By • Oct 25th, 2005 •

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My Dinner with Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich has lived one of the most interesting careers in American film since World War II. Starting out as an acting student of Stella Adler and eventually becoming an understudy with John Houseman’s American Shakespeare Festival (as a teen!). From there, Bogdanovich developed into a boy-genius film director with Targets, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon. His status as a film historian also distinguishes his work, having produced thoughtful and influential writings on such directorial greats as Howard Hawks, John Ford, and, most notably Orson Welles. Most recently, Mr. Bogdanovich has published Who the Hell’s in It? (Knopf) which functions as a companion piece of sorts to his 1997 book which profiled filmmakers called Who the Devil Made it? Who the Hell’s in It is a series of portraits and reminiscences of performers Bogdanovich have known or who have affected him in some significant way.

Bogdanovich’s career has had its ups and downs since his fast start, but he continues to write, act, and direct with great consistency. Somewhat ironically, his career has come full circle in a way as he is probably best known at present for his deft acting turn as Dr. Melfi’s therapist on The Sopranos.

Filmmaker and Author Peter Bogdanovich addresses the audience at East Hampton reading

To promote this book, Bogdanovich gave a reading at one of the most well-known bookstores on Long Island: Book Hampton in East Hampton, NY. He appeared from the manager’s offices looking fit and well-ironed. A crowd of about 30 were sprawled on the comfortable couches of the store. In the course of almost two hours, Bogdanovich entertained the crowd with a rousing series of readings from his new book, as well as a completely improvised set of pitch perfect imitations of the numerous Hollywood greats he met and in most cases, knew as friends. He told stories about Jimmy Stewart, mimicking Stewart’s trademark stammer with perfection. He told several stories about Cary Grant, cracking up the crowd with his faultless reproduction of Grant’s sing song cadences. The funniest stories concerned some of the more unusual run-ins with the likes of Marlene Dietrich with whom he had a hilarious encounter on a flight with Ryan O’Neal. Mr. Bogdanovich was nice enough to sit down with my wife and I over dinner at Babette’s (“I can’t eat soy, I ate so much I became allergic,” he admitted) in East Hampton and we spoke about his career and his new book. Mr. Bogdanovich hummed along with the music in the restaurant and informed us of the history of music that Babette’s was playing in between questions and the courses (“This is an old Bing Crosby tune from Road to Rio.”)

MR: I wanted to ask you about Boris Karloff. He is one of the only actors in the book who worked in “B” Pictures. Do you think he wanted to do more prestigious pictures? Do you think he would have been a big star today?

PB: He never seemed to think that way. He was a modest man, very self-effacing, a kind man. I don’t think he ever thought in those terms. Yet he was a big star. I asked him once how he felt about the monster, about being typed. He said he was very thankful to (Bogdanovich adopts Karloff’s accent and lisp) “the monster.” He was very grateful that he had found a niche. He wasn’t snobbish. He simply seemed thankful that he had been given a career. But, he really was a good actor.

MR: He was really wonderful in The Black Cat.

PB: Yes, The Black Cat. I saw it recently. Strange film. Lugosi (the other lead in the film) is not a very good actor. But, he did have a strong personality.

MR: Was there anyone left out of the book that you wished you had been able to include?

PB: I think I got everybody in. But there is at least another book, maybe two. The thought of it is exhausting. I don’t plan to write anything for awhile except scripts.

MR: A lot of the actors in your book made their mark with European directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Von Sternberg and the like. Why do you think this was? Do European directors work as well in today’s film industry?

PB: Well, you have Wolfgang Peterson, Jan De Bont, Lasse Hallstrom and the like who have had a strong impact in Hollywood and have made a transition to American films. One difference might be that the German film industry was very important during the silent era and influenced a lot of directors like Hitchcock. Lubitsch also had a remarkable impact on American films. Then there was Fritz Lang who had an indirect impact on film because he influenced Hitchcock and Hitchcock influenced so many filmmakers. Lang had less of an impact once he came to America. These directors helped pave the way for some of the current foreign directors who are having an impact now.

MR: I saw you recently in a documentary about the film Dial M for Murder. Do you think that film is one of the most underrated Hitchcock films?

PB: It is not one of the important ones, but it is very entertaining. Film Forum played the original 3-D version a couple of years ago. When you see it, you see why Hitchcock did it the way he did. The way he frames the thing, it is a revelation. It is the best 3-D movie I have ever seen. Not that I love 3-D movies. There is a great effect of Grace Kelly’s hand coming out towards the screen. It is too bad it wasn’t widely seen in that format.

MR: Most of the individuals in this book were stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Would their stardom have translated to today’s Hollywood?

PB: It is hard to know because that kind of world doesn’t exist anymore. John Wayne, for instance, spent ten years doing B Westerns and then he is in Stagecoach and he is suddenly a big star. But he is not the kind of actor that Hollywood would exploit today. Today they like versatile actors, actors with range, actors who have been trained. Again, it is a whole different world. So, in a lot of instances this stardom would not necessarily translate to the film business today. (pause) Wayne was typical of that generation in that personalities dominated acting and a personality could make an individual a star and not so much technique or versatility. He (Wayne) certainly typified that era. and does not typify this one.

MR: Cary Grant had a big impact on your life. He seemed to be a sort of mentor figure for you.

PB: I don’t know if he was a mentor, but he was full of good advice. Some of which I heeded, some of which I didn’t.

LR: Should you have heeded the advice you didn’t?

PB: Oh yes. I should have shut up about my private life.

LR: That is what a lot of people remember about you.

PB: Oh I know, but that’s not unusual in the movie business.

FR: Did he advise you about style?

PB: Not usually, but he did ask me about one of my jackets from Brooks Brothers. (Laughs and imitates Grant) He asked me if it was ‘off the rack?’

MR: In your book you mention a story about Grant considering the James Mason role in Heaven Can Wait. Was he close to doing this role?

PB: I don’t think so. I just think he was toying with Warren (Beatty). He didn’t want to be remembered as an old man. He had this in common with Dietrich and Garbo. He said, ‘You don’t want people to expect Cary Grant and then have me rolled in by wheelchair.’ Still, he did remain attractive until the end.

MR: A couple of the profiles were from the silent era, such as Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin. Did you sense anything different in their experience or approach that made them different from some of the others in the book?

PB: Lillian was a good actress. She could talk. She was good in talking roles. I can’t say I knew her; I had one experience with her. However, the sentiment that she expressed in the chapter ‘We didn’t work for money, we didn’t work for money, we worked for that’ and pointed to the screen. That was a really wonderful, innocent sentiment that helps you understand what it was like at the beginning of it all. We are a long way from that.

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