He's Still Got a Few Reels Left Like a tale out of his beloved old Hollywood, director Peter Bogdanovich has gone from golden boy to outcast. Now he's the older but wiser veteran with a new film.
Sunday, March 11, 2001, Los Angeles Times, By David Gritten
BERLIN, Germany--It's hard to think of another director who has scaled such heights and plumbed such depths both personally and professionally as Peter Bogdanovich. For a brief spell in the 1970s, he was a king among Hollywood filmmakers, but artistic decline, personal scandals and financial setbacks combined to drag him down. After toiling in television for a lengthy spell, he's now back directing a big-screen film for the first time in eight years.
Conveniently, it deals with two subjects familiar to Bogdanovich: Hollywood and scandal. "The Cat's Meow" is an independent movie, and he's shooting most of it here at a studio in the once Communist-dominated eastern part of the city. Its story, which unfolds over one weekend in 1924, concerns a largely hushed-up shooting incident on the Oneida, a pleasure yacht owned by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The guests on the Oneida that weekend were a glittering assembly: Hearst, his mistress, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Elinor Glyn, a writer of mildly racy novels.
"The Cat's Meow"--the title is an old-fashioned expression meaning "the best"--was written by Steven Peros, and first saw the light of day as a play. It was performed onstage at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood in 1997.
For the film, which is scheduled for release in the fall, Bogdanovich has assembled an intriguing cast; two British actors closely associated with comedy appear in key roles. Joanna Lumley, from the cult sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous," plays Glyn, who narrates the story in voice-over, while stand-up comic Eddie Izzard plays Chaplin. The other three stars are American; Kirsten Dunst is Marion Davies, Jennifer Tilly portrays Louella Parsons, while veteran actor Edward Herrmann is Hearst.
"The Cat's Meow" has a modest, undisclosed budget, requiring a tight shooting schedule. That suited Bogdanovich perfectly. Between 1994 and 1999, he stayed out of features, instead directing half a dozen movies for television.
"If I hadn't done them, I don't think I'd have been able to do this one with such speed," he noted. "Doing television reminded me that one can do good work quickly. It's no coincidence that Hitchcock shot 'Psycho' with a television crew, because he knew he wanted to go fast."
At this point, he was called to the set, a reconstruction of the dining room of the Oneida. A huge long banquet table was set for dinner, with silver cutlery--and the bottles of ketchup that Hearst liked so much and that visitors to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon invariably comment upon. Bogdanovich, 61, had devised a long tracking shot along one side of the table, passing each of Hearst's guests involved in witty, brittle dialogue with their dining neighbors: an economic means of establishing character.
The director, instantly recognizable with his neat, swept-back hair and trademark tinted horn-rimmed glasses, sauntered around the set, prompting members of the cast in a soft voice. Bogdanovich has languid body language and a deadpan manner--which he used to great effect on "The Sopranos" last season playing a psychiatrist treating psychiatrist Lorraine Bracco, a shrink's shrink as it were--but he commands real authority on set.
He is an entertaining conversationalist and eagerly regales listeners with anecdotes about Hollywood's great filmmakers. "One reason I was pleased to be doing [TV] was I felt everything in movies had gotten too expensive, took too long, everyone was spoiled," he said when the complex scene was finally shot. "What with spiraling costs, all the fun had gone out of it. So when some TV work was offered, I thought, why not do it? All the schedules were 19, 22, 24 days. It felt more fun to work fast. Your chops had to be pretty good."
Bogdanovich added that he actually asked for less shooting time on "The Cat's Meow," insisting it could be completed in 30 days. "I'm not only speaking personally but historically when I say that it's healthy to make pictures at an accelerated pace," he said. "It's better than taking time and spending the kind of money that now is obscenely spent as matter of course on big pictures. There's something that hurts the creativity in that area. All the money and the technology in the world are no guarantee of better pictures."
He paused with a wintry smile. "On the other hand, a low budget and a fast shoot are no guarantee either. But at least you spend less."
Of course, the unspoken question in all this is why Bogdanovich, once one of America's most feted directors, spent so long in the wilderness. He candidly admits the movie studios that once clamored for his services were shying away from him.
"I certainly wasn't on the A-list," he said. "I probably wasn't on anyone's B-list."
But he insists he felt no rancor or bitterness: "I've already been through enough and seen enough other careers to know that in show business, careers go up and down. It's the nature of the business. None of the last few films I'd made had good distribution, so they didn't have a chance to make money. I thought they were good. But I know that reflected on me. . . . I've had my share of personal and business challenges and obstacles."
That's an understatement. His life and career have been marked by extraordinary fluctuations; he has known contentment and despair, remarkable success and hugely publicized failures. It is hard now to remember just what a big deal he used to be. A New York-based film writer and critic, he emerged with critical acclaim for his first feature, "Targets" in 1968, followed three years later with his elegiac black-and-white classic, "The Last Picture Show."
In successive years, critics and audiences alike adored "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon." (It was estimated that "The Last Picture Show" and these two films grossed on average 10 times their production costs, a statistic that now seems unthinkable.) Bogdanovich had a reputation as a director with an agile mind, an artist whose films were commercial but thoughtful and literate, and paid generous homage to the memory of earlier American movie-making legends--John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles. He got very rich very quickly, bought a mansion in Bel-Air, and was living with his most famous leading lady--Cybill Shepherd, star of "The Last Picture Show."
