What I Learned About Peter Bogdanovich

Recently TCM released their podcast The Plot Thickens featuring interviews with Peter Bogdanovich. He’s always been an intriguing figure of the movies, and part of this is how he’s been able to cultivate his image while also acting as a living bridge to Classic Hollywood.

He was part of the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, but certainly associated and befriended some of the giants of the past from Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant.

What’s unprecedented is his knowledge and his openness to share in interviews, regaling audiences with his stories. He really is a raconteur blending the talents of an actor, director, and film critic.

Recently I watched two of his earliest projects: The Wild Angels (1966) and Targets (1968) with Roger Corman, along with his documentary Directed by John Ford.

I also pored over some of his other interviews including spots on The Dick Cavett Show and contemporary retrospectives. There is some general overlap, but he always seems ready with a new recollection to keep the old masters alive for the present generations.

Here’s Some of What I Learned:

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Cybil Sheppard in The Last Picture Show

-His father was a painter who grew up with silent pictures and gave young Peter an appreciation for the greats: Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd

-Bogdanovich started out at the Actor’s Studio working under Stella Adler at the age of 16! He lied about his age to allowed to study there

-When he was barely 20, he put on his own stage version of Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife starring Carroll O’Connor

-He started keeping film reviews on index cards around the age of 12 starting in 1952 all the way until 1970. One of his first reviews was on Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952).

-The Monographs he wrote for the MoMA on Orson Welles (1961), Howard Hawks (1962), and Alfred Hitchcock (1963) led to in-depth interviews with each director and a reappraisal of their careers.

-At a screening of Bay of Angels (1963) in Los Angeles, he met Roger Corman who knew Peter’s writing and enlisted him to work on The Wild Angels (1966). The success led to his directorial debut Targets (1968).

-He met a young Frank Marshall at a birthday party for John Ford’s daughter. It would instigate a lifelong collaboration alongside his first wife Polly Platt.

-His competitive spirit meant he felt like he was a failure for not making his first film at the age of 25 like his hero and friend Orson Welles (who made Citizen Kane). Coincidentally, The Last Picture Show was hailed by some as the most important film by a young director since Kane.

-Most importantly, he wears bandanas, not ascots.

Recollections Rehashed:

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Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc?

-Frank Capra told him film always has a habit of slowing time down so you have to speed it up to make it feel natural. If you want to make it feel really fast, you have to speed it up even more

-Cary Grant told him Jimmy Stewart was doing the same stuttering, mumbling persona years before Marlon Brando ever got around to it

-He stole from Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby for What’s Up, Doc? because Hawks told him all the great directors stole from other people

-Hawks’ favorite directors were the ones you know who the devil made the movie because they have a personal style unique to the creator

-Jimmy Stewart famously told him if you’re lucky and God helps you, what actors have the opportunity to do is give audiences little bits and pieces of time that they can cherish forever.

Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.

It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.

Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.

“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.

One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.

The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.

But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.

Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.

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She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.

Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.

Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.

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It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.

Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.

The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.

This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!

The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.

His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly,  it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.

4/5 Stars

What’s Up, Doc? (1971)

What's_Up_Doc_posterA nod to the 1930s screwball comedies, this hilarious film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Ryan O’Neil and Barbra Streisand. It opens with the prologue, “Once upon a time there was a plaid overnight case,” however very soon it becomes obvious that there are four of these cases! 

One belongs to the bookish Ryan O’Neil who is going to a musicologist convention with his annoying fiancée Eunice, the other to the free spirited Judy, one has top secret information, and the last is full of jewels. This dramatic irony is set up early on for the audience and things really get chaotic when Judy tries to pick up Howard. She masquerades as his fiancée and creates a good impression with a Mr. Larabee who is in charge of giving out the grant. However, later, Judy succeeds in completely destroying Howard’s room while causing more problems for Howard with Eunice in the process.  

The next day Howard is invited to a party at the home of Mr. Larabee and he is instructed to bring his charming “fiancée.” That’s where the mayhem hits its peak. All four bags end up together. There are gangsters, government agents, guests, servants, and Judy and Howard all a part of the chaotic ruckus. The unlikely couple finds themselves on the run through the hilly streets of San Fran where an epically frenzied car chase takes place. Put together a pane of glass, some bumpy steps, three cars, a parade, and a large body of water to add up to some hilarious moments. The bedlam carries over into the local courthouse where everything is eventually figured out. Everything is back to equilibrium and Howard flies off into the sunset with his new love and an in flight Bugs Bunny short.

4/5 Stars