The Twin Geeks 150: Change of the Guard, The Films of Peter Bogdanovich – Part 3

Bogdanovich has claimed that the early months of 1980 were the happiest time of his life. He was in emphatic, unequivocal love with Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, and she was equally in love with him. Their blissful romance led to Bogdanovich dreaming up his next film, They All Laughed. Weaving together his affections for Stratten, the ongoing dissolution of her current marriage, and the recent affair shared by stars Ben Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn on their previous film together, Bogdanovich penned the most sincere expression of love he could, and set it against the swooning backdrop of New York City in the spring. Watching the film, it’s evident the director was floating on cloud nine during its production, which only makes the dark aftermath of its construction all the more tragic. 

On August 13th, 1980, Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband during a meeting about their divorce at his rented home in Los Angelos, before then taking his own life with the same gun shortly therafter. Upon hearing the news, Bogdanovich’s life instantly fell apart, with many years of distraught grief and exceedingly poor life choices to follow. Just as his life and career were reaching a concurrent high, everything came crashing down. No studio was willing to touch They All Laughed in the wake of Stratten’s death, and so Bogdanovich dug himself into debt buying the rights to the film and attempted to distribute it himself. Unsurprisingly, this did not go well. The film desperately floundered at the box office and Bogdanovich was forced to declare bankruptcy. The failure of They All Laughed, alongside a number of other auteur-driven flops at the same time, proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the New Hollywood renaissance of director-driven studio productions. Fortunately, the film has regained some traction thanks to a new generation of Hollywood auteurs, with the likes of Quinten Tarantino and Wes Anderson championing it as a masterwork in recent decades. 

Another hiatus followed suit, but by 1985 Bogdanovich was back at it, both because he needed to pick up the pieces and because he needed the money. When they were together, Dorothy expressed particular interest in the story of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Bogdanovich pieced together her identification with him as an object of public attention, subjugated for their extreme looks – one radiant, the other malformed. This is what inspired Bogdanovich to make Mask, a biographical story of the similarly-stricken Rocky Dennis, and his struggle to live a normal life with a debilitating facial deformity. Mask was one of Bogdanovich’s most successful films to date, being a big hit with both audiences and critics, as well as snagging some much-deserved awards for leading actress Cher at Cannes, as well an Academy Award for the incredible makeup effects used to believably transform Eric Stoltz into the afflicted young boy. 

Still strapped for cash (seriously, do not try to self-distribute your own movies), Bogdanovich was still operating as a director for hire. He found himself under the auspices of the rather notorious Dino De Laurentiis, whom Bogdanovich would later blame for the unmitigated failure of Illegally Yours. With a title tipping its name to a Preston Sturges classic, Bogdanovich was set to make a contemporary screwball comedy for the ‘80s in the same way he did in 1973 with What’s Up, Doc? The commercial appeal of leading man Rob Lowe seemed to assure a hit, but a forced rewrite of the script and a hacked-up editing job seems to have ruined the picture’s chances for success, and caused Bogdanovich enough grief to proclaim it as the worst film he ever made. 

In 1987 author Larry McMurty penned a follow-up novel to the beloved The Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich was then naturally in talks to direct the film adaptation of the story set some thirty years after the captivating narrative he first brought to theaters sixteen years earlier. Texasville reunited most of the original cast, including Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, who began as mere aspirants in Picture Show but were now bonafide stars. The story swaps its deconstruction of youthful angst for the mature interests of middle-aged malaise, investigating how the reverberations of the past reflect upon and impact the present. But without the same haunting cinematography and sense of place, not to mention the confidence of the studio behind him, Bogdanovich’s film faltered yet again at the box office. It was a sad reminder of how the young protégé of Orson Welles, whose second feature was once heralded alongside the mighty Citizen Kane, had, much like the great director himself, fallen from the public’s graces. No longer did his name command the same capital as once before, having only further ruined his reputation by constantly fighting with the studios in a vain attempt to regain his creative integrity.

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