Within the space of four years, his position in Hollywood seemed unassailable. But then his bubble burst abruptly. Two films conceived as showcases for Shepherd, "Daisy Miller" and "At Long Last Love," failed at the box office, notoriously so in the latter case. So did "Nickelodeon," a comedy about the silent movie era. Bogdanovich and Shepherd split up, and then the director's life became immeasurably worse. His movie "They All Laughed" was shelved by its distributor, 20th Century Fox. This encouraged him to distribute it himself, with disastrous results. The film's woeful performance at the box office cost him $5 million, and he ended up in bankruptcy court.
But that was not the worst of it. Featured in the film was Bogdanovich's mistress Dorothy Stratten, a former Playboy centerfold; he was grooming her for stardom, as he had done for Shepherd. But before "They All Laughed" opened in 1980, the 20-year-old actress was shot dead by her estranged husband. It was a bleak period for Bogdanovich, intensified by the knowledge that many people in Hollywood seemed to be gloating at his comeuppance. His career was briefly resurrected in 1985 with the well-received film "Mask."
Then his subsequent marriage to Dorothy Stratten's younger sister Louise, who was only 12 when Dorothy died, kick-started more gossip among his enemies; he and Louise Stratten are still together. These days Bogdanovich refers obliquely to his turbulent past with a resigned, world-weary air.
It is fair to say he has been out of favor with mainstream Hollywood for much of the last 20 years. But there are signs that his star may be ascending once more. After he declared bankruptcy a second time in 1997 and after a jury found against him to the tune of $4.2 million in a real estate dispute, fellow director Quentin Tarantino offered to let him stay at his home and offered support. Bogdanovich, who doesn't live with Tarantino anymore, now lives in New York.
"We've become friends," said Bogdanovich dryly. "I think he's good, and he thinks I'm good, so we get along."
Tarantino has offered to act in an upcoming Bogdanovich film, "Wait for Me," a ghost story in which a movie director looks back on his life. He will play one of six ghosts in the film. Bogdanovich said that Jerry Lewis would also play a cameo role, and that Shepherd might also appear. "After that, I have a little comedy called 'Squirrels to the Nuts,' lined up," he added. "With a title like that, it had better be a comedy, and it is. It's a sex comedy set in New York."
What with this burst of feature film work, combined with plans to take "The Cat's Meow" to the Cannes Film Festival, one might conclude Bogdanovich was on the cusp of a major comeback. He raised his eyebrows, assuming an expression somewhere between resignation and disbelief. "Oh, in this business, who can ever tell?" he said with a small sigh.
"The Cat's Meow" has an intriguing history in Bogdanovich's life--one that goes back 30 years. He befriended Orson Welles and was in a minority of film people who continued to champion Welles throughout his later years, at a time when most of Hollywood had shamefully deserted him. "Orson told me the whisper about this story back in 1969," recalled Bogdanovich.
"We were doing a book together about his films, talking about 'Citizen Kane,' and the name of Hearst came up. This story he had heard was in the first draft of 'Citizen Kane,' but he, Orson, took it out. He said [screenwriter Joseph] Mankiewicz put it in, in a draft originally called 'American.' Orson took it out when he revised the script. 'I didn't think Charlie Kane was a killer,' Orson told me."
Bogdanovich wants to play down the details of the shooting incident, because he feels too much advance knowledge might spoil "The Cat's Meow" for the audience. "All you know at the beginning of the movie is there was a shooting, because it begins with a funeral," he said. "You know someone's going to get hurt--the question is who?
"There was this mysterious occurrence on Hearst's yacht in 1924. Famous people were reputed to be on the yacht, and there are several versions of who they were. Elinor Glyn narrates and says: 'Everything was told in whispers. This is the whisper told most often.' We've gone with 'the whisper heard most often.' The whole picture plays in two days, and we follow what's reputed to have happened. There are holes in the narrative, so no one knows what really happened on that yacht."
Playwright Steven Peros, whom Bogdanovich invited to stay on the set of "The Cat's Meow" for the entire shoot, recalled he had originally written the story as a screenplay in 1990. "For six years, various people tried to get it made, until finally I got tired of talking about it. A producer agreed to finance it as a play, and I wrote an adaptation. "The play made the screenplay better. It's a better film for the 10 years that have passed. I like to think I'm a better craftsman now. I think the story has strong appeal. It's not a whodunit, but a 'who will it be done to?' "
Bogdanovich said the script, temporarily titled "California Curse," landed on his desk because "of my knowledge about old Hollywood. No one knew I knew the whisper. No one connected it to Orson at all."
From the point of view of the cast, there's no question that Bogdanovich remains an attraction. Lumley said she had put on hold a commitment with BBC Television to play Glyn. "It meant going to Germany, and none of us is working for very much money," she said. "But then again, it's a chance to work with Peter Bogdanovich."
So, to adapt that famous line from "Sunset Boulevard," it could be: "Ready for your comeback, Mr. Bogdanovich?" The director remains noncommittal about his prospects, or whether he ever sees himself working with a major studio again: "You know, it all depends. It depends on the material, the deal, the budget. Right now, I want to do some good pictures, and I have some good scripts I like that I'm preparing. I'm not saying no to anything in principle."
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