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Peter Bogdanovich obituary | Film

Peter Bogdanovich, who has died aged 82, was among the few examples of a film director whose career rocketed spectacularly at its beginning before it soon plunged to earth. His third feature (after two neophyte efforts), The Last Picture Show (1971), was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won two. The film that followed, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), was a massive box-office hit, which grossed a healthy $28m for Warner Bros. On a winning streak, Bogdanovich achieved a hat-trick with Paper Moon (1973), which was not only a commercial and critical success, but won a best supporting actress Oscar for Tatum O’Neal who, at 10, was the youngest ever recipient of the award. It seemed that Bogdanovich could do no wrong. But then came Daisy Miller (1974), which received mainly bad reviews, and was followed by further flops and personal upheavals.

Peter Bogdanovich directing Nickelodeon in 1976.
Peter Bogdanovich directing Nickelodeon in 1976. Photograph: Columbia/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

He bore it all with equanimity (externally, at least), making cameo appearances in friends’ films and TV shows – nicely dry in the role of Dr Elliot Kupferberg, Tony Soprano’s therapist’s therapist in the hit series The Sopranos (2000-07) – cropping up regularly on documentaries, commenting wittily on film directors and directing films himself from time to time, though he never returned to the glory days.

Bogdanovich belonged to the generation of directors who emerged in the 70s, brought up on the movies produced during the golden age of the major studios. In fact, the majority of his films are exercises in style – attempts to recreate the Hollywood past. His two best films were shot in black and white, a practice that had already become rare a decade before. Both The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon lovingly evoke the spirit of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman and William Wyler and, despite their allusiveness, they still appeal to the non-film buff, while What’s Up, Doc?, graced by Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand, is a homage to the screwball comedies of the 30s. (In his documentary Directed By John Ford, 1971, revised in 2006, Bogdanovich disarmingly allowed himself to be put down by the great man.)

Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neil in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972, which was a massive box-office hit for Peter Bogdanovich.
Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972, which was a massive box-office hit for Peter Bogdanovich. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Bogdanovich was born in Kingston, New York, after his parents fled from Europe and the Nazis, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother, Herma (nee Robinson), came from a well-off Austrian Jewish family, and his father, Borislav Bogdanovich, was a Serbian Eastern Orthodox Christian painter and pianist. After graduating from the Collegiate school, he studied acting at the Stella Adler Theatre Studio in the city. Although he both appeared in and directed a number of plays – including The Big Knife, Clifford Odets’s searing drama about Hollywood, in 1959 off-Broadway – Bogdanovich was always drawn to film, and began writing on the subject for various publications.

In the early 60s, taking a lead from Henri Langlois’ eclectic programming at the Paris Cinémathèque, Bogdanovich showcased movies at the Museum of Modern Art, introducing audiences to neglected or forgotten American directors such as Allan Dwan, about whom he wrote a book, Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (1971). He also wrote books on Ford, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and his friend Orson Welles, all of whose voices he could mimic brilliantly. Bogdanovich even had a leading role in Welles’s uncompleted The Other Side of the Wind (shot between 1969 and 1976), as an up-and-coming film director with a talent for mimicry. After a stint as film critic for Esquire magazine, he moved in 1964 to Hollywood where, inspired by French critics such as François Truffaut, he hoped to turn to directing.

Initially, he worked as second unit director on Roger Corman’s Wild Angels (1966), before Corman allowed him to direct a Z-movie, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), hiding under the name Derek Thomas. Actually, all Bogdanovich had to do was film scenes of Mamie Van Doren and other flimsily clad women on the seashore, and splice the new material together with a dubbed and re-edited Russian sci-fi film called Planeta Burg.

Corman then gave the tyro director the money to make the impressive Targets (1968), in which the octogenarian Boris Karloff played Byron Orlok, a horror movie star in danger from a sniper, and confronted by his own image (in Corman’s The Terror) on a screen of a drive-in movie theatre. Targets was good enough for Columbia Pictures to entrust The Last Picture Show to Bogdanovich.

This fondly nostalgic look at 50s small-town America cast Ben Johnson (a Ford favourite) as surrogate father to the town’s youngsters, and owner of the movie house forced to close because of the advent of television. The titular movie is Hawks’ Red River. Hawks is also acknowledged in What’s Up, Doc?, with O’Neal and Streisand doing their best to match up to the memories of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. For Paper Moon, Bogdanovich went further into the past – the Depression – for a charming yet cynical picaresque tale of a father-daughter con team (O’Neal and daughter Tatum) wheedling money out of widows.

