Actors Studio, Arthur Miller, Clash By Night, Clifford Odets, David Marshall, Dorothy Stratten, Fritz Lang, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Lee Strasberg, Life Among The Cannibals, Marilyn Monroe, Monkey Business, Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich, the filmmaker, actor and historian, has died of natural causes at home in Los Angeles, aged 82. He was born in Kingston, New York in 1939, to immigrant parents who had recently fled Nazi-occupied Europe. Herma, his mother, was an Austrian-born Jew; while his father Borislav, a painter and pianist, was a Serbian Orthodox Christian. Peter attended classes at the Actors Studio as a teenager, and later studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory.
Only one time was I in Marilyn Monroe’s presence, and she never would have known it. During the winter of 1955, I was sitting a row in front of her at a Manhattan acting class being conducted by Lee Strasberg. Marilyn was 29, at the peak of her success and fame – with seven years left to live – wearing a thick bulky-knit black woolen sweater, and no make-up on her pale lovely face. The two or three times I allowed myself to casually glance back at her, she was absolutely enthralled, mesmerised by Strasberg’s every word and breath … From the glimpses I had of Marilyn, Strasberg certainly had her complete attention and support, but in a strangely desperate way. She didn’t look contented or studious; she looked quite anxious and passionately devoted to Strasberg as somehow the answer to her troubles.
– from Who the Hell’s In It? Portraits and Conversations by Peter Bogdanovich (2004)
During the 1960s, Bogdanovich – an obsessive cinephile, who watched around 400 movies a year – was a film programmer at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Heavily influenced by French auteur theory, he also interviewed important figures from Hollywood’s golden age, including several who had known and worked with Marilyn.
Clifford Odets [playwright, and screenwriter of Clash By Night] told me that Marilyn Monroe used to come over to his house and talk, but that the only times she seemed to him really comfortable were when she was with his two young children and their large poodle. She relaxed with them, felt no threat. With everyone else, Odets said, she seemed nervous, intimidated, frightened. When I repeated to [Arthur] Miller this remark about her with children and animals, he said, ‘Well, they didn’t sneer at her.’ – Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Hell’s In It?
I don’t know why she couldn’t remember her lines, but I can very well understand all the directors who worked with her getting angry, because she was certainly responsible for slowing down the work. But she was very responsive … One very bad thing: she asked me if I would mind if her female coach [Natasha Lytess] was there during shooting in the studio. I said, ‘No, under one condition – that you don’t let her coach you.’ Because when an actress has learned her lines and thinks she has caught the feeling of the part, got under the skin of the character, it’s very hard to change it. – Fritz Lang, director of Clash By Night (1952)
Monroe was frightened to come on the stage – she had such an inferiority complex – and I felt sorry for her. I’ve seen other people like that. I did the best I could and wasn’t bothered by it too much. In Monkey Business (1952), she only had a small part – that didn’t frighten her so much – but when she got into a big part … For instance, when she started her singing (for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953), she tried to run out of the recording studio two or three times. We had to grab her and hold her to keep her there … She was trying, for example, at the Actor’s Studio, to formularize her approach: She didn’t want to squander her energies. I’m not convinced it helped her at all. But that was her aim – to make it even more real. – Howard Hawks
Marilyn Monroe had no confidence in herself. She found it very difficult to concentrate, and she didn’t really think she was as good as she was. She’d worry about all kinds of things, and she would do the difficult things very well. Sometimes she was very distracted and couldn’t sustain it, and you had to do it in bits and pieces; sometimes she was in such a state of nerves that you’d have to shoot individual lines. But such was her magic that you’d put them all together and they seemed as if she spoke them all at one time. She was a real movie personality – a real movie queen. She had the way all these great picture personalities have … Quite different – and, I thought, much more subtle than it is now. – George Cukor, director of Let’s Make Love (1960) and the unfinished Something’s Got to Give (1962)
In 1966, Peter moved to Los Angeles with his wife and frequent collaborator, Polly Platt, and their two daughters. He worked with maverick producer Roger Corman on several films, including his directorial debut, Targets (1968), a crime thriller starring Boris Karloff. Peter also wrote a book about Orson Welles, and made a documentary on John Ford. At 32, he emerged as a leading light of the ‘New Hollywood’ with his elegaic masterpiece, The Last Picture Show. (In the 2009 novel, Life Among the Cannibals, author David Marshall imagined an older Marilyn Monroe playing Ellen Burstyn’s role.)
This was followed by What’s Up, Doc? (1972), starring Barbara Streisand, and inspired by the classic screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Leading man Ryan O’Neal would also appear in the Depression-era caper, Paper Moon (1973), alongside his ten-year-old daughter Tatum O’Neal, the youngest ever Oscar winner.
However, Peter’s box-office streak came to an abrupt halt with a string of flops starring his then-partner and protégée, Cybill Shepherd, including Daisy Miller (based on Henry James’ novella); At Long Last Love, a musical; and an ill-advised remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, before he regained critical favour with Saint Jack (1979.)
Tragedy struck in 1980, when his latest love, 20-year-old former model Dorothy Stratten, was shot dead by her estranged husband, shortly after filming They All Laughed. “It was a nightmare,” Peter recalled. “Dorothy was murdered and I went crazy. I decided I would buy the film back from Fox and I lost my shirt distributing it myself which was insanity. Unfortunately, nobody stopped me.” Peter later married Dorothy’s sister, Louise Stratten.
In 1983, actor Roger Rees would play a character based on Peter in Star 80, Bob Fosse’s fictional biopic of Stratten. Having filed for bankruptcy in 1985, Bogdanovich returned to filmmaking with Mask, starring Cher as the fiercely devoted mother of a young man disfigured by a recessive bone disorder (played by Eric Stolz.) He then reunited with Cybill Shepherd for Texasville, the 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show, and directed River Phoenix in one of his last films, The Thing Called Love (1993.)
After several years’ absence – and another bankruptcy claim – Peter returned to the screen with The Cat’s Meow (2001), based on the rumoured murder of silent film director Thomas Ince by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (although the official cause of death was heart failure.) He also played Elliott Kupferberg, psychotherapist to Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in HBO’s hugely successful mafia drama, The Sopranos, and had a voiceover role as a radio DJ in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movie series.
After the horrific mass shooting at a theatre in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, Bogdanovich wrote a heartfelt piece for the Hollywood Reporter, arguing against excessive violence in movies. His later films include the 2014 comedy, She’s Funny That Way, and a documentary about silent movie comedian Buster Keaton. In 2018, The Other Side of the Wind – a long-lost Orson Welles project in which Peter appeared, and also helped to complete – was released after more than forty years. It has been described as “the holy grail of cinema.”