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Bogdanovich on Filmstruck

by Eric Blume

This month, Filmstruck offers up the one-two-three early 1970s punch of director Peter Bogdanovich.  Can you think of any other filmmaker who made three such incredible pictures within a three-year period, only to fade into a disastrous career afterwards?

1971’s The Last Picture Show holds up incredibly well, and ranks as one of the decade’s finest pictures. This film about various lonely souls who have no clue how to connect still resonates powerfully, partially because Bodganovich is unapologetically “adult” in his handling of these story strands. Nothing feels watered-down or soft, and all the characters have edges that make them specific and interesting. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman deservedly won supporting Oscars that year for their fine performances, but everyone in the cast delivers beautiful work. There’s a simplicity to the acting, in the best sense: everybody just “is”. Bodganovich has confidence with the material, and he’s passionate about the storytelling. There’s a lingering sadness about the picture that feels distinct in tone, matched perfectly to Larry McMurtry’s original prose and to the characters.

1972’s What’s Up Doc? remains a minor comic miracle. It features Ryan O’Neal at his most handsome and Barbra Streisand at her most sexy, and their chemistry is undeniable. The film makes you lament Streisand’s need to turn so serious onscreen, because her gifts for comedy were untouchable in this earliest phase of her career, and she’s never seemed more free or relaxed. One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of What’s Up Doc? is that it’s a screwball comedy, but it’s directed at a very leisurely pace. Again, Bogdanovich doesn’t rush the piece, and nothing feels frenetic. The switched-suitcase premise simply serves as a launchpad for the more compelling force behind screwball comedies: women who are smarter than men about love.  Streisand’s sly pursuit of O’Neal, and the broad but hilarious turn from Madeline Kahn as the other woman, still lands as deeply joyful.

1973’s Paper Moon famously made Tatum O’Neal the youngest competitive Oscar winner ever (discussed on the Smackdown last year). Her performance, as well as the return engagements of O’Neal and Kahn, holds up solidly, although the film doesn’t feel like much of a comedy these days. Instead, the Depression-era setting lends a true melancholy to the proceedings, and the laughs aren’t big. You feel the pain of Tatum’s little Addie, who wants and needs Ryan to be her dad. Perhaps the real-life circumstances lead one to read the movie that way these days?  

The common thread of Bogdanovich’s direction of these three films is his assurance.  He’s picked strong stories and hired great actors, and he confidently keeps everything on course. His films seem effortless, yet his skill remains inimitable. These are three very different films, yet Bogdanovich deftly unveils the beauty in each. You sense his inspiration, as if he’s eager to share what happened on set everyday with the audience. There’s pleasure and panache in his filmmaking, but in an unshowy way. It’s a shame that he made so many poor choices after these three films, but few artists have a run as exquisite as this one.

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Reader Comments (15)

What's Up Doc? is easily one of my favorite comedies and Madeline Kahn as Eunice is legendary.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchasm301

Give a read to Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and you'll see that no one is to blame for Bogdanovich's misfortunes but the man himself.

That being said, I do love The Last Picture Show

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

The Last Picture Show is a straight up masterpiece, and I may have "forced" more people to watch What's Up Doc? than any other movie.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

I am in the minority but my fave Bodganovich films are "Targets" and "Noises Off"...

... sue me!

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Leachman is one of the best supporting actress winners and Cybil was a bomb.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

These three are rare gems, and TLPS is indeed a masterwork. It features some of the greatest ensemble acting of all time. I know its reputations are rotten, but I still want to see Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

He should have quit - or died - while he was ahead. If he had only directed 4 films and they were Targets, Last Picture Show, What's Up Doc, and Paper Moon - he'd be considered one of the greatest US filmmakers of all time instead of an example of failed promise. Looking at the parade of flops he made after, it makes me glad Bob Fosse only made four great movies and is judged accordingly.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel23

I always wonder what it is that compels people to think that someone dying young would be preferable to them "tarnishing their legacy" with sub-par films. I've seen this kind of sentiment numerous times on here and other sites before, and it baffles me.

July 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

bogdanovich living to 77 [and counting - the nerve!] does nothing to tarnish the greatness of the three film mentioned above

madeline kahn's performance as eunice burns is one of the great film debuts of all time

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Howard! Howard Bannister!

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFrank McCormick

"Are you a Eunice Burns?"

"No. I am THE Eunice Burns."

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

That's a person named Eunice?!
How would you like to swallow one sandwich de knuckles?

Of course Barbra was magnificent in Funny Girl but I always say that "What's Up Doc?" and
"The Way We Were" proved beyond doubt that she could be a brilliant comedian and a great actress...a true movie star. Too bad she did not do more great comedies like Doc. Her rapid delivery and timing were magnificent...and wow was she beautiful. So glad she worked with Bogdanovich.

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Have all you people criticizing Bogdanovich's later career actually seen They All Laughed, Mask, and At Long Last Love? Because they're pretty great. (Admittedly, everything after Mask looks pretty grim...)

Also, Targets.

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAR

I have seen They All Laughed and At Long Last Love and they are borderline unwatchable..same goes for Noises Off, Nickelodeon, Daisy Miller and The Thing Called Love. Mask is a great film and I have a soft spot for Texasville.

July 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNederama

"Mask" was his best film, post "Paper Moon".

"Nickelodeon" was probably the biggest disappointment, because he assembled a great cast and the subject matter was promising. I wonder if a total re-edit, cutting out about 20 min, would help? I always thought there was a good movie in there screaming to get out, but it was too long, much of the slapstick was tired, too much Jane Hitchcock and not enough John Ritter and Stella Stevens.

July 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercalljohnob

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