Looking back is what Peter Bogdanovich does best. He can’t seem to go 15 minutes without quoting his old friend Orson Welles (”’Every performance looks better in black and white! Name me a great performance in color! Go on! I defy you!”’), and even Bogdanovich’s earliest movies (Targets, The Last Picture Show) were elegies to an evaporating past. Bogdanovich’s own life — a saga of sudden Hollywood glory, failure, bankruptcy, love, infidelity, murder, and karmic free fall — now feels like a fable from a distant era.
So it makes sense that his first feature film in nine years, The Cat’s Meow, is rooted in an Old Hollywood myth: Set in 1924, it’s about a killing on a yacht as various luminaries (news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, actress Marion Davies, movie mogul Thomas Ince, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, silent-film powerhouse Charlie Chaplin) cruise down the California coast. The Cat’s Meow, which garnered good reviews and solid grosses in two weeks of limited release, reacquaints Bogdanovich, 62, with something that was starting to feel like ancient history: success. ”You know what Ruth Gordon said when she was 72 and won the Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby? She got up and said, This is mighty encouragin’! That’s how I feel.”
EW gave this obsessive film historian (who plays Dr. Elliot Kupferberg on The Sopranos) a taste of his own medicine, asking him to look back on his legacy, before he began directing for TV. He hesitated for about two seconds:
Targets (1968) B-movie mogul Roger Corman gave Bogdanovich his first break, but it came with strange mandates: The director had to use horror star Boris Karloff, and he had to weave in footage from a 1963 Karloff/Jack Nicholson curio called The Terror. Bogdanovich’s solution: a sort of Ed Wood-meets-Taxi Driver reverie about a fading screen idol and a sniper. Karloff, says Bogdanovich, ”was 79, he had emphysema, he had braces on both legs—but he was wonderful.” When time came for a long, spooky speech, Karloff nailed it on the second take. The crew cheered. ”I looked at Boris and he had tears in his eyes,” Bogdanovich says. ”I went over to Evie, his wife. She said, ‘Do you know how long it’s been since a crew applauded for Boris?”’
The Last Picture Show (1971) A meditation on death, money, and sex in a blink-and-miss-it Texas town, this adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel became an unlikely hit, an eight-time Oscar nominee, and, in the words of one critic, ”the most impressive work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.” It also launched Bogdanovich’s own tangles with death, money, and sex: His marriage to production designer Polly Platt disintegrated as he began to woo the film’s ingenue, Cybill Shepherd. ”It was a tumultuous experience,” he says. ”I fell in love, my marriage broke up, I started an affair, my father had a stroke and died during the shooting. I don’t know how we got through it.”
What’s Up, Doc? (1972) A screwball comedy about screwball comedy, this frenzied Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal vehicle ushered in the giddiest phase of Bogdanovich’s career. ”In New York I had Picture Show still playing in first run on the East Side and What’s Up, Doc? playing at the Radio City Music Hall on the West Side, and they were both in the top 10 for about six months. That was outrageous. People did not like that. I mean, two hits of that magnitude? And then the Oscars and all that, and I was living with a very beautiful girl. The envy factor went sky-high.”