Peter Bogdanovich directing Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show, 1971. The pair became a couple during shooting.
Peter Bogdanovich directing Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show, 1971. The pair became a couple during shooting. Photograph: Granger/Rex/Shutterstock

Why and how did things go wrong after that? Some commentators have put the decline down to Bogdanovich’s relationships with women. When he was preparing The Last Picture Show, he saw a magazine cover featuring the 19-year-old fashion model Cybill Shepherd, whom he cast as the richest girl in town. It was not long before he divorced his wife, Polly Platt, the production designer on his first films and mother of his two children, whom he had married in 1962, to live with Shepherd. With Shepherd in mind, he directed Daisy Miller, based on the Henry James novel, which came in for a heavy lambasting from the critics. “Trying to make that little thing he’s with into Daisy Miller was hilarious,” the veteran director Henry Hathaway, whom Bogdanovich admired, remarked cruelly.

Undeterred, Bogdanovich starred Shepherd opposite Burt Reynolds in At Long Last Love (1975), a flat-footed, off-key musical. It was greeted with even greater scorn than the previous movie. This was followed by a third bomb, Nickelodeon (1976), a slapdash tribute to slapstick silent screen comedy, starring Reynolds with Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. This time Bogdanovich blamed the producers for not allowing him to shoot it in black and white on a more modest budget.

After three years spent licking his wounds, Bogdanovich returned, helped by Corman as producer, with Saint Jack (1979), a sincere attempt to get away from Hollywood in two senses. Set in a world of pimps and prostitutes, it has an excellent sense of locale (the red-light district of Singapore). Among a cast headed by Ben Gazzara, the director himself played an American mobster.

Although the old-fashioned romantic comedy They All Laughed (1981), flopped initially, it gained a certain cult status for various extra-cinematic reasons: it was the last major role played by Audrey Hepburn, whose son Sean Ferrer is also in the film; Bogdanovich’s two daughters had parts, as did the director’s then girlfriend (the Shepherd liaison was over), the former Playboy model Dorothy Stratten. At the end of filming, Stratten was shot and killed by her husband after he learned of the affair with Bogdanovich. In 1988, Bogdanovich married Stratten’s half-sister, Louise.

Cher in Mask, 1985, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, in which she gave a strong performance as the biker mother of a child with a rare bone disorder.
Cher in Mask, 1985, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, in which she gave a strong performance as the biker mother of a child with a rare bone disorder. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

He regained some credibility with Mask (1985), a film that eschewed the resurrection of moribund genres. Powered by Cher’s strong performance as the drug-taking biker mother of a child with a rare bone disorder, the film gave the director the praise that had eluded him for so long. However, Bogdanovich’s passionate love for Hollywood’s distant past led him to make Illegally Yours (1988), a leaden comedy featuring Rob Lowe (in spectacles, like Grant in Bringing Up Baby). Perhaps still searching for the kind of acclaim he had enjoyed with The Last Picture Show, he went back to the same author (Larry McMurtry) and characters, played by most of the same cast, in Texasville (1990), but the sequel proved lacking in the same appeal and success.

His necessarily stagy Americanised film version of Michael Frayn’s frenetic theatre farce, Noises Off (1992), tested Bogdanovich’s skill at orchestrating screwball antics, but it, too, failed to ignite. The Thing Called Love (1993), which followed four young people hoping to make it as country music singers in Nashville, suffered from a detached performance by River Phoenix in his last completed role before his death.

For the next few years, Bogdanovich directed several TV movies, and acted in a fair number of them. His return to feature film directing was also a return to Hollywood’s pre-talkie era. The fairly entertaining, well-received The Cat’s Meow (2001) told of the mysterious death of the film mogul Thomas H Ince during a party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, with Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin among the guests. Prior to his final film, a documentary on the silent movie star Buster Keaton, The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018), he made She’s Funny That Way (2014), a likable romantic comedy that proved Bogdanovich was capable of finding a way between outright disasters and masterpieces.

He and Louise divorced in 2001. His two daughters, Antonia and Sashy, survive him.

Peter Bogdanovich, writer, director and actor, born 30 July 1939; died 6 January 2022

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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