Peter Bogdanovich: Fool For Love

"I hope I'm not repeating what happened to Orson," director Peter Bogdanovich fretted shortly after The Last Picture Show, his breakout movie, debuted to hosannas at the 1971 New York Film Festival. "You know, make a successful serious film like this early and then spend the rest of my life in decline." It was hardly surprising that a former film critic such as Bogdanovich would summon the specter of Welles, whose name personifies the punchline of Hollywood's most famous "Too Much, Too Soon" joke. What was surprising, however, was the sheer scale of the 32-year-old Cinderella's self-delusion in comparing himself to Welles.

Bogdanovich was right on one score: his ascent had been precipitous. It was ironic that the posters for Last Picture read, "Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed..." because for him, everything had changed--overnight. But his belief that his situation in any other way bore much resemblance to Welles's was an early symptom of the presumption that would be his undoing. In 1971 Bogdanovich could scarcely have foreseen the cautionary fable his life in Hollywood was to become. For seldom, even in a town where failure is a ringside seat attraction, has limelight been less flattering.

That Peter Bogdanovich's most recent film was the woeful Rob Lowe comedy Illegally Yours, scarcely released in 1988, seems inconceivable to anyone who recalls the director's halcyon stretch in the early '70s when What's Up, Doc and Paper Moon made millions, drew comparisons to Howard Hawks and John Ford, and initiated Bogdanovich into the directorial brat pack that included Coppola, Fried-kin, and Scorsese. How powerful was he? Powerful-- and megalomaniacal-- enough to ask the governor of Texas to build an 1870-style town so that he could shoot a Western. And to tell producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to get a rewrite on a Pulitzer Prize-winner's screenplay before he would deign to direct it, for $575,000 plus 15 percent of the profits. To ask Fred Astaire for a favorable quote to use on the cover of Cybill Shepherd's debut record album-- and get it. To be pursued by Robert Evans for a multi-picture deal at Paramount and romanced by Warren Beatty to direct Heaven Can Wait. To turn down offers to direct The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, Hurricane, King of the Gypsies-- overtures fielded by powerful, then-ICM agent Sue Mengers, who called him "Petey" and got him million-dollar deals. That powerful.

Bogdanovich held Hollywood in the palm of his hand for four giddy years. But that was before the borderline between on-the-set and off-the-set blurred and things went stunningly haywire. Before he estranged himself from his wife, a gifted production designer/screenwriter, and deluded himself that he was playing Josef von Sternberg to a new Marlene Dietrich when he was really playing Sam Goldwyn to Anna Sten. Before he tripped himself up on a string of critical and box-office fizzles. Before he romanced a 20-year-old starlet whose enraged, unstable husband killed her, then committed suicide. Before he declared bankruptcy and found himself depicted as an egomaniac in four quasi-biographical movies, including one in which the star actor of three of his own films "played" him. Before he filed suit against a studio for tampering with his most successful film in years. Before he married the 20-year-old sister of his murdered lover.

Perhaps luckily, Bogdanovich has always seemed to put great stock in his innate superiority. Born in Kingston, in New York's Hudson Valley, raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he once described his family milieu as "very peculiar," referring perhaps to the fact that his father, the Post-impressionist painter Borislav Bogdanovich, and mother, a worldly Austrian Jew, surrounded him with "painters, poets, intellectuals. Nothing very American." Bogdanovich often portrayed his childhood vignettes in quick, elliptical cuts; he once told an interviewer that he was "born, then liked movies." By the age of 10, when he considered his taste at its "purest," he had seen Red River five times and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon ten. From 12 on, he kept card files with capsule comments on movies, which he would revise every so often. By day, he attended the tony Collegiate prep school (he got by "on a flair for public relations," said a headmaster), wrote the movie/theater column for the school paper, and acted in the drama club. His off-hours were spent absorbing retina-searing images that he caught in revival houses or on TV in friends' homes (his father refused to allow a television in their apartment).

By the age of 15, Bogdanovich was cutting classes. Ultimately, he missed graduating high school for failing to make up an algebra exam. For three years, beginning in 1955, he studied acting with Stella Adler; at 20, he directed Clifford Odets's The Big Knife off-Broadway, "hoping somebody would discover me for movies." At around the same time, he canonized Fritz Lang, Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles in publications such as Film Culture; later, for Esquire, he reverentially profiled Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and John Wayne.

Bogdanovich met Polly Platt in the Catskills, where he hired her to design costumes for a play. Sixties photographs of Polly Platt suggest a smarter, less clenched-looking kid sister of Marilyn Quayle. Though she has recalled finding Bogdanovich "arrogant, erudite, and cat-like in his sense of dignity," she married him in 1962. He struck associates at the time as driven, but in a passive, dreamy way; she had the smarts, the gumption. "I always looked at them like a replay of the old saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: 'He gave her class, she gave him sex,' " recalls a former friend of the couple's. "With Peter and Polly, it was: 'He gave her the nerve, she gave him all her best ideas.' "

Perhaps fed up with waiting for Broadway to discover his genius, Bogdanovich and Platt lit out for Hollywood, where they rented a $150-a-month house in Van Nuys. Some time later, passion pit moviemaker Roger Corman hired Bogdanovich as second unit director on his biker epic, The Wild Angels. "I haven't learned as much since," Bogdanovich observed of that 1966 movie, for which he claims he did rewrites, locations scouting, and some directing and editing. In 1968, Corman paid Bogdanovich to cut some good ol' American "T & A" footage of Mamie Van Doren into a somber Russian sci-fi movie and the result was Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.

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