Johns Hopkins Gazette: June 2, 1997

In Brief

By the time he stepped onto the set of his second Hollywood feature, The Last Picture Show, the then-31-year-old Peter Bogdanovich already was considered one of the most exciting American film directors of the day. The success of that first major release would confirm that assessment.

But as much as being a leader in the new wave of American filmmakers, Bogdanovich was perhaps more interested in all the picture making that came before him. In a postmodern world in which surface and image dresses up as substance, Bogdanovich has been much more in tune with the time when film directors created thick and rich tapestries, weaving form and plot into two hours of engaging story. Some of which has been considered art.

The director will be in Baltimore on May 29 for a screening of Daisy Miller, the last in the series "Lessons of the Master: The Cinematic Art of Henry James." The series is part of "On Screen," a cinema program sponsored by Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Following the screening, Bogdanovich will sign copies of his latest book, Who the Devil Made It (Knopf, 1997), a compilation of 16 essays and interviews with many of the early pioneering directors of American film.

What has drawn Bogdanovich to the cinema's pioneering directors probably has something to do with his father, Borislav, he says.

"He was a terrific painter with an encyclopedic sense of what came before him and where he fit in to the whole thing," Bogdanovich says in a phone conversation from a friend's home in the Hamptons. "He was not very verbal. He did more by example."

That sense of context sat well with him. "Without a foundation, where are we? Without an understanding of what preceeded us there's something of a superficiality.

"I don't like generalizations, but one noted in the book is that so many who were pioneers of the medium had not planned to be directors. They were something else, and they brought a greater life experience to the work and their films. The directors of my generation and today grew up wanting to make pictures.

"I remember years ago I asked Orson [Welles] if he were teaching directing what would he teach. And he said, 'I'd teach the history of the world.' I was surprised, but I was young then. Now I know exactly what he meant."

Bogdanovich generally eschews the current trend in Hollywood, the one that favors pictures in which the star is technology and pyrotechnics.

For all his professional and personal association with directors like Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, Bogdanovich says he's never been conscious of bringing their styles to his set or of even having a style of his own.

"There's no such thing as a 'Bogdanovich Touch' that I'm aware of," he says. "I don't like to think that way; it's too self-conscious. If other people point it out that's fine. And I think that's how the early directors felt as well. I think they just believed the director was the storyteller, and they each had a style they preferred to tell a story."

"I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture," Howard Hawks told Bogdanovich when asked which directors he preferred.

If anything, the Bogdanovich touch has been an erratic one. He earned critical praise as a wunderkind of the '70s, beginning the decade with Picture Show and following up with the slapstick comedy What's Up, Doc?; the charming Paper Moon--which earned Tatum O'Neal an Oscar for Best Actress; the Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller; the paean to early Hollywood, Nickelodeon; and the offbeat Saint Jack, in which Ben Gazzara plays a pimp with a heart of gold. The only clunker in the bunch was At Long Last Love, an original musical, which Bogdanovich laments was rushed into release and "was a gigantic flop."

Bogdanovich's fortunes seemed to change with the decade. Within a year or so, he ended a long relationship with Cybill Shepherd, lost his mother to cancer and then at the height of joy with his new love, former Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, she was murdered by her estranged husband.

"That was the turning point in my career," he says. "It was a cataclysmic event that all of us in the family have had trouble recovering from to this moment."

His career went into something of a skid after that. In the eighties, the generally well received Mask was sandwiched between two clunkers: the film he had made with Stratten and released after her death, They All Laughed, and Illegally Yours. The rest of the decade was consumed with his writing The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980.

The nineties have been a bit better for Bogdanovich. Settled into a well-established and solid marriage to Stratten's sister, L.B., he has written the Devil book and a book each on Welles and Lillian Gish, directed the sequel to Picture Show--Texasville-- two small features and a made-for-TV film, To Sir with Love 2. He currently is awaiting the television release of films for Showtime and CBS, and is busily preparing a number of film projects, including a ghost picture called Wait for Me.

"I've had my ups and downs," he says now. "I wish I could get a retake on a number of pictures and events in my life. I'd like to do a number of pictures over again. I made a lot of mistakes that I wish I could do over again. But you can't do them over again; you just get to do more things and hope that you've learned and don't make the same mistakes over again, which I have also done."

And while Bogdanovich doesn't quite have the taste for Hollywood and the movies he once did, he still has a passion for those who came before and blazed the trail he has followed.

"I like the idea of the movies. I just don't like a lot of what I see," he says. "I don't often feel that anyone's home in a lot of what I see. [Movies] seem to be made in a kind of vaccum. So in a sense, 'who the devil made it' becomes more of a question than a statement."

Peter Bogdanovich will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Thursday, May 29, for the 7:30 p.m. screening of Daisy Miller. Tickets are $5, $4 for BMA members, seniors and students. For more information, call 410-396-6314 or the box office at 410-235-0100.

--Steve Libowitz

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