The Twin Geeks 153: Change of the Guard, the Films of Peter Bogdanovich – Part 6

Bogdanovich earned his keep in Hollywood as a director of films first and foremost. But he was perhaps more widely recognized for his efforts as a second-hand oral historian of Hollywood movies, emboldening their legacy through innumerable interviews and commentary tracks in which he would recite the stories passed onto him in perfect comic imitation of his legendary filmic mentors. Bogdanovich’s love for the movies is embedded throughout his work: overt in the various pastiches he made to early genre staples during the height of his career, but also recognizable though more humble tips of the hat in otherwise non-nostalgic films. His reverence transcended the adage of imitation as the ultimate form of flattery, taking strides not just to pay tribute to the the films and filmmakers of old, but to actively champion and preserve their legacies. 

At the tail end of his time working in television, Bogdanovich was approached to make a biographical film on the life and mysterious early death of beloved actress Natalie Wood. He was hesitant, at first, having personally experienced what it’s like to be sensationally depicted in a ripped-from-the-headlines story. He was the recipient of an unflattering portrayal in Bob Fosse’s crude retelling of Dorothy Stratten’s horrific murder not yet three years after her death. Despite Peter’s initial trepidation towards making The Mystery of Natalie Wood, he felt his own experience as a subject of exploitation granted him some insight and authority on the matter, and would help him avoid the same tasteless depictions expected from such material – after all, he said, somebody was gonna make it, it might as well be him. The film is a strange but surprisingly effective mix of documentary and fiction, stringing together contemporary talking head interviews with recreated scenes of Wood’s life and career beginning as a child actor in the studio system up until her questionable death off of Catalina Island. Whether or not Bogdanovich managed to evade the trappings of exploitative caricature is up for debate, but he does manage to produce yet another compelling portrait of corruptive Hollywood glamor.

After finishing his stint in television and having dabbled again in a bit of documentary filmmaking, Bogdanovich returned to one of his earliest films thinking it needed an update. Directed by John Ford was first produced in 1971, around the same time The Last Picture Show was being edited for release. Bogdanovich had first met the legendary American director in the early 1960s, when Ford was shooting his last Western in his favorite locale: the awe-inspiring Monument Valley. Ford was a cantankerous old man, mean and needling, borderline abusive one might say. He took great pleasure in breaking down the spirits of young Bogdanovich, much in the same way he had with John Wayne for thirty years. But in spite of all logic, Ford receives praise for these cruel acts, and from those he attacks, no less. Wayne is but one of the interviewees Bogdanovich sat down and talked with in 1969 for this initial documentary, joined by Henry Fonda and James Stewart, who recall similar tales of upbraiding with admiration and glee. Strangely enough, it’s not hard to see why these men have such respect for Ford, as even Bogdanovich is able to frame his affronts as humorous and commanding. They’re extensions of his directorial persona, and evidently an important part in what made his films so ineffably great. 

When Bogdanovich returned to his filmic dedication of John Ford’s life and legacy in 2006, he found it was missing some pieces that, for practical reasons, could not have existed in Ford’s lifetime. There was more of the story to tell, more of the man behind the facade to reveal, and more of his influence to be recorded. So, Bogdanovich gathered the initial interviews he used to contextualize Ford’s directorial prowess and complimented them by shooting new testimonials with the most significant contemporary beneficiaries of his laurels. Martin Scorsesse, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill, not to mention surviving Ford collaborators Harry Carey Jr. and Maureen O’Hara, flesh out the unspoken aspects of Ford’s artistry. Their detachment from the director gives space to weigh in on and analyze his motives and ideals, as well as the ability to share stories previously unheard about this seemingly mythic figure of Hollywood directors. Bogdanovich’s ability to reflect upon his own work, recognize how it can be improved, and then implementing those changes without disrupting the spirit or success of its initial incarnation, is one of the more adept and overlooked achievements of his career. 

