In 1974, Peter Bogdanovich had a firm grasp on Hollywood’s brass ring. He had three commercially and critically successful films under his belt: The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up, Doc?
Picture Show was instantly recognized as a contemporary classic. It received eight Academy Award nominations and was hailed by some as the finest American movie since Citizen Kane.
For Bogdanovich, who died on January 6, 2022, at the age of 82, it was a halcyon time. He was universally showered with encomiums — one writer dubbed him “the wunderkind’s wunderkind.”
Hollywood in the ’70’s was in the midst of a sea change. The number of film schools in the nation’s universities had doubled over the past decade and talent from those programs was flooding studios. Independent, literate films were in high demand.
Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola were scoring breakout hits. Bogdanovich, who had an innate sense for sophisticated yet personal storytelling, was at the vanguard of this movement.
Bogdanovich also attracted more public attention than his colleagues because of his conspicuous lifestyle: he was a throwback to the era of extravagant movie moguls. His home was a lavish mansion on Copa de Oro in Bel Air, California, not far from the residence of his childhood film idol, director John Ford. He traveled in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. And he had a splashy, much publicized affair with one of the stars of Picture Show, Cybill Shepherd.
Bogdanovich had met Shepherd on the set of that film, and in short order, they set up housekeeping together. Headlines followed them relentlessly — they were the first unmarried, living together couple featured on the cover of People magazine, a small eyebrow-raiser half a century ago.
“We were not modest,” Bogdanovich recalled. “My career was on fire. But in many ways, I was naïve. I did not always have the best judgment.”
By 1977, Bogdanovich’s bulletproof status exploded. Three failed films sent him spiraling into an epic fall from grace. At the age of 37, it appeared he would not have the opportunity to direct a major studio production again.
The Hollywood community, many of whom were zero-sum game players, did not rally in support of Bogdanovich. His celebrated rise and hedonistic existence had prompted little sympathy from many of his peers.
According to Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies, director Billy Wilder had this to say about Bogdanovich’s situation: “There is a canard that Hollywood is full of bitterness and dissension, envy, and hostility. It’s just not true. I have lived here for 40 years and I can tell you that it took one simple event to bring all the factions together — a flop by Peter Bogdanovich. Champagne corks were popping, flags were waving. The guru had laid an egg and Hollywood was delighted.”
Bogdanovich’s professional tribulations persisted at varying intervals for the next 20 years. He continued to make movies, but the product was uneven and distribution issues prevented any possibility of ticket sales mojo.
He went through bankruptcy twice, once being reduced to $21.37 in savings and $25.79 in his pocket. The Copo de Oro dreamscape was repossessed by the bank.
His personal life was also on a multi-tiered slide, punctuated by tragedy. He and Shepherd ultimately split but remained friends; she had a small part in his final feature, She’s Funny That Way.
Bogdanovich later found love with a former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten. This affair came to a devastating end when Stratten was savagely murdered by her estranged husband in 1980.
Eight years later, Bogdanovich married Stratten’s younger sister, L.B. They divorced in 2001, but reports indicate they were still living together at the time of his death.
In the last two decades of his life, Bogdanovich pulled off a respectable renaissance, fueled by two of his original career aspirations: writing and acting.
His books, Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s in It, were two well received collections of interviews/personal stories about A-List Hollywood luminaries of years past. They have been described as “riveting chronicles” that are of “timeless value.” In his life, Bogdanovich authored thirteen books about filmmaking: these last two are as well-crafted as anything he wrote.
Acting resurfaced for him in 2000 when he played a therapist in fifteen episodes of HBO’s mammoth hit, The Sopranos. This work was also met with critical acclaim.
Looking back on his bipolar Hollywood life and times, Bogdanovich said he was not bitter about any of it. “Success is very hard,” he told The New York Times. “Nobody prepares you for it. You think you’re infallible. You pretend you know more than you do. Pride goeth before the fall.”
Peter Bogdanovich, RIP