Lazarus, Reborn

Peter Bogdanovich wasn't dead. He was just acting like it.

Peter Bogdanovich, maybe the last man alive who wears a neckerchief without irony, holds a copy of a newspaper article in which his old friend Larry McMurtry is saying nice, or not nice, things about him--Bogdanovich can't tell which. "He's kind of risen from the dead," McMurtry was quoted as saying of the director who turned the author's elegaic novel The Last Picture Showinto a beloved black-and-white film in 1970, "and he wants to stay alive." The quote appeared in a piece about how, at long last, The Last Picture Showhad screened in Archer City, Texas, where the movie was made amid much chaos and distraction. Attending the screening and celebration were stars Jeff Bridges and Cloris Leachman, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1971 for her role as Ruth Popper, Timothy Bottoms' dispirited lover. Though he was not far away--only 138 miles, to be exact, resting up in a Dallas hotel--Bogdanovich declined to attend. Stormy weather and exhausting hours spent traveling to promote his new film, The Cat's Meow, kept him away.

He's scanning the story, which was published just hours ago, and stumbles across McMurtry's quote. "Back from the dead," the 62-year-old filmmaker repeats to himself, a small grin spreading across his soft, almost bulbous face. He sits at the end of a long conference table in a sleek Dallas office building; beside him rests his cell phone and a bottle of water in a tote bag he takes everywhere. He's asked what he thinks McMurtry meant--though it's probably a stupid question. A maker of three straight hits in the early '70s (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?and Paper Moon) and lover of beautiful women in their early 20s (Cybill Shepherd and Dorothy Stratten), he long ago fell from crowned prince to court jester. He made flop (At Long Last Love, a musical even he derides now) after flop (Nickelodeon) after flop (They All Laughed), became embroiled in a litany of scandals and lawsuits, went bankrupt and found himself directing made-for-TV movies--a long, long fall for the man who once imagined himself the second coming of Orson Welles, his friend and mentor. His life drove him nervous, landing him in a sanitarium at the end of the 1980s.

Anyone with any sense of film history knows what McMurtry means: Peter Bogdanovich, golden boy until he became whipping boy, is no longer on the shit list. He's not back on the A-list, either, but closer today than he's been in decades.

Nine lives, or close to it: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of The Cat's Meow.
Richard Forman
Nine lives, or close to it: Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of The Cat's Meow.

"Well, it's a typical McMurtry remark," Bogdanovich says, his smooth, deep voice filling the room like smoke. "I think what he meant was that I..." He pauses. "There are two things he could've meant. Probably what he meant was that I've got a picture that's coming out that's got good reviews. And I'm promoting it." Another pause. "Frank Sinatra said that to me."

"What's that?" I ask.

"When Mask was being released"--this would have been in 1985, long after Bogdanovich had gone from being revered to reviled--"Sinatra said, 'He comes back from the dead.' I keep rising, sort of like Lazarus, every few years." He doesn't laugh, doesn't chuckle or even grin.

"But youdon't think of it like that, do you?"

"Not the dead, but, you know, you sort of..." A pause. "I guess so. I don't think of it that way most of the time, but it's not inapt." Finally, a small smile.

In recent weeks, Bogdanovich has been schlepping up and down the PR trail dropping clues, hoping to lure audiences into The Cat's Meowwith scrumptious crumbs loaded with the empty calories of idle gossip: enormous success and rampant failure, horrific tragedy and overwhelming joy. It's almost as if he's using his past to sell his future--in this case, a rather affable bit of nostalgia for the black-and-white days of Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Ince and Louella Parsons, who gather aboard Hearst's yacht in 1924 for a weekend of mirth and murder. His life has always been an open book--quite literally, as in 1984 he penned a tome about the 1980 sodomy and murder of Stratten by her estranged husband--and he's never shied away from talking about the bad yesterdays. That's to be expected from a man who spent many years begging other filmmakers--among them Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey and other legends captured in his indispensable 1997 book Who the Devil Made It--for their tall tales of wow and woe.

But you can't get without giving something in return, and he gracefully hands over anecdote after anecdote loaded with heartbreak. That they don't smack of revelation is only because he's told so many of these stories before: his affair with Shepherd on the set of Last Picture Show, the impact of Stratten's death, the day he met Welles and on and on and on. He has nothing to hide; but how could he when, for so many years, he had nothing to show for years in would-be exile?

Twenty years ago, he all but gave up on the movies; certainly, they were happy to abandon him. When he was almost 13, in 1952, he began keeping record of every movie he saw; he'd take a note card, jot down the credits, pen a small review and keep it somewhere safe. He did that for 18 years, till he started shooting The Last Picture Show; when he was finished, he had accrued more than 5,000 cards. In the 1980s, he stopped going to movies almost entirely. The filmmaker wasn't even a fan any longer. He lost both loves of his life: first was Stratten, then came cinema.

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