The long, twisty career of film director Peter Bogdanovich

Actor/director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich turns 80 this year: a good time to acknowledge the Kingston native’s considerable legacy to the world of cinema. His family having relocated to New York City when he was little, his connection to the Hudson Valley is admittedly tenuous, though he did return in 2013 to accept the Woodstock Film Festival’s Maverick Lifetime Achievement Award, give a talk at the Kleinert and attend the New York premiere of Will Slocombe’s Cold Turkey, in which Bogdanovich appears as an actor.

The son of Eastern European immigrants, Borislav Bogdanovich, a Serbian Orthodox Christian painter and pianist, and Herma Robinson, an Austrian Jew, Peter was born in Kingston on July 30, 1939. Serbian was his first language. He graduated from New York City’s Collegiate School in 1957, studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory while still a teenager and began appearing in, writing and directing in small theatrical productions (one of which was All in the Family star Carroll O’Connor’s stage debut). In the 1950s he performed with the New York Shakespeare Festival and directed an Off-Broadway production of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife.

Bogdanovich was an obsessive movie buff and began writing criticism and articles on film for such publications as Esquire and Cahiers du Cinéma. In the ’60s the Museum of Modern Art published his monographs and books on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, John Ford and Allan Dwan. He moved to Los Angeles in 1966 to try his own hand at filmmaking, and began working for B-movie director Roger Corman on The Wild Angels (1967). Corman backed Bogdanovich’s 1968 directing debut, the thriller Targets (1968), in which an aging horror film star played by Boris Karloff crosses paths with a mass murderer based on the 1966 University of Texas at Austin sniper. Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson liked Targets enough to set Bogdanovich up to direct the 1971 movie still regarded as his masterpiece: The Last Picture Show, based on an obscure novel by the not-yet-famous Larry McMurtry.

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Bogdanovich spent much of the ’70s interviewing his cinema idols, becoming friends with Orson Welles in the process and internalizing plenty of gossip and scandal about Hollywood’s Golden Age that would later surface in some of his films, such as Nickelodeon and The Cat’s Meow. He went on to direct several successful films, including What’s Up, Doc? Paper Moon and Mask, and quite a few flops, including Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Texasville, the sequel to Last Picture Show. (He blamed some of his failures on overly aggressive editing; later director’s cuts have fared better with critics.) The Directors Company, a partnership that he formed in the ’70s with Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin, proved a financial nightmare, and Bogdanovich’s career languished for long periods.

In the estimation of some critics, the director’s finest work is They All Laughed (1981), a romantic comedy about three private detectives who fall in love with the women whom they are hired to follow. The cast included Ben Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn, Colleen Camp, John Ritter and Dorothy Stratten. Bogdanovich, who had recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend, model/actress Cybill Shepherd (he has two children, Antonia and Sashy, by his first wife, screenwriter Polly Platt), fell head over heels in love with Stratten. Within weeks of the end of filming They All Laughed, Stratten’s estranged husband murdered her. A distraught Bogdanovich tried to self-distribute the film, with disastrous results. He later wrote a book about Stratten, The Killing of the Unicorn, and in 1988 married her younger sister Louise.

Bogdanovich went through a couple of bankruptcies, wrote some books and made some documentaries about filmmakers, did some acting. His 2001 feature The Cat’s Meow, dramatizing the mysterious death of director Thomas Ince aboard a yacht populated by Hollywood royalty, was based on an anecdote shared by Orson Welles. 

In more recent years, the director has worked as host for a number of classic film channels and taught directing at the University of North Carolina. He also revived his acting career, appearing as a disc jockey in the Kill Bill movies, Bart Simpson’s therapist on The Simpsons and Dr. Elliott Kupferberg in a recurring role in The Sopranos. Bogdanovich’s most recent directorial effort, She’s Funny That Way, was released in 2014. With an ensemble cast that included Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans and Owen Wilson, the film explores the romantic entanglements behind the scenes of a Broadway production.

What’s next? Who knows? Meanwhile, happy birthday from the land of your birthplace, Mr. B.

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