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A Hollywood Legend Returns With a Screwball Comedy. Will Anyone Notice?

Lionsgate Premiere

She’s Funny That Way, which comes out this Friday, is the first film Peter Bogdanovich has directed in 14 years. He used to churn them out; in the early 1970s alone, Bogdanovich dispatched a run of classics that included The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. But in recent years, productions have been hard to come by, and memories have faded like film-stock. Today’s film buffs, who care to inspect the special features on their DVDs, experience the bescarved Bogdanovich primarily as a pundit. To most of the rest of the known universe, he plays the therapist’s therapist on The Sopranos

But what Peter Bogdanovich really is—what he’s been for more than fifty-five years—is something like Hollywood’s conscience: part-repository, part-angel, perched on the industry’s epaulette and pointing out, with a sigh, that they no longer make ‘em like they used to. (“You have to watch this stuff,” he urges on the audio commentary for The Searchers, when John Wayne shares a brief look with the woman he loves, unaided by close-up or dialogue.) She’s Funny That Way, featuring Owen Wilson and Imogen Poots, is merely the conscience’s latest expression: a screwball comedy about a Broadway director who casts a call girl in his latest production.   

The angel, however, is also a dinosaur who needed some help. Younger, hipper directors—Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach—had to intervene to get She’s Funny That Way made. (They signed on as executive producers.) This, after all, is the age when CGI-engorged reboots walk the earth, the desired target audience is still reckoning with puberty, and opening weekend is everything. It’s hard, then, not to root for Bogdanovich’s small curiosity, lurking in the shadows of August—a modestly-scaled movie for adults that’s short on superhero spandex. And it’s hard not to root for the craftsman who made it.

I like movies where I feel the director, the storyteller, is taking me somewhere,” Bogdanovich told Anderson in an interview a few years ago. “I have faith that he’s got a strong grip on me, and he’s taking me somewhere.” Their exchange continued a tradition; as a young man in the 1960s, Bogdanovich himself interviewed many of his touchstones: directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. Back then, Bogdanovich wrote essays for Esquire. A critic and journalist, he was enthralled by the Golden Age of Hollywood, which had already come to an end by the time he got to LA. He was especially in awe of its directors, who thrived within strict limits. Scrappy, unpretentious craftsmen, they could hold a shot for minutes, but never shot more footage than they needed, and sometimes even “cut in the camera,” throwing a hand in front of the lens when they felt they’d nailed the scene. They weren’t interested in “coverage,” in amassing alternate takes from different angles; more film in the can would only give the editor options, and the studio, ideas. Bogdanovich’s mentors (only later were they called “auteurs”) knew exactly how they wanted to get a story across.

Eventually, B-movie producer Roger Corman offered the dogged enthusiast a picture to direct—but there was a catch. Corman had twenty minutes of footage of aging horror actor Boris Karloff. Bogdanovich was to go off and shoot more footage with Karloff, who owed Corman two days of work, and then an additional forty minutes to fatten the material to feature length. (This is your movie, should you choose to accept it.) But like his director-heroes, Bogdanovich would have the best kind of freedom: all the elbow room the studio straitjacket allowed. He cast Karloff as a fading movie star, and solved the problem of what to do with the pre-existing footage by putting it on the screen of a drive-in theatre, where Karloff’s character makes an appearance. Meanwhile, Bogdanovich worked up a parallel plotline, about an unstable young man who heads toward the drive-in on a shooting spree. The resulting movie, Targets (1968), proved Bogdanovich’s resourcefulness, and served as a love letter to the suave monsters of Golden Age Hollywood, who had been made obsolete by more modern terrors.

Bogdanovich would go on to helm bigger productions. Some of them would be about movies and moviemaking. All, like Targets, would reboot the bygone values and techniques of Hollywood. Bogdanovich sometimes shot in black and white, preferred long takes, favored deep focus, resuscitated dead genres like the screwball comedy, and used close-ups frugally, the better to ensure their impact. (He was nearly fired from The Last Picture Show for cutting in the camera.) There was something both honorable and hopeless about his efforts; as he noted in 1972, the medium had, “for twenty years, been steadily losing its sense of craft.” While filmmakers like Steven Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster, Bogdanovich worked to preserve the best of what had come before. 

But by the late 1970s, he had directed some duds—for example, the well-meaning homage to thirties musicals At Long Last Love, which not only employed the singing voices of Cybil Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, but recorded them live. Tragedy also took the wind out of the wunderkind: his charming comedy They All Laughed (1981) was overshadowed on its initial release by the murder of one of its actresses, Dorothy Stratten, with whom Bogdanovich had been starting to build a life.

As he directed less, however, Bogdanovich returned to writing about film. “Bogdanovich, though he might never be allowed to direct another movie, looks admirably determined to keep at least one side of his best gift well tended and fruitful,” wrote the critic Clive James. The digital age found a place for him, too. On DVDs for classics like Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and Bringing Up Baby, Bogdanovich’s warm, weary voice supplied commentary tracks and a sense of history. Younger filmmakers of no relation, like Anderson and Baumbach, took to calling him “Pop.” (Bogdanovich reciprocated with “Son Wes” and “Son Noah.”) He has spoken out against movie violence and the “general numbing of the audience.” Lately, he has been working on getting Orson Welles’s unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, edited. This isn’t reinvention—merely the extension of a life’s work devoted to remembering the way the dream factory once manufactured its dreams.

That said, I don’t have high hopes for She’s Funny That Way, at least in commercial terms; Bogdanovich’s last few films haven’t been big successes, and anyway, screwball comedies are an acquired taste. (He may be a national treasure, but he’s not money in the bank.) Still, I’m cheered by the picture’s very existence, and by the fact that Bogdanovich—who once made a habit of pestering his idols—has attracted his own protégés. It’s certainly hard to imagine a better living repository of knowledge about movies, movie-making, and Hollywood’s golden age. Such precious data will need its monk-like defenders as the shadows cast by Marvel reboots and other hulking blockbusters throw the industry into greater darkness. Am I being reactionary? Let’s call it “nostalgic.” I got that from Pop.