What they are: We’ve lost quite a few silver screen legends lately, but behind the camera, one of the biggest curators and creators of cinema history also left us last month – director Peter Bogdanovich. His death may have been overlooked a bit in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle, but for a certain breed of movie hound, at a certain period of time, Bogdanovich was the great hope for the Future of Cinema. His breakthrough movie, 1971’s ode to a vanished idea of small town Texas life, The Last Picture Show, was nominated for eight Oscars and won several. Bogdanovich followed that drama up with two big genre swerves – the goofy comedy What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and con-man comedy/drama Paper Moon, which saw Tatum O’Neal become the still-youngest competitive Oscar winner by nabbing Best Supporting Actress at just 10 years old. When Bogdanovich died last month, I realised I needed to finally get around to watching Doc and Moon and fill in some big gaps in my film knowledge.
Why I never saw them. The theme of many of his obituaries was that Bogdanovich came into movies like a comet, burning brightly and then flaming out. He loved classic Hollywood, and his best movies are all homages to the 1930s and 1940s. His debut, 1968’s Targets, is a fond love letter to horror icon Boris Karloff combined with a still-shocking look at a mass shooting. The Last Picture Show is one of my favourites, a monochrome gem of nostalgia and bittersweet romance that manages to both romanticise and demonise the American dream, with an utterly luminous young Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges. Next, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon were both popular and critical hits.
But then Bogdanovich steered Shepherd into two notorious flops, Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, and his career for the rest of his life alternated between moderate successes and mild failure, as well as grim personal tragedy. A keeper of the flame for cinema history, he wrote some excellent books on the many classic Hollywood stars and directors he befriended over the years (he was notably close to the great Orson Welles, and his final film was a documentary on Buster Keaton), but when he died, many of the Bogdanovich obituaries cast him as a kind of example of lost potential. I don’t quite think that’s a fair way to measure a life.
Do they measure up to their rep: Let’s take each film separately. What’s Up, Doc? is essentially a colourful homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s, with Streisand and Ryan O’Neal filling the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Gran-type roles. Streisand is someone I’ve never always warmed to, but she’s a fiery, wisecracking delight here, a predecessor of the oft-maligned “manic pixie dream girl” archetype. She splashes into O’Neal’s stiff academic’s life almost at random and upsets the dull order of his world. In one light, her character’s stalking of O’Neal and his intense fiancee (a great Madeline Kahn) may be annoying, but if you ride with Doc’s giddy vibe, you’ll get caught up in Barbra’s freewheeling spirit. While I don’t think it quite beats the heights of Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Bogdanovich’s homage is a light and hilarious ride.
Paper Moon isn’t quite so loose and frivolous, although it’s also very funny. Bogdanovich went back to a gorgeous black-and-white for this caper starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Ryan is a con man who shows up at the funeral of 9-year-old Addie’s mother. He might be Addie’s father, or he might not. O’Neal agrees to take Addie on a road trip to the rest of her family, but along the way also drags her into his complicated cons, scheming his way across Depression America. Bogdanovich expertly balances Paper Moon between comic and tugging the heartstrings, but is just cynical enough not to make this feel like a Disney movie. He’s helped by Tatum O’Neal, who’s utterly amazing as Addie – her character develops and expands throughout the movie and manages the almost impossible task of feeling like a real, chaotic and somewhat unpredictable child instead of just an actor.
Ryan O’Neal anchors both these movies, although he’s upstaged by his female co-stars. He’s an interesting case of an actor who was a big star but also tends to blend into the scenery, I find. As a slippery con man in Paper Moon and a stuttering geek in Doc, he never entirely convinces, but he’s also oddly enjoyable to watch playing off the stunning Streisand and the remarkable Tatum. But both of these movies are far more about the women than they are the ostensible main character. Bogdanovich was a spectacular director for women – Cloris Leachman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show is a perfect example – and whatever the ups and downs of his career, he created some of the most indelible roles for women of the 1970s.
Worth seeing? Viewed 50 years on, Bogdanovich’s great trilogy of films is about his love for the history and form of cinema itself, and that great American theme of the desire to better oneself, whether in money, love or location. The Last Picture Show is stark and sharp as a knife, while What’s Up, Doc? is a silly blast nearly as manic as the Bugs Bunny cartoons it got its name from, and Paper Moon combines elements of both of them to create a satirical yet heartfelt tale of a con man’s mild redemption.
Bogdanovich might have been a comet in that he never really bettered these three films in his career, but he certainly left a lot of great work behind and was one of the last men who knew and worked with the golden stars of Hollywood’s peak years, and worked to keep their names alive. That’s not a bad legacy to have at all.