Long before Quentin Tarantino's rise to fame, Peter Bogdanovich reigned as America's foremost cinephile-turned-filmmaker: He began his career as an actor, but made a name for himself as a journalist. After working under legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Bogdanovich hit big with 1971's critical and commercial success The Last Picture Show. His follow-ups, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, were also hits, but his next three films–two of them vehicles for then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd–flopped. After this career downturn, the murder of paramour Dorothy Stratten, and the failure of the self-released They All Laughed, Bogdanovich made only three films during the '80s, including the much-liked Mask. In the '90s, he worked primarily in television, directing films like To Sir With Love 2 and Disney's A Saintly Switch, and he plays Lorraine Bracco's psychiatrist in The Sopranos. Recently, Bogdanovich directed his first theatrically released film since 1993: The Cat's Meow, a comedy-drama based on the much-speculated-upon love triangle involving publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, his mistress (actress Marion Davies), and Charlie Chaplin. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the veteran filmmaker about Orson Welles, the '70s, and why everything started to go wrong with Rebel Without A Cause.
The Onion: Not a lot of people realize that you began your career as an actor, and that you studied under Stella Adler. Was that a useful experience?
Peter Bogdanovich: Yes, definitely. I was 16 when I started to work with her, but I had to lie about my age and say I was 18, because you had to be 18 to get into her class. I studied with her for four years, until I was about 20. It was key. I learned about everything having to do with acting, because Stella was such a great teacher, and very inclusive. I would say that I even learned about directing, because when you're directing, a lot of what you have to do is direct actors. Over the years, I've found that whenever I need to direct an actor, which is often, I find myself looking into the role and thinking about how I would play it. It's the only way I know how to direct. So I always thought of myself as an actor who directs, whereas most people thought of me as a director who writes. Luckily, The Sopranos has changed that perception a little bit.
O: Does that bother you?
PB: It sort of irritated me over the years, because everybody would say, "Well, as a critic, you did this and this," and I thought, "I'm not a critic." I have written about movies, but I never really thought of myself as a critic. I thought of myself as a popularizer, a person who wrote about films and film figures because I was interested in learning about them.
O: When you started out, film culture was considerably different than it is now.
PB: Wow, that's an understatement. It's changed about as drastically as Hollywood has changed. There's hardly any interest in anything made longer than five years ago. The lack of film culture is one of the things that really upsets me. There's this complete lack of interest in anything that was made longer than 10 years ago. Younger people don't seem to know anything about older films.
O: So you think that cinephiles of today tend to have a shorter historical memory than cinephiles of an earlier age?
PB: Yes. And it's not just movie history that nobody knows. It's regular history. America is a young country, I suppose, and maybe that's the reason why there's no tradition of tradition. That's part of the problem with the country. It's a young country, so it's interested in things that are young, and there's no interest in the past. Since movies are the youngest artistic medium, it's awfully easy to get to know movies. Well, it's not awfully easy, but it's certainly tougher learning about the entire history of painting or music or literature. And yet there's this lack of interest.
O: It's ironic, too, in that there are all these new technologies, like DVDs, that allow people to experience the films of the past.
PB: Yes, older films are available now, in a way that they never were before. And there's less interest than ever. It's just awful. It's like ignoring buried treasure, but it's not even buried. It's right there. And the younger people have no interest. If they hear it's in black and white, they don't even want to look at it. It's barbaric.
O: One of the things that was intended to increase interest in older films is the American Film Institute's lists of the best films, but those seem pretty flawed. What's your take on the AFI?
PB: It's a way to sell older films. Everybody knows that. That's fine, as long as you don't count on that being absolutely accurate. Everybody's got an opinion about the movies, so they ask experts like Bill Clinton. How would he know about the movies, except for what he likes?
O: What do you think of the state of film criticism today?
PB: I think there are some good critics and there are some not-so-good critics, which is how it's always been. What bothers me is that there's no discourse and no conversation about the earlier films. Nobody seems to be interested in them, and I don't quite understand, except within the context of the lack of interest in anything older.
O: When Billy Wilder died, he had apparently been trying to get a film made for the last two decades of his life. And, of course, Orson Welles was famous for not getting various projects made. Why do you think older filmmakers, even legendary older filmmakers, have such a difficult time getting films made?
PB: Because we live in a young man's world. There's an inordinate emphasis on youth, and I think since the middle of the '50s, there's been a terrible kind of turning against parents, against authority figures and family. I can date it, if you want, from Rebel Without A Cause. I remember my mother coming back from seeing it and saying she didn't like it. I was 16 or so at the time, and I asked why. She said it was a dangerous and unfair movie. I asked why. She said, "Because every adult in the movie is pictured as an idiot, and every teenager is depicted as a misunderstood, sensitive soul." She said there was no balance in the picture, and she was right.
O: What about Jim Backus [who played James Dean's well-meaning but clueless dad]? His character is depicted in a fairly positive light.
PB: No, he's depicted as an idiot. He's Mister Magoo.
O: But he seems to be trying. I mean, he's reaching out to his son, even if he's not successful.
