Lazarus, Reborn

Peter Bogdanovich wasn't dead. He was just acting like it.

"I think I lost my love for movies after Dorothy was murdered," he says. "Definitely. There was a period of probably more than a decade where I wasn't really interested. And it was sad. I didn't see them or make them. Well, I'd see them occasionally, but there are a lot of films made in the '80s that I never saw, including E.T. I just didn't give a shit. It came out in '82, and I was in the midst of writing that book [The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980]. I lost interest. Also, my therapist said, toward the end of the '80s, that I associated her murder with directing, for some reason, because it happened right after a movie, and I felt that if I'd been more vigilant about life, as opposed to being so concerned about the movie, that maybe I would've noticed something was wrong.

"So I blamed myself for what happened. My therapist said I exiled the person who directs in me--I exiled that person to a desert island--and that I have to bring him back before I can get interested again. I did get interested again. There are films that I'd like to make. I saw somewhere that Robert Graves, whenever he wrote a poem, he asked himself, 'Is this poem necessary?' And that's a wonderful question. And so I try to ask the question, 'Is this film necessary?' Because there are so many unnecessary films."

And he has made some of them, by his own admission. In Peter Bogdanovich's Movie of the Week, his 1999 collection of reviews written for the weekly New York Observer, Bogdanovich throws himself under the bus. In his opening critique of An American in Paris, he admits that many filmmakers--"notoriously yours truly"--failed whenever making musicals. Of his reasons for damning himself and his movies, he shrugs, smiles and says, "Well, you know, everybody else is doing it, so I might as well. I try to be honest in these situations and try to have some awareness, and there's no point in kidding myself. I'm disappointed in certain films that I've made, and usually, you can't blame anybody but yourself." Rarely has a filmmaker of his legend--and, yes, there was a period when he was among the most celebrated directors in the New Hollywood--spent so much time apologizing for his work. It's as though he believes to sell his new movie he must first absolve himself of his old ones, with famous exceptions.

Nine lives, or close to it: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of The Cat's Meow.
Richard Foreman
Nine lives, or close to it: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of The Cat's Meow.

There are copious reasons Bogdanovich never became as famous, or infamous, as his beloved predecessors or peers, among them Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, but one can't just dismiss it all to scandal and audacity. Maybe it was because he never quite fit in anywhere: He was a child actor (in the '50s, he studied with Stella Adler) who became a critic (for, among other places, Esquire) who became a filmmaker and remained all three. Today, he's likely best known to some as Dr. Melfi's psychiatrist on The Sopranos--the therapist's therapist.

"It did all overlap, and one thing helped the other," he says. "The writing was, besides being a way of earning a living, it was also a way of learning about the craft of filmmaking from people who had done it...Today, a tidal wave of history has taken us to a point where nobody has heard of any movie made before 1990. Every time you see a movie, you say, 'You know, this movie's been done better, and I wonder if they've ever seen it.' You feel that the director or the writer is straining to invent the wheel. And the wheel is already invented. I don't know what to say about it, but I'm still plugging away, trying to get people to look at some old films. I've got a new work coming out called Who the Hell's in It about a bunch of actors. I'm still yelling about the older films. It's a treasure, it's an absolute buried treasure, and now more older films are available than ever before and less people know about them."

Which leads to perhaps the truest explanation for his slide into the footnotes. His best films recalled his icons, the guys he's still screaming about: Howard Hawks, John Ford, Preston Sturges and other gray icons of the bygone studio system. Scorsese once said of Bogdanovich, "He's the last classical filmmaker around," and by his own admission, that always put him in a "weird spot." Bogdanovich, in the early '70s, was the last of the old-time filmmakers come too late to the party, a newborn thrown right into the casket.

"I've never been comfortable with my own generation," he says. "Scorsese's comment is nice. At least, it sounds nice. But having gotten older, everything has more reverberations on a lot of different levels. I think the goal is still the same: to affect the viewer in some way that's hopefully constructive. I think that's still the same. But my pleasures are not as innocent as they were."

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