Peter Bogdanovich, who died Jan. 6 at 82, loved the world of classic Hollywood so much that it’s as if he never left it. He directed movies as if trying to bottle an ineffable essence or panache from the heydays of Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks, whose legacy he helped preserve in his first calling as a film historian.
But Bogdanovich’s knowledge (and name-dropping) didn’t produce movies for a select few cinephiles. Even Francis Ford Coppola, a New Hollywood contemporary who would release “The Godfather” the next year, marveled at the rapt, packed audiences for Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece “The Last Picture Show.” Writing and filming with flair, elegance, and the heart of an old romantic, Bogdanovich reimagined the storied past and played with genre, dialing up or down the noise of the plot. Having studied as an actor, he also brought a palpable affection for his stars that persisted even as his own star as a filmmaker faded after the 1970s. The joy of moviemaking, however, never left him.
Here are nine highlights of Bogdanovich’s work, all available to stream.
‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971)
After years of interviewing the masters, Bogdanovich directed his own canonical classic, adapting Larry McMurtry’s personal novel about a small Texas town in the 1950s. Bittersweet and funny, it’s a warm portrait of folks dealing with loneliness, tedium and, frankly, horniness in a tight-knit place where there’s little to do but see a picture show. Cybill Shepherd makes her screen debut as a high schooler tiring of her roughneck boyfriend (Jeff Bridges); her disillusioned mother (a wonderfully sly Ellen Burstyn) knows a dead end when she sees one. The heart of the movie might lie with Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a well-meaning teenager with all the direction of a tumbleweed. Well-deserved Oscars went to two more standouts, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson. Shot in a lovely, dusty black-and-white, the movie sighs with the lived experience of a hundred memoirs.
Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand face off in probably the truest screwball comedy since the days of “His Girl Friday.” A nerdy musicologist (O’Neal) bumps into a gleeful troublemaker (Streisand, pure magic) while looking for aspirin in a store. Feature-length lunacy follows. Not a line or shot is wasted as the stars expertly carry out the clockwork chaos orchestrated by Bogdanovich in a San Francisco hotel through syncopated dialogue, comic bits of business and, of course, chases. Four identical suitcases fuel the madness, creating a sensation of absolute giddiness.
Born out of an assignment from the B-movie maestro Roger Corman, Bogdanovich’s ingenious and unusual directing debut taps into a late-1960s mood of upheaval and disorientation. Boris Karloff plays a retiring horror star who decides that no movie could match the fearsome violence of the real world. At the same time, a sniper is on the loose — a conceit inspired by the University of Texas tower shootings by Charles Whitman. The story lines converge at a drive-in to produce a genuine sense of shock, previewing the talents of the young director, who has a part as a filmmaker looking to cast Karloff.
‘Paper Moon’ (1973)
Ryan O’Neal plays a con man who makes quick bucks by selling Bibles to widows, and his real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal (an Oscar winner at age 10), is the orphan who falls under his care and keeps outwitting him. A number of directors in the 1970s looked back to the Depression era, but Bogdanovich’s comedy has a mischievous verve. Shooting again in black and white, he clearly delights in Tatum’s defiant streak, and gives Madeline Kahn an immortal monologue as Trixie Delight, a dancer seeking to ensnare the con man.
‘Saint Jack’ (1979)
Ben Gazzara brings his effortless charm, amused grin and gravelly baritone to this story of an expat pimp in Singapore running into trouble. You can almost feel the film’s rhythms being given over entirely to Gazzara, as he glides through rooms and streets, saying his hellos. It’s a site-specific view on the shifting sands of expatriate existence, with cinematography by Robby Müller. It also brings to a close the freewheeling, high-flying ’70s chapter of the director’s filmmaking career, as his fortunes shifted.
‘The Thing Called Love’ (1993)
A fondness for country music crops up throughout Bogdanovich’s work, and it blooms here in this overlooked, warmhearted story of an aspiring singer-songwriter in Nashville. While trying to land gigs, Miranda (Samantha Mathis) finds herself living a series of country songs: pining for one singer (River Phoenix), mooned over by another (Dermot Mulroney), wondering whether to pack up and go back home. Sandra Bullock co-stars, pre-“Speed,” as Miranda’s aimless roommate. The film’s gentle story provided Phoenix with his final role before his tragic death. Bogdanovich’s other musical interests later culminated in a four-hour-plus 2007 documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
‘The Cat’s Meow’ (2001)
In 1924, the Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince died under mysterious circumstances on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, on a cruise to celebrate Ince’s birthday. The incident, which became the basis for a 1997 play by Steven Peros that he adapted for the screen, proves irresistible to Bogdanovich, who assembles a cast game for louche partying and meaningful glances. An effervescent Kirsten Dunst headlines as the actress and Hearst amour Marion Davies, with Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin, Edward Herrmann as the ever-jealous Hearst, and Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Tilly to boot.
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‘The Great Buster: A Celebration’ (2018)
Some of Bogdanovich’s greatest work was done off screen as a film historian, interviewer (see, for example, “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Filmmakers”) and curator, but his feature-length documentary on the great silent comedian gives a taste. Stirring clips of Buster Keaton’s work accompany admiration from fans ranging from Mel Brooks to Johnny Knoxville. In this vein it’s also worth tracking down Bogdanovich’s even better documentary “Directed by John Ford.”
‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (2018)
Bogdanovich stars in one of cinema’s great, lost works, begun in the early 1970s by Orson Welles and painstakingly reassembled in 2018. The main setting is the 70th birthday party of the raucous director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), with glimpses of a radical new film to come. Bogdanovich plays Hannaford’s young foil — fittingly, a hotshot director on the rise. The film’s cinematic phantasmagoria belongs to Welles’s legacy, but also captures Bogdanovich’s double life as filmmaker and film-chronicler.