PB: Well, sort of, but he's doing it while wearing an apron. The movie is definitely a put-down of the older generation. And then James Dean was killed before it was even released, so you have the whole martyrdom of the teenager. Teens found their hero. And I could sympathize when I was that age, but now I'm at the age of the parents, so I see that it's evolved into a sort of anti-family, anti-parent thing. A lot more contributed to it than poor old Rebel Without A Cause, but unfortunately it reverberates.
O: Do you think popular culture has a negative impact on the rest of society?
PB: Oh, yes, and anybody who says it doesn't is lying or blind. "You're blind, Mister Magoo!" That's a line from Sweet Smell Of Success. There used to be a respect for family. America used to be known as the home of apple pie and Mom. It's not that way anymore.
O: Looking over your filmography, you've done a lot of period films. What attracts you to those projects?
PB: I like period pictures because when you do a period picture, if you do it right, it's sort of like a pre-shrunken shirt. It won't date, because it's already dated. It's kind of pre-dated, because you capture a moment in time. What dates, actually, is the cast. In other words, Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show are of the '70s, and yet the film is set in the '50s, and everything within the film is of the '50s except for the cast.
O: You started out in the film industry working with Roger Corman. How did you hook up with him?
PB: Coincidence. I was at a showing of a French film in Beverly Hills, and he was sitting behind me, and someone who was with us knew him, and they went up to him and said, "Roger, do you know Peter Bogdanovich?" And he said, "No, but I've read your stuff in Esquire. Have you ever thought about writing for the movies?" And I said, "I'd love to," and he hired me to write a screenplay. And then, after I had just begun writing it, he asked me to work with him as an assistant on a film called The Wild Angels. It's the first popular motorcycle movie. I worked for 22 weeks on that picture, and did everything from ordering lunches to directing. I actually directed the second unit on that picture for three weeks. I learned an enormous amount about the practical side, the technical side of making movies from that experience, from Roger. And then he gave me the chance to make my first film, Targets, and that was it.
O: In some of Corman's biker films, he cast actual bikers as extras. Did that present any problems?
PB: Yeah, because they hated him, and then they hated me because I was his assistant. The Hells Angels never liked Roger because he never said, "Thank you."
O: The Hells Angels are hung up on politeness?
PB: No, he'd just go, "Hurry up, hurry up, start your bike, we don't have time." And, you know, they don't like to be rushed.
O: Another Corman film you were involved with was Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women.
PB: Yes, it was a Russian science-fiction film that Roger had called Storm Clouds Of Venus that he had dubbed into English. And he came to me and said, "Would you shoot some footage with some women? AIP won't buy it unless we stick some women in it." So I figured out a way to work some women in it and shot for five days, and we cut it in. I narrated it, because nobody could make heads or tails of it. Roger wouldn't let me add any sound. It was just a little cheap thing we did, and people think I directed it when I really only directed 10 minutes of it.
O: What attracted you to the script for The Cat's Meow?
PB: Well, 33 years ago, in a conversation with Orson Welles about Citizen Kane, he told me the basic plot of what became The Cat's Meow. He told me what happened on the yacht. He had been told it by a screenwriter named Charles Lederer who was marrying Marion Davies' nephew. He'd known about it since he was about 12, because he had grown up with her. Orson told it to me as an example of how Kane wasn't supposed to be Hearst. If Kane was supposed to be Hearst, Orson would have included the incident, when in fact he had it taken out of the script. [Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman] Mankiewicz put it in, but Orson had it taken out because he didn't feel that Charles Foster Kane would behave that way. Kane was actually based a lot on a famous Chicagoan named Robert McCormick, who'd had an opera house built for his girlfriend, who was a singer.
O: The common perception is that Kane is based on Hearst. Were you at all concerned that your relationship with Welles might affect the way you depicted Hearst?
PB: That's the common misperception. People say, "Is this your revenge for Hearst having blacklisted Citizen Kane?" Not really. In fact, as The Cat's Meow developed, I felt Hearst became more sympathetic than anybody really thought he would be. This had partially to do with Edward Herrmann's sensitive performance, but I think you realize that Hearst was truly in love with Marion, obsessed with her in a way, and there's something very sympathetic about a fool for love. I've been there, and I don't know if I come off as sympathetic, but other people do.
O: How did your relationship with Orson Welles begin?
