)
Illegally Yours (1988)
Noises Off… (1992)
The Thing Called Love (1993)
“Song of Songs” (1995) episode of Picture Windows (television)
“A Dime A Dance” (1995) episode of Fallen Angels (television)
Never Say Goodbye (1996) Yoko Ono music video
To Sir, with Love II (1996) made for television
Blessed Assurance (1997) made for television
“Stories of Courage: Two Women” (1997) episode of Rescuers (television)
“A Killer Christmas” (1998) episode of Naked City (television)
A Saintly Switch (1999) made for television
The Cat’s Meow (2001)
The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004) made for television
“Sentimental Education” (2004) episode of The Sopranos (television)
Hustle: The Pete Rose Story (2004) made for television
There are multiple versions of eight Bogdanovich pictures: The Last Picture Show, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon, They All Laughed, Mask, Texasville, The Thing Called Love, and The Mystery of Natalie Wood. There are three versions of Picture Show, the theatrical cut, a director’s cut made for Criterion laserdisc, and another director’s cut made for DVD (the last of which is Bogdanovich’s preferred cut of the film); two versions of At Long Last Love, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut, which circulates on television; two versions of Nickelodeon, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut, currently unavailable; two versions of They All Laughed, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut which adds one additional scene; two versions of Mask, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut which adds eight minutes of material and includes a Bruce Springsteen score, due to be released on DVD in September 2004; two versions of Texasville, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut, which adds roughly a half hour of material and was available in the early ’90s on Pioneer laserdisc; two versions of The Thing Called Love, the theatrical cut and the director’s cut, currently unavailable; and two versions of The Mystery of Natalie Wood, an American cut for a three-hour time period and a European cut for a four-hour time period (the version discussed in this text is the American cut).
Books written by Peter Bogdanovich
The Cinema of Orson Welles (1961)
The Cinema of Howard Hawks (1962)
The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
John Ford (1967; expanded 1978)
Fritz Lang In America (1969)
Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (1970)
Pieces of Time (1973; expanded 1985)
The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960–1980 (1984)
The White Goddess Engagement Diary (Annually, 1991–1998; Originally A Year and a Day Engagement Calendar; based on works of Robert Graves; Editor)
This Is Orson Welles (1992, with Orson Welles)
A Moment With Miss Gish (1995)
Who the Devil Made It (1997)
Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week (1999)
Who the Hell’s In It (2004) (Forthcoming)
Noteworthy books and articles written about Peter Bogdanovich
Tad Friend, “The Moviegoer”, New Yorker, April 8, 2002.
Andrew Yule, Picture Shows: The Life and Films of Peter Bogdanovich, Limelight Editions, 1992.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Cinema Elegy: Peter Bogdanovich and The Last Picture Show by Girish Shambu
Targets by Andre Speldewinde
Peter Bogdanovich’s Year of the Cat
Article by Alex Simon, for Venice Magazine.
Salon.com | Peter Bogdanovich
Article by Stephen Lemons from around the time of the release of The Cat’s Meow.
Transcript of the interview with Peter Bogdanovich
Interview conducted by Peter Anthony Holder for Canadian radio.
PopMatters Film Interview | Peter Bogdanovich – The Cat’s Meow
Interview by Cynthia Fuchs.
Click here to search for Peter Bogdanovich DVDs, videos and books at
- All quotes by Peter Bogdanovich are excerpts from interviews with the author, November 2003, December 2003 and January 2004, unless otherwise noted.
- See Bogdanovich, “The Killing of the Unicorn,” 1984.
- See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s capsule review of Texasville in the Chicago Reader,
- In addition to “Watch the North Wind Rise,” the two other Graves novels that Bogdanovich hopes to adapt are “The Golden Fleece” and “Wife To Mr. Milton”. “The Golden Fleece” is Graves’ telling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Graves omits the fantasy elements which are usually tacked onto the story, something Bogdanovich wants to remain faithful to in his film adaptation. The director says, “The truth is that the adventure seems to have really happened at about 1225 BC. And what Graves did in his book was to reconstruct from what was extant, which was a lot of conflicting things. But being such a great classical scholar, he put it all together into a form; he told it as a straight-ahead narrative without any supernatural elements. He told it as a realistic story. And that’s the way I’d like to make it.””Wife To Mr. Milton” would be another Bogdanovich film prominently featuring a female perspective. It would tell the story of Marie Powell, who married the English poet John Milton at 16, and the love triangle that develops between Powell, Milton, and a royalist soldier she falls in love with. Bogdanovich says, “It’s all told from her point-of-view. Marie tells the story.”
- See Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It, 1997. The director’s cut of Nickelodeon – as yet unreleased – includes one additional, crucial scene which significantly adds to the drama. But the most important change in the director’s cut of Nickelodeon is that the picture is in black-and-white; although the film was shot in colour originally, it was done so with the idea in mind that one day it would be shown in B&W. The transformative effect that B&W has on the film is simply incalculable. In colour, Nickelodeon is minor Bogdanovich; in B&W, it becomes one of his greatest pictures.
- See Tag Gallagher’s “American Triptych: Vidor, Hawks, and Ford,” Film International.
- See Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It, 1997.