2020 Book Reviews

Book Review: ‘Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director’

Picturing Peter Bogdanovich Book

Peter Bogdanovich is arguably best known for two things: his excellent early-70s three-peat of The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), and his invaluable work on American film history, via documentaries, books and guest spots on television, podcasts and home media. While there is obviously more to Bogdanovich than this, I, for one, will admit to being largely oblivious when it comes to his lesser-seen productions and the ins and outs of his private life. For anyone else in such a position, or for even those who have a more comprehensive grasp of Bogdanovich and his work, Peter Tonguette’s Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director, part of the Screen Classics series at the University Press of Kentucky, is a most welcome release. Featuring an extended introduction and a collection of interviews Tonguette conducted with the filmmaker from 2003 to 2019, the book includes a film-by-film survey of Bogdanovich’s career, accompanied by behind-the-scenes details and intimate, often quite touching anecdotes about his personal ordeals. 

A journalist and critic and the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews and author of Orson Welles Remembered: Interviews with His Actors, Editors, Cinematographers and Magicians, Tonguette begins Picturing Peter Bogdanovich with the formation of his relationship with the director, which was at first that of a fan. In 2003, then age 20, Tonguette had a phone conversation with Bogdanovich, ostensibly related to an article he was writing. But as Tonguette earnestly admits, instantly presenting himself as a kindred cinephile spirit to most who will read this book, “I loved his movies for years, and I simply wanted to talk about them with him.” From there, Tonguette contextualizes Bogdanovich’s creative origins and analyzes his assorted hits and misses. The introduction and the diverse interviews that follow chart a course from Bogdanovich’s early involvement with Roger Corman (the piecemeal crafting of 1968’s Targets, on which Samuel Fuller provide uncredited assistance, is particularly fascinating) through his television work of the late-1990s, which Bogdanovich approaches with no condescension, notably so considering this was a time when a major director working on television, outside perhaps David Lynch, was seen as something of a downgrade. Covering Bogdanovich’s theatrical experience and his unproduced concepts, discussion also turns to Bogdanovich’s most prominent films as well as those for which he is less renowned. Bogdanovich says he is just as often recognized for 1981’s They All Laughed and 1992’s Noises Off…. as he is for The Last Picture Show, but as Tonguette acknowledges, after highlighting Bogdanovich’s acclaimed early features, there’s no way around what followed: “Then came the flops.”

Picturing Peter Bogdanovich Book

Just as Tonguette is quick to applaud the facets of Bogdanovich’s work he finds so valuable — “His photography is not flashy like Orson Welles’s or picture-postcard perfect like David Lean’s, but it is oh so very purposeful” — the director himself heaps ample praise on the multiple actors and technicians involved in his productions. Given Bogdanovich’s reputation as a classic film scholar, and given the extraordinary access he had to so many leading icons of Hollywood’s golden age, it’s no surprise Bogdanovich also pays tribute to his filmmaking predecessors. He discloses many of these men were sometimes regarded as father figures and often quotes the advice given to him by these senior artists (Allan Dwan ran his talkies silent, to see if they worked on a purely visual basis. Bogdanovich recalls King Vidor wanting to do a sequel to his 1928 masterpiece The Crowd, an intriguing concept rivalled by Bogdanovich’s own planned western to star John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Ryan O’Neal, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd and the Irish singers The Clancy Brothers. Unfortunately, Wayne dropped out, at the behest of John Ford, and the others followed suit (the story was eventually written by Larry McMurtry as the 1985 novel and 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove). Picturing Peter Bogdanovich submits other tantalizing mentions of what could have been: Bogdanovich was offered to direct Rooster Cogburn (1975), he declined The Godfather (1972) and of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which he also turned down, Bogdanovich says, “I was not interested in it because there were no women in it.”

Bogdanovich was, according to Tonguette, seen as an “ally” to veteran directors, occasionally putting him at odds with his contemporaries like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Bogdanovich muses that “very few of [his contemporaries] seem to deal with people.” “I mean,” he observes, “they all deal with stereotypes or gangster figures who are sort of stereotypical or aberrations of human behavior, like Raging Bull [1980], but not real human beings. They’re sort of monsters.” The corresponding disparity in subjects of interest is evident in Bogdanovich’s films, which often hark back to a bygone era of filmmaking in their approach to genre, tone and content. Aside from his reverence for older directors, a respect frequently reciprocated, Bogdanovich was and remains aligned with those who saw the America of the 1960s and 1970s as “entering into a pretty decadent era.” “The older men were bewildered by what they saw,” states Bogdanovich, “and I was saddened by what I saw. Now that I’m their age, it’s even worse.” This removed sociopolitical lament carries over to the films subsequently produced, especially in more recent years where, for Bogdanovich, “sensationalism is all they’ve got because they haven’t got a lot of talent.”

Picturing Peter Bogdanovich Book

Tonguette and Bogdanovich embrace a great deal of territory throughout Picturing Peter Bogdanovich, including the director’s somewhat surprising views on other revered filmmakers — asserting his dislike of Stanley Kubrick and commenting, “to me [Michelangelo] Antonioni was a big bore” — and his assorted side projects, such as a record he produced in 1974 with Cybill Shepherd, Cybil Does It…to Cole Porter. Bogdanovich delights in having captured the “last piece of film that Charlie Chaplin was ever in,” material that wound up in Richard Patterson’s documentary The Gentleman Tramp (1976), and he tells the moving story of when John Cassavetes called him to set of 1984’s Love Streams in order to get Bogdanovich out of a debilitating funk following the death of his lover, model Dorothy Stratten (“really, it was very sweet of him”). This was an emotionally devastating time, which Bogdanovich remembers with candid, admirable sincerity. In more lighthearted moments, though, the filmmaker comes across as extremely affable and accessible, sharing many humorous stories about the making of his films. Talking about 1975’s At Long Last Love, he relays his desire to “keep it all black-and-white and silver and gray. No color at all.” So, Tonguette asks, was he “tempted to just shoot it in black-and-white?” “No,” comes the response, “that would have been perverse.” And while making the television movie To Sir, with Love II (1996), Bogdanovich recalls Sidney Poitier asked for Michael Shannon’s removal from the film (which was granted): “[H]e’s very weird,” said Poitier.

Only rarely does Tonguette seem to strain in his dissection of common Bogdanovich themes or points of apparent relevance. Regarding the screenplay for “Wait for Me,” for example, about a film director who is “contending […] with the ghosts of those he has loved and lost,” Tonguette speculates on the autobiographical naming of certain characters: “Is it mere coincidence that there are seven letters, including a y, in the names of ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Dorothy’? And that C comes right before D?” He also indulges in the lofty comparison between Picturing Peter Bogdanovich and the famous, enormously significant conversation between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, published as Hitchcock in 1966, a book, Tonguette says, is “not unlike this one” — though that’s certainly pushing things. Nevertheless, Tonguette’s introduction is replete with edifying biographical context, illuminating citations from other writers, and his own astute observations and analysis. From start to finish, he approaches the whole of Bogdanovich’s life and work with an obvious adoration and, what is more, a demonstrable knowledge repeatedly seen in the depth and detail of his questions. Picturing Peter Bogdanovich is a passionate, engaging and thoroughly insightful volume of film history.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.