Peter Bogdanovich: Hollywood's favourite flop

“Billy was a shit,” Bogdanovich told me over the phone from LA.

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In 1964, a former child actor, struggling to make it as a director off-Broadway while moonlighting as a film critic, loaded up his car and headed to Hollywood. His name was Peter Bogdanovich, his dream to become the next Hawks, or Ford, or Hitchcock. A decade later, courtesy of a nostalgic western (The Last Picture Show), a nostalgic screwball comedy (What’s Up, Doc?) and a nostalgic conman drama (Paper Moon), the dream appeared to be within touching distance. What went wrong?

Bogdanovich usually blames the studios and the media, but lousy judgement and ugly conduct also played a role. The producer Irwin Winkler, who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone and Elvis, described Bogdanovich in his prime as “easily the most arrogant person” he had ever met in the film business (“even today, he will begin a sentence, “As John Ford famously said to me . . .”). So when – having rejected The Godfather, The Exorcist and Chinatown – Bogdanovich instead produced a faithful version of Henry James (Daisy Miller), a live-recorded musical (At Long Last Love) and a nostalgia-fest-too-far (Nickelodeon), every one of them a flop, few were shy about their Schadenfreude. Famous though the John Ford comment may be, it’s not repeated as often as the one Billy Wilder made about him: “It isn’t true that Hollywood is a bitter place divided by hatred, greed and jealousy. All it takes to bring everyone together is another flop by Peter Bogdanovich.”

“Billy was a shit,” Bogdanovich told me over the phone from Los Angeles. “His MO was to put people down. He said terrible things. When Tony Curtis’s son died of an overdose, he sent him a telegram saying, ‘Like father, like son’.”

From the mid-1970s on, Bogdanovich staged a one-man print media boycott. “When people are shooting at you,” he said, “you don’t raise your head to see what calibre the bullet is.” Asked if his detractors had a point, he answered, “Not at all,” not a second later.

Forty years on, bashing the Bog – as the comedy website Uncyclopedia likes to call him – is mostly a thing of the past. Revered for his best work and forgiven the rest, he is a professional elder statesman. The acknowledged ancestor to a generation of film-makers inclined to pastiche – among them “Quentin” and “Wes” – he is sufficiently recognisable in his neckerchiefs and spectacles to appear as himself in films such as While We’re Young and the TV series The Good Wife, where his jokey walk-on role provided the low point in close to 100 hours’ screen time. (His sit-down role in The Sopranos as the therapist’s therapist was time much better spent.)

But he is also hard at work: polishing off a memoir – My First Picture Shows – which he may choose not to publish; compiling a successor to his popular interview collection, Who the Devil Made It; editing Orson Welles’s unfinished final film, in which his idol and sometime lodger cast him in the role of a conceited young director; and talking up his first new film in almost 15 years, She’s Funny That Way, an amiable farce starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and Jennifer Aniston.

This is Bogdanovich’s umpteenth comeback but so far the signs are good. At last year’s Venice Film Festival She’s Funny That Way was shown along with One Day Since Yesterday, a documentary about a previous comeback project, They All Laughed, the glorious romantic comedy overshadowed by the 1980 rape and murder of its star and Bogdanovich’s then girlfriend, the model Dorothy Stratten. For a period in the 1980s, mourning Stratten became virtually a full-time occupation. Among his acts of tribute was a book-length obituary and marriage to her sister, Louise.

“Dorothy’s death was a life-altering experience,” he says now. “We don’t get over that sort of thing easily, if at all. But I’ve had a lot of luck. All in all, I think I’ve made a few pictures that are not that bad. I can’t complain.”

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double