PB: Well, first off, I loved his movies. Seeing Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Lady From Shanghai when I was about 15, I realized that this extraordinary presence could be behind the camera. I realized suddenly, "Wow, this guy directed the picture, the one I was watching." I thought he was extraordinary, and I was fascinated by him. Strangely enough, I wrote a program note for a revival house in 1960 about Orson's Othello. The curator at the Museum Of Modern Art called me shortly after that and said that the Museum Of Modern Art was going to do an Orson Welles retrospective, the first in the country, and would I program it and write the accompanying monograph. I asked him why he didn't do it himself, since that's what he usually did. He said he didn't like Welles, but that there were enough people who did for them to do a retrospective. This was 1961, and it was the first and longest retrospective of Welles ever done in the country. And I published the monograph about his films, for which I said that Othello, for example, was the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, because it was the only Shakespearean adaptation that was a real film, which was hardly the common perception at the time. At the time, Orson's Othello was considered to be a piece of junk not to be spoken of within the same breath as [Laurence] Olivier's Hamlet. So I took an opposing view, and I said that the dark poetry of Orson Welles was among the highest works of the cinema. This monograph was sent to Orson somewhere in Europe, and I never heard back until seven years later. This was 1968, and I was in Los Angeles now, and I answer the phone, and a rather familiar voice says, "Hello, this is Orson Welles. I can't tell you how long I've wanted to meet you." I say, "You just took my line." And he says, "You have published the truest words ever written about me… [pauses for effect] in English." He said, "I'm over here at the Beverly Hills Hotel, what are you doing around 3 o'clock tomorrow, can you come up?" And I said yes, and that's what began our friendship.
O: It seems like you've either interviewed, collaborated with, or befriended many of the great directors of the studio systems. Was it difficult to make the transition from being a fan and admirer to being a friend?
PB: Well, Orson made everything easy. Orson had this way, if he wanted to, of disarming you. And he did that in our first meeting. We spent two, three hours talking, and after about 20 minutes, I felt like I could tell him anything. It was like I had known him for 20 years, when I had known him for 20 minutes. He had that ability. So Orson and I became close rather quickly. Not that he couldn't turn on you. We had a complicated relationship, but the advantages of it, what I learned and what I gained from it, are immeasurable.
O: It seems like the larger-than-life director is kind of dying out. Can you conceive of anybody from today ever reaching that level?
PB: Today, no.
O: What young filmmakers excite you? Do you think any of them have the potential to reach that level of brilliance?
PB: I don't know that anybody from today can become like that, because, don't forget, it was a different world. Films were made differently. There was a system, a factory system, to making films. People were under contract. They weren't all independent contractors. The craftsmen, the technicians, the artists, the actors, they were all under contract to various studios. It was kind of like greased machinery, and it worked. There were departments for everything, and you could make movies a lot easier. And the world was going to the movies more. There was more attention paid, and you could make more movies quickly, because you didn't have to worry about where you were going to come up with the money. It was just a whole different world that's gone and will never come back. To have the kind of career that, for example, John Ford had, where he made 140 movies, that can't happen today. Hitchcock made 53 movies. He couldn't make that many movies these days. And every time you make a movie, you learn something, so the experience factor comes into play. But there are young directors that I like, like Tarantino and Wes Anderson. There's a bunch of them, I just don't know them all. I liked that Ghost World movie. That was charming. I thought it was well done. There's a lot of talent around, but the machinery isn't there.
O: The '70s are considered a golden age for Hollywood, in that filmmakers took a lot of chances and made more challenging films. Do you think that decade is overrated?
PB: First of all, the decade wasn't really the '70s. It really began in '67 or '68. The '70s really began in 1968, with John Cassavetes' Faces, which was the first off-Hollywood movie that was successful at the box office. I made a movie that year, and a few other younger filmmakers started then as well, making movies that were off-Hollywood. Bob Rafelson made Five Easy Pieces, Dennis Hopper made Easy Rider. By then, the studio system had collapsed. The studio system collapsed around 1962, and nobody was under contract anymore. Everybody was on their own, and there was a dark age for about six years. And then, suddenly, when Paramount had four multimillion-dollar catastrophes in a row—four movies that cost $100 million and barely made a cent—and Easy Rider cost $900,000 and grossed a fortune, suddenly studios went, "Huh. Maybe we should go with these younger directors and give them some power and some freedom, because we don't know what to do." So that's what they did. I made a joke at the time that the easiest way to get to direct a movie was never to have directed one before. And it was true. That worked for about five or six years, until we all started fighting, spending too much money, and having flops. And then Spielberg released Jaws in 2,000 theaters, which was the first time an A-picture based on a bestseller had been released like an exploitation film. And that changed the way movies were distributed and made, because over the next few years, all movies were released like Jaws, all at once. The whole idea of building word of mouth on a picture went out the window, and you had to be able to open. And how do you open unless you have a picture that plays for everybody? It's mostly for kids, as a result. You know, you have action and adventure and a big star. All that changed the movies for the worse. Now you've got the Top 10 box-office hits of the week, and never, never did that happen before, where the grosses are reported on the news, as if that was a mark of quality. What can I say?
O: Are you as excited about the possibilities of film as you were 30 years ago?
PB: I'm still excited about the possibilities of film, and I'm most excited about the digital revolution and independent-film movement which is with us. I don't want to sound pompous here, but the hope of film as an art form is with the smaller-budgeted independent films, rather than the bloated Hollywood extravaganzas that are made for too many people and are therefore watered-down, homogenized, and meant for the lowest common denominator. You look at the average, well-made movie of the '30s… well, not average, but the good movies of the '30s: Trouble In Paradise or The Lady Eve or The Awful Truth. If you look at it today, you'll see that those films were made for adults, but kids could see them. Whereas today, films are made for kids, and adults are expected to tolerate them. It's a whole new world.