Oscars: Peter Bogdanovich on 'The Last Picture Show' and Charlie Chaplin trib
In 1968 Esquire film writer and MoMA film curator Peter Bogdanovich decided to follow the example of critics-turned-filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and try his hand at directing. Four years after moving to Hollywood, Bogdanovich’s second feature film, The Last Picture Show, received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and personal nods for Best Director and for co-writing the Adapted Screenplay. Though the film lost the top prize to The French Connection, the Academy did honor The Last Picture Show with Oscars for Supporting Actor Ben Johnson and Supporting Actress Cloris Leachman at the ceremony on April 10, 1972 hosted by Helen Hayes, Alan King, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Lemmon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. However, the 44th Academy Awards may be best remembered for the loving tribute to Charlie Chaplin after his 20 years in exile, which Bogdanovich himself organized to honor the man many consider the first true movie star. Bogdanovich shares his memories of that night with EW.
I had been to the Oscars once before in the late ’60s. I can’t remember which one. They all merge together. Unless you’re nominated, the Oscars are no fun to go to at all. You can see it better on TV. At least you don’t have to go through that horrible red carpet.
I can’t remember who hosted the night I was nominated in 1972. They weren’t Bob Hope.
I met Walter Matthau and Liza Minnelli for the first time. Walter was drunk and was being particularly obscene about Pauline Kael. Liza had seen The Last Picture Show and got on her knees and said, “Use me! Use me! Use me!” That was funny. Billy Friedkin who got the Best Director Oscar for The French Connection embraced me and said tearfully, “Peter, you’ll get a hundred of these,” before accidentally hitting me in the head with the Oscar he had just won.
I’ve often joked that I haven’t seen any pictures made after 1962, but I saw The French Connection and all the other nominees for 1971. Just when they read my name as a Best Director nominee, I looked over at Jeff Bridges who was across the hall from me. He did a thumbs-up gesture, but I shook my head like “No way.” And that was the shot of me that got on TV, me shaking my head, looking down. Everybody asked me afterward, “Did you know you weren’t going to win?” And I was like, “Um, yeah.” That became the big question: “Why were you shaking your head?” “Because I knew I wasn’t going to win!”
I think Billy handled himself much better in the political environment of the Oscars than I did. He was humble, and I wasn’t. He was generous to me, and I wasn’t particularly to him. Politically, he beat me in a million ways. I remember the funniest moment was at the Directors Guild where The French Connection won and Jack Lemmon came up to me and said, “This is a crock of s—. You made the best picture in 20 years.”
I told Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman that they would win. I don’t know if I quite believed it, but I said it. I said, “Ben, you’re going to win the Oscar for this.” And he got angry. He said, “Why the hell do you say that?” And I said, “It’s because I think you, in this part, are dynamite.”
I first met Ben in 1963 when I went to Monument Valley to do a piece on John Ford for Esquire. The picture was Cheyenne Autumn, and Ben was in it, so I hung out with him for three weeks. It was just Ben, Harry Carey Jr., Bing Russell, and I. And Ford, of course. I got to know him a bit, so when I went to make The Last Picture Show a few weeks later I was leafing through the Academy Players Character Men and I reached Ben Johnson. I hit my head and said, “My God, Ben Johnson, of course! He’s the one.” It wasn’t just one picture, it was his whole persona. I thought he’d be perfect for Sam the Lion. He turned it down three times, but I finally got Ford to call him and even that didn’t completely convince him. But he finally caved in and did it, and of course he was brilliant. When you see his speech by the lake, what you’re seeing is the first take.
Cloris Leachman’s big scene at the end, the kitchen scene, was one take, also. They don’t need more than one. They get it on the first take. She came in and read for the part of Ruth Popper, and she had been on a list of about 30 women Bob Rafelson suggested we should see. We saw most of them. But Cloris was the best, because she could look glamorous and plain at the same time. Cloris was really funny about it. She kept saying after every scene we shot, “Do you think that was the Oscar scene? Do you think I won the Oscar?” And after the kitchen scene at the end, I told her, “You just won the Oscar, honey.” “I can do it better!” she said. And I was like, “No, you can’t.”
NEXT: The director discusses his epic Chaplin tribute
Also that year, Burt Schneider, who produced The Last Picture Show, was bringing Charlie Chaplin’s pictures out again, for the first time in ages. So the Academy was going to help promote those rereleases by giving Chaplin a special Oscar. Burt called me and asked if I would do the montage of Chaplin clips to introduce Charlie’s arrival back to this country after 20 years in exile. So I said “Sure.” I knew Chaplin’s pictures pretty well, so it didn’t take long. I went through the ones I wanted as an editor, and put it together pretty quickly. But it was 13 ½ minutes. I sent it to Burt, he loved it, and he sent it on to the Academy. But a week later he calls me into his office, and he says, “Peter, they say they can’t run it.”
“They say it’s too long and that they can’t have 13 ½ minutes of film clips on a live show. What do you think we should do?”
“Burt, it’s Charlie Chaplin.”
Burt picked up the phone, called Oscar telecast producer Howard Koch, and said, “We can’t cut it.” So Howard Koch says, “But we can’t run it at that length. It’s not possible.” To which Burt replied, “Okay, sorry, Charlie won’t come.” So they ran it, and it became the talk of the Oscars.
I had never met Chaplin before he came to Hollywood for the Oscars tribute, but we were in communication beforehand. In fact, he gave us all the old films I used for the clip reel. They came directly from Charlie. I actually sent him the montage to see if he liked it before I sent it to the Academy, and he came back and said he wanted a clip from The Great Dictator in it, because there wasn’t one — it’s not one of my favorite films — but he wanted a shot of the dictator bouncing the world as a balloon. So we put that in. And that was his only comment.
Then the Academy told me that Charlie couldn’t walk down the stairs, so I just said why don’t we have the screen that shows the montage fly up at the end and he’s just standing there? The place will go nuts. So that’s what they did. Thirteen and half minutes of film ending with a four-minute sequence from The Kid which would make a stone cry. Believe me, I was there, the whole place was crying! It was this heartbreaking scene between Charlie and young Jackie Coogan. And then the final shot was the last image of The Circus, when Charlie just walks away. The place went nuts, the people just started cheering, the screen went up, Charlie was there, everybody stood up, and the place went berserk. It was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever seen.
Then, Cybill Shepherd and I — we were living together at the time — went to the Governors Ball. And Charlie was at a table with his wife, Oona O’Neill, so I went over and I said, “Hello, I’m Peter Bogdanovich, and I did the montage.” And Oona said, “Charlie, this is the man who did the montage.” And, now, keep in mind, Jackie Coogan was not only in the clip from The Kid we showed, but he was in the audience as part of the tribute, and so Charlie turns to me and goes, “Very good, very good, very good, yes, yes…. Jackie Coogan.”
And I said, “Yes.”
I said, “Yes.”
“He was a little boy. And now he’s a fat old man.”
And I didn’t know what to say to that. So Oona stepped in and said, “But wasn’t it a marvelous tribute, Charlie?” “Yes, yes, very good, very good.” And that was pretty much the end of it.
(As told to Christian Blauvelt)