By Alan Hurst

Peter Bogdanovich – one of the hottest and most successful directors of the early seventies – passed away yesterday at the age of 82. His career serves as a cautionary tale of the kinetic combination of talent, early success, unbridled ego, and bad decisions.

A scholar of film, before directing he had worked with the Museum of Modern Art to organize retrospectives of the films Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles which help to elevate their reputations and reshape the image of Hollywood’s first gold age.

His first film was Targets (1968), a tense thriller about a young man on a spree of killing random strangers. A small, inexpensive film, it drew praise and brought Bogdanovich to the attention of Columbia Pictures who were prepping Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (1971). One of the great films of the decade, it told the tale of a dying Texas town in the early 1950’s. It featured a young cast of newcomers – Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd – as well as veterans Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Ben Johnson. Filmed in stark black and white, it was a harsh yet poetic look at another era. The film was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, and both Leachman and Johnson won Best Supporting Oscars for their work.

Ryan ONeal and Barbra Streisand in Whats Up Doc

His next film was one of the funniest of the decade: What’s Up Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. It was a hilarious throwback to the screwball comedies of the thirties, perfectly performed by it leads and featured players, including newcomer Madeline Kahn. Next up another trip back to the thirties with Paper Moon (1973), a funny and nostalgic look at a conman and young orphan (or is she?) he’s taking to her aunt. It starred Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal, both terrific, with O’Neal winning that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Three major successes, a divorce, a move to a Bel Air mansion, increasing arrogance, and then two films featuring his lady love Shephard helped to derail everything. Shephard was good in her first two films – The Last Picture Show (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) – because she was playing something within her wheelhouse at that point: spoiled, pretty, entitled. But she wasn’t yet much of an actress or comedienne. Bogdanovich thought differently and put her in his adaptation of Daisy Miller (1974), a lovely looking film with a terrific supporting cast (Cloris Leachman, Mildred Natwick), but Shephard kills it. She’s truly terrible. Next up was At Long Last Love (1975), an homage to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films of the 1930’s, with Burt Reynolds and Shephard substituting for Astaire and Rogers. Yep, you read that right. It was painfully bad and justifiably tanked.

Nickelodeon (1976) with Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal was an homage to early films that fell flat. There was a bit of a return to form with the gritty Saint Jack (1979) with Ben Gazarra. By this point he and Shephard and gone their separate ways and he had fallen for Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. He featured Stratten in his next film They All Laughed (1981), a romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazarra and John Ritter that has its moments, but ultimately wasn’t successful.

His affair with Stratten ended tragically with her murder at the age of 20 by her estranged husband.

Bogdanovich regained some footing with Mask (1985) featuring a wonderful dramatic performance from Cher but he got in the way of his success with an argument with the studio over the use of music on the soundtrack. Texasville (1990), a sequel to The Last Picture Show, was waste of time and there was really nothing of consequence from Bogdanovich until The Cat’s Meow (2001), an entertaining mystery based on a real-life murder and set in the early days of Hollywood.

Over the last 20 years or so Bogdanovich has spent the bulk of his time as a film historian and commentor. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of film and his commentary in documentaries and on DVD is welcome and insightful. He was also the subject of the inaugural Turner Classic Movie Podcast “The Plot Thickens” where he took a brutally honest look at this life, career, mistakes, and successes.

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