The Twin Geeks 149: Change of the Guard, The Films of Peter Bogdanovich – Part 2

It was during the casting process for The Last Picture Show when Cybill Shepherd was first brought to Bogdanovich’s attention. He and his wife Polly Platt picked Shepherd out from the cover of a magazine, with Platt in particular noting the devious sexuality she possessed which suited perfectly the role of Jacy Farrow. Her promiscuous nature would prove potent off screen as well, much to Bogdanovich’s unexpected delight, and Platt’s heartbroken chagrin. The affair between Bogdanovich and Shephard led to a bitter divorce between the director and his creative partner, signaling with it a major shift in the overall quality of his output as well. They severed ties completely after completing Paper Moon, freeing Bogdanovich to collaborate with his new muse for the first time since his sophomore feature.

Initially, Bogdanovich wanted his good friend Orson Welles to direct Shepherd in the adaptation of Henry James’ 19th century romance novel Daisy Miller, but when the elder filmmaker deferred, Bogdanovich took up the project himself. He said in hindsight that he regretted making the picture – not because it was bad (reviews were generally favorable at the time), but because the material was unlikely to (and ultimately didn’t) resonate with audiences. Its lackluster showing at the box office shuttered his new production studio, inviting the Hollywood press to scrutinize both him and Shepherd with unforeseen hostility. This wave of criticism reached a fever pitch with Bogdanovich’s next film: another throwback to the kind of classic films Bogdanovich loved and found success in reviving before. 

At Long Last Love was an ode to the early era of movie musicals, in which decadence and charm worked to avail the masses of the sadness and turmoil pervading the country at the heights of The Great Depression. With its Cole Porter soundtrack and Art Deco-inspired sets, the film was set to recreate the magic of the old Astaire and Rogers films. Notices for At Long Last Love were utterly abysmal, invoking such inexplicable wrath from both critics and audiences that Bogdanovich’s entire career was almost completely derailed on the spot. Bogdanovich himself was personally put on blast, with reviews citing his arrogance and his affair with Shepherd as evidence of vanity. The film was rightfully criticized for its mishandeling of the musical elements, pointing out the egregious results of casting stars like Burt Reynolds for their names over their vocal skills. In retrospect, the film isn’t quite the train wreck the trade papers made it out to be at the time, and in fact has a rather niché following thanks to recent reevaluations. Its lack of availability on both physical media and streaming services, though, means its redemptive arc has yet to fully blossom. 

After two successive flops, Bogdanovich’s clout had dropped significantly within the industry. He struggled to find proper financing for his next venture, and when he tried to convince the studio that, as with his previous films, this next project should be shot in black-and-white, they balked. They also rejected his initial casting choices, including Shepherd again in a leading role. Hollywood had become completely embittered with the dynamic couple, and saw the repudiation of their recent collaborations as a referendum on their popularity and success. Nevertheless, Bogdanovich plunged headlong into Nickelodeon, an adventurous chronicle depicting the burgeoning era of the movies, in which plucky bands of creative upstarts formed the nucleus of the medium while battling against the tyranny of monopolistic patent companies. While not a flop, it did little to reignite Bogdanovich’s career, and with production troubles straining both his creative energies and personal relationships, the once inimitable director threw up his hands and quit… for three years. 

Since Hollywood had done such a thorough job of roasting him over the coals for three straight years, Bogdanovich was wise to make his next project as far away from there as possible. Saint Jack is a story about a magnanimous pimp working brothels in Singapore, with Ben Gazzara shining in the lead role. Bogdanovich’s reprieve from movie-making, and the system as a whole, appears to have been quite healing, as Saint Jack is largely considered an artistic return-to-form. The confident, charismatic direction behind the lens certainly recalls the self-assurance once associated with the youthful auteur, but its whirlwind-like approach to narrative and structure made it a difficult sell in 1979, leaving critics dazzled but audiences estranged. Nonetheless, Bogdanovich had regained his creative footing, and was once again reaching a crest in his career. He fell in love yet again upon returning home, and was set to make what he would later consider the uncontestable favorite of his own movies. No one could have predicted the shockingly tragic turn his life was about to take.

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