I remember my gut sinking like a stone. All it took for me to know was to go on my phone during a brief work break, open Instagram, and see that various outlets and filmmakers had posted images and dedications to Peter Bogdanovich without much context. But the reasoning formed in my head as every post congregated into a shattering realization. We lost a titan, and a personal hero of mine was gone. It’s too easy for someone like me to fall deep into a dizzying internal labyrinth when a loss this substantial is confronted so point-blank, so unexpectedly, and it’s even easier for doubt to often take the place of natural grief. Why should I feel this way about someone who I not only didn’t actually know, but only managed to understand through their art? Is what I’m feeling more performative than I’d like to admit due to his major impact in mainstream American cinema, and that any other reaction more subdued couldn’t possibly do his name justice? But just minutes after finding out about his passing, I got a text from a friend who had also heard about it and wanted to ask how I was holding up. In a sudden flash, what I was feeling became validated. As if at some point I had made my adoration of not just his body of work, but his ingrained passion and endlessly bountiful dedication to the history and preservation of film, fully known and outside of myself. I had a reason to feel what I felt.
There was no one like him, not only as a natural-born filmmaker but as one well within the microscopic liminal point of Old Hollywood and the daring prospects of what would become the New. As the period between the mid-60s and early-70s dove headfirst into rapid economic and artistic progression – informed by a spectrum of different movements including the French New Wave and the blossoming freedom of the independent film scene – it seemed that the only way for cinema to move was into the unknowable forward. But Bogdanovich, having originated as a film programmer for art galleries as well as a writer for publications like Esquire, almost immediately marked himself as a filmmaking enigma by doing the unthinkable. He looked backwards. Having drawn major obsession with such Golden Age titans as Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes and John Ford, Bogdanovich tapped into a unique synthesis of two distinct eras in Hollywood to make works that used the harkening of long-forgone visual styles and sub-genres to tell new stories with faces fresh and old. He acted as a bridge between worlds, with an approach that can aptly be labelled as both conservative and progressive. With the assistance of Roger Corman, Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit (under his own name) would be the first of a consecutive four-film run that remains undefeated due to this approach.
This film was 1968’s Targets – a meta-textual thriller that juxtaposed the classical horror of monsters – represented by lead actor Boris Karloff in one of his final roles, with the surfacing reality of mass shootings just beginning to spread through the U.S. like disease. While an approach like this could potentially have been laughed off as heavy-handed, Bogdanovich lends the film a chillingly clinical air that has made it age terrifyingly well. Corman, having been responsible for starting Bogdanovich’s filmmaking career, was a jumping off point for Peter to branch off into the roots of his inspiration. Three years later, he would go on to collaborate with Larry McMurtry in adapting his novel The Last Picture Show to the screen, and the result was his big break. Nabbing plenty of Oscar nominations as well as two Best Supporting wins for Ben Johnson and featuring a devastating turn by Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show resonated due to its innate melancholy that used the aesthetics of the past to convey the heartbreak of time’s ravaging passage.
A gradual master of pulling directorial 180s, Peter followed that success a year later with a project near-polar opposite in tone that dared to ask the question, “What if Barbara Streisand was in Looney Tunes?”. The answer, ironically, was another question that asked, “What’s Up, Doc?” – a riotous hybrid of the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks with the comic escalation and near-defying of logic that was inherent in cartoons, in which its G-rating would insure itself as the secret weapon for why its all-ages appeal has made it stand the test of time as one of the absolute funniest movies ever made. It would be here in which Peter, having already established a near-untouchable pedigree of films, would follow it up with a tonal hybrid of his previous work – specifically the recollective sadness of The Last Picture Show and the infectiously comic energy of What’s Up, Doc?, as well as uniting a handful of past collaborators to go back into the past – specifically the Depression-era Midwest; pairing his What’s Up, Doc? lead Ryan O’Neal with his debuting daughter Tatum, and yet again capturing lightning in a bottle as if it was the easiest thing on the planet. Adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, Peter would give the film another title that was supported by a former idol now-friend he had managed to make at this point in his career – Orson Welles, who had responded once Peter thought about naming the film Paper Moon…
“That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!”
And thus, Paper Moon was released in 1973 and immediately skyrocketed to the status of a long-gestating classic. And of course his filmography had really only began, with a modest career in fictional and nonfictional work that spanned over nearly five decades. If he wasn’t venturing into untapped territories of genre, he was paying tribute to those of yesteryear with documentaries about John Ford and Buster Keaton. But it was with this run of films that had laid an indelible foundation. From the frequent crossover successes, to the major contributions made to each film by his then-partner Polly Platt – co-writing Targets and designing the productions of his following three films, and to his legendary status leading to not just consistently enjoyable appearances on The Sopranos as Dr. Elliott Kupferberg, but also in this writer’s humble opinion, directing one of its best episodes. To describe his life and career in the ever-so-intensely- evolving mass of Hollywood would be to flourish it to novelistic heights. Ripe with the success, failure, falling out and unthinkable tragedy that would be inappropriate for something I’d rather preserve as a clear-cut tribute. So I leave here with his artistic bowing out of sorts. In the mid-70’s, Orson Welles had cornered Peter to promise him that if anything happened to Welles then he would help to complete his project named The Other Side of the Wind – a feature that would become Welles’ last.
“I said, ‘Jesus Christ, Orson, why do you say such a thing?’ ‘Nothing’s going to happen to me, but if it does, I want you to promise me you will finish the picture.’ I said, ‘Well, of course I would.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s fine, now we can change the subject.’ And so he died in ’85, and I’ve been trying to get the picture together ever since.”
The Other Side of the Wind would be released in 2018 by Netflix – thirty-three years after Welles’ passing and nearly four years before Peter’s. In any case, the film’s completion couldn’t have acted as a better closing statement for what made him set off to his path. He was a man who had spent his entire life looking to the past in order to progress, in ways both creative and in living. And by using remembrance as an art form, he became the last of his kind. The collapsing of a bridge. Peter’s legacy was one rooted in the preservation of cinema’s roots, and it has been shared and passed onward by his fellow filmmakers who had also come about the same time he did. His loss runs deep and will forever be cemented as a reminder that sooner or later, it will only be left up to us to remember who came before us. Today, we add a new name to remember.
“. . . There was a reconciliation. In fact, the last conversation I had with Orson was a week and a half before he passed away. We talked for a while on the phone. And I said, ‘Jesus, Orson, I feel like I have made so many mistakes.’ And he said, ‘Well, it does seem to be impossible to go through life without making a great many of them.’ We both admitted we had made mistakes ― and that was the last time we spoke.“
– Peter Bogdanovich, Wellesnet.com, 2018