The Twin Geeks 151: Change of the Guard, The Films of Peter Bogdanovich – Part 4

While the impetus for Bogdanovich’s movie-making career began with Roger Corman, the genesis of his directorial ambitions came earlier, as an actor studying under the tutelage of Stella Adler and her prestigious New York studio for the Method. Bogdanovich gathered a troupe of his fellow students and directed them in a scene from Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, which went so successfully that it prompted him to secure the rights to the show so they could mount a complete production. It was, perhaps, inevitable, then, that at some point in his career, Bogdanovich would find himself drawn back to the stage. But where other directors used Broadway as an escape route from the movies, Bogdanovich would use the recent success of Michael Frayn’s bedroom farce Noises Off as a kind of kindling for the reignition of his creative hearth. Bogdanovich retained universally warm impressions of the film for the rest of his career, both the making of and the end result. Despite delivering another lead weight to the theaters, nothing appears to have soured the director’s feelings about Noises Off

It’s likely that it wasn’t indifference, but expectation for Bogdanovich at this point. He’d been double-crossed or unsupported by studios pretty consistently since he first fell from the height of his powers. Almost 20 years later, he appears content to have filled the role of a director for hire, making plenty of movies but never a profit. The next script to land on his desk was a romantic drama about country music songwriters. On the surface, The Thing Called Love appears to share the least DNA with all the director’s other films, but Bogdanovich fostered an affection for country music beginning with his time on Last Picture Show, eventually culminating in a handful of songwriting credits of his own. The film had a youthful spirit to it not seen since Picture Show, drawing from the energetic talents of its adolescent performers. Tragedy would, however, continue to plague Bogdanovich’s films, as, for the second time in his career, a sudden death would torpedo his film’s box office prospects. The Thing Called Love was the last completed performance by the promising young River Phoenix before he tragically died from a drug overdose on October 30th, 1993. Once again, the studio was reluctant to release the film, and critics couldn’t focus on anything beyond the pall of death hanging over the film. It would be another 8 years before Bogdanovich returned to the theaters.    

The familiar comfort of Old Hollywood and its outsized legends provided Bogdanovich the necessary inspiration for his theatrical comeback. The story drew from a perennial rumor once told to him by Orson Welles; a story concerning William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, the youthful actress Marion Davies. This was not the same tale which lent its inspiration to the pages of Citizen Kane. This was a tale of jealousy, indulgence, and murder. A tale which traveled along the lips of every Los Angeles gossipist for close to a century, and was now resting in Bogdanovich’s hands in the form of a stage play titled The Cat’s Meow. As was the case with Nickelodeon, the studio shot down Bogdanovich’s proposal to shoot this silent-era period piece in black-and-white, but he worked around it by employing the same costuming and set design techniques implemented for At Long Last Love, achieving the desired feeling while still shooting in color. The film was completed in an economical 31 days, on a relatively modest budget. The Cat’s Meow was set to be a contender for Bogdanovich, so you know the studio just had to leave him holding the bag yet again. The Cat’s Meow made it to only a handful of screens when it was released, grossed less than half its cost, and saw zero awards prospects for either its luminous director or its superlative cast. 

Bogdanovich’s films would not return to the cinema for more than a decade. His last theatrical feature was effectively propped up by the backing of several prominent indie directors who looked to the elder statesman as their treasured forebear. “I let them call me Pops,” Bogdanovich would say, “and I call them my kids.” These same contemporary filmmakers, who earlier championed Bogdanovich’s buried works, were now working to help him realize one final project, which had been gestating for the last 15 years. Squirrels to the Nuts, as it was originally called, was first drafted in the mid ‘90s, after Bogdanovich filed for bankruptcy a second time, as an exercise in escapism between himself and his second wife, Louise Stratten (the late Dorothy’s younger sister). It was another screwball romance from the director, penned with the same personal affection and character as his previous romps, intended as a starring vehicle for his wife and cinematic avatar, John Ritter. Ritter’s premature passing in 2003 put the project in limbo, however, and it wasn’t until Wes Anderson introduced Bogdanovich to his thespian analogue Owen Wilson that the now septuagenarian filmmaker felt he could bring his script to fruition. 

She’s Funny That Way, as the film was ultimately titled, had all the bells and whistles of a Bogdanovich film, but wore a coat of contemporary colors, creating some odd dissonance which struck critics and audiences at the time. Here was Bogdanovich making yet another screwball throwback, littered with the most explicit Old Hollywood references he’d ever displayed, with a cast of characters that couldn’t seem farther away from that glitzy nostalgia so often peppered across his films. The whole thing appeared a bit thrown together, as if it was a quick little project assembled by a few friends over a handful of weekends together. And you know what, it kind of was. She’s Funny That Way was shot on a similarly expedient schedule as The Cat’s Meow, on a modest budget largely supplied thanks to the confidence bestowed by executive producers Wes Anderson and Noah Boumbach. It didn’t perform exceptionally well and didn’t make back its cost, but it got Bogdanovich back in the directing chair, and saw the realization of one last personal story for the erstwhile legend. Bogdanovich’s “boys” gave to him what he struggled to supply his mentor with for so many years: the financial opportunity to complete the visions studios never had the faith to pursue. 

Bogdanovich would eventually pay back the favor by fulfilling a promise he made to Orson Welles some many years before. In 2018, thanks to decades of dedication and wrangling from his former protégé, preservationist, and devoted friend, Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, was completed and released to the world. “If anything ever happens to me I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.” It took more than 30 years after Welles died for Bogdanovich to fulfill that promise, and even though it was not his own creative spirit behind the wheel, the culmination of The Other Side of the Wind proved to be one of the most significant and crowning achievements of the intrepid movie maverick’s collective career. Bogdanovich passed away on January 6th, 2022, due to complications from Parkison’s disease, at the age of 82. He died an older man than all his idols – Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, and Welles – leaving behind a legacy as rich and illustrious as those luminaries, with the added feather of preserving their stature tucked in his cap. His life was as active and infectious as his movies, with greater drama than all of Hollywood could muster. With his passing, the few remaining ties to the Hollywood of old have ceased. But through all his work, both on and off the screen, those legends continue to live on. And by revitalizing their stories for a new generation, Bogdanovich secured the traditions he loved while inspiring new filmmakers to follow in his stead, signaling a true Change of the Guard from the masters of old to the artists of today.

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