2006 seemed to be the year of documentaries for Bogdanovich, for at the same time he was completing his revamped version of Directed by John Ford, he was approached to document a subject he was initially quite unfamiliar with. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were approaching the 30th anniversary of their unparalleled rock and roll success, and they wanted to get a big name director to document the history of their storied career. They sought out Bogdanovich, who agreed to meet with Petty to see about the offer. Being a fan of Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra primarily throughout his life, Bogdanovich hadn’t so much as heard of Petty before becoming involved with the project, but he learned quickly. After their first meeting, Bogdanovich knew the only worthwhile way to tell the story of the Heartbreakers was to have Tom sit down and lay the whole thing out, which is exactly what he did. Runnin’ Down a Dream is an absolute mammoth of a music documentary. Twice the length of any previous Bogdanovich picture, it is a monumental catalog of the band’s complete history up until that point. They had practically seen it all: the preeminence of rock throughout the 1970s, the swings of conservatism and corporate consumption in the ‘80s, the fadeout and vestiges of the genre lingering on into the ‘90s, and the survival and prosperity of the band up until that day. It was the kind of uncompromising film Bogdanovich struggled to make throughout his career, always having to cut away at vital sequences per the studios’ requests. But for Runnin’ Down a Dream, not an inch of necessary footage was removed. Even the songs play out in full, giving you the complete, mesmerizing experience of the Heartbreakers’ music, with the exhaustive accompaniment of their meteoric success conveyed in full. 

Bogdanovich ended his career with a documentary film; a fitting conclusion for a filmmaker so indebted to the history of Hollywood, and the preservation of their legends. In interviews, Bogdanovich speaks often about his father, a painter who passed onto his son a great love for the arts, but especially the movies. Borislav Bogdanovich took his son to see the classics, the films that made him first fall in love with the movies: silent films. Primarily, he took Peter to see the great comedians: Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton in particular. The influence of these slapstick giants feature heavily in Bogdanovich’s work, from the incredible comic stunt work in What’s Up, Doc? to the punctual pratfalls permeating the likes of Nickelodeon and Noises Off. Bogdanovich was approached by Charles Cohen to produce a documentary on Buster Keaton after having acquired the rights to his filmography for restoration and distribution. The resultant film, The Great Buster: A Celebration, functions as an extensive overview of Keaton’s life and career, covering both the triumphant highs and miserable lows of the screen comic’s singular body of work. 

With access to almost everything Keaton ever made on hand, Bogdanovich was able to present a document which covers not only his most significant works (in a profound new clarity thanks to Cohen’s restoration efforts, no less), but his lesser known sound period as well, also covering the collection of numerous educational shorts and television commercials he made in the twilight of his career. The most significant deviation Bogdanovich makes in the film’s presentation is taking the most prosperous period of Keaton’s career and putting it at the end of the narrative, instead of the middle where it actually took place. Bogdanovich wanted the film to go out on a high note, for it to truly be a celebration of Keaton’s career, as opposed to ending on the more deflated fall from grace he experienced by the time of his death in 1966. Because Keaton passed at a relatively earlier age than his contemporaries, he was one of the few idols Bogdanovich wasn’t able to personally meet and chronicle. But his enthusiasm is never compromised by this absence of personal familiarity, and The Great Buster is perhaps the finest example of Bogdanovich’s dedication to championing the mastery of Old Hollywood legends throughout his own legendary career. 

There is so much more to the life of Peter Bogdanovich that analyzing his films cannot fully convey. His textual compilations of interviews with various actors and directors of the Old Guard are invaluable resources for posterity, as well as the second-hand accounts he’s preserved in wildly entertaining retellings of anecdotes passed onto him from additional Hollywood luminaries. He’s done more to consecrate the career of Orson Welles than even his greatest admirers could hope to match, overseeing the compilation of not just one, but two of Welles’ films – one which had fallen into complete obscurity, and another which had yet to see the light of day. You may even recognize Bogdanovich from various dvd introductions, or for the short time he had a supporting role in HBO’s The Sopranos. He started his career as an actor, and proceeded to act throughout his life, whether it was an occasional appearance in front of the camera, or through his direction as the great Ernst Lubitsch had before him. Bogdanovich’s career is too rich and expansive to convey in a neat and comprehensive package, which is likely the reason so many have centered his story around his flagship successes in the 1970s. But that was really just the beginning for Bogdanovich. The heights of Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon are the films which define Bogdanovich’s legacy, but his real triumphs is the lifelong dedication he maintained to the celebration and veneration of the movies and the artists who made them. Whether he did so through his movies, through books, or by means of his matchless affability in interviews and unrivaled ability to recount a story, Bogdanovich’s life was defined by the movies, which he paid back, in kind, through every step of his career.

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