Celluloid Heroes: Love and Addiction in Hollywood
The Peter Bogdonavich story is the saddest movie ever made.
Posted Nov 19, 2020
TCM is currently streaming the podcast “The Plot Thickens: I’m Still Peter Bogdanovich,” in which Ben Mankiewicz interviews Bogdanovich about the director’s movies, his rise and fall, and his personal relationships.
I should first note that Ben Mankiewicz himself comes from a remarkable family. His father, Frank Mankiewicz, was Robert Kennedy’s communications director and George McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager. His great uncle is Joe Mankiewicz, who directed Bette Davis in All About Eve.
Most noteworthy, Ben is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who is the subject of the Netflix movie, Mank, starring Gary Oldman as Mank and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies. The film concerns Mank’s role in writing Orson Welles’ all-time great film, Citizen Kane, a 1941 fictionalized account of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst’s life with his muse, Davies.
Mankiewicz knew Hearst and Davies, whom Welles never met. (Hearst nonetheless blacklisted both men from mention in his newspapers.) So who was most responsible for creating the film? Most film historians attribute the work to genius “auteur” Welles.
The Traumas of Peter Bogdanovich
Ben Mankiewicz greatly admires former director Bogdanovich, who himself has claims to genius filmmaking.
But Bogdanovich, now 81, while still an entertaining interviewee, is worn down. He appears to be depressed throughout the podcast. And he traces his depression to a single relationship he lost over 40 years previously, with a woman who was herself murdered by her jealous husband.
Yes, love is the most destructive, the most lethal, addiction. After all, when people withdraw from heroin or cigarettes, they don’t kill themselves (which the husband did after murdering his wife). Heroin addiction withdrawal is vastly overstated when compared with love addiction withdrawal.
Which brings us to Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich’s work and love life are inseparable. As he tells Mankiewicz, “The whole thing about my personal life got in the way of people’s understanding of the movies. That’s something that has plagued me since the first couple of pictures.”
Peter Bogdanovich, a potentially great director, had lost not only his great love but all of his intimate love relationships, along with his career.
The Early Genius
Bogdanovich, age 21, married a young artist, Polly Platt, in 1962, to whom he remained married until 1971. Together they made a series of great films.
Before that, Bogdanovich in his early 20s, curated a series of films by great filmmakers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, then wrote monographs about the directors. These included John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alan Dawn, and Alfred Hitchcock. (Bogdanovich was later to write a book about Welles, whom he came to know and work with.)
Following this precocious performance, Bogdanovich moved to Hollywood with Platt to make films. He began by working for low-budget schlock-meister filmmaker Roger Corman. Under Corman, Bogdanovich directed the critically praised Targets (1968) and The Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968).
Moving on, still working with Platt, the 32-year-old Bogdanovich released The Last Picture Show (1971). The film received eight Academy Award nominations, including Bogdanovich as best director, and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Cloris Leachman. The film starred 19-year-old model Cybill Shepherd and 21-year-old Jeff Bridges.
The End of Love
Still working with Polly Platt, Bogdanovich followed Show with another major hit, What's Up, Doc? (1972), a screwball comedy starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. This was followed by Paper Moon (1973), a Depression-era comedy starring Ryan and 8-year-old Tatum O'Neal (who also won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.) This last film was to prove the highwater mark of Bogdanovich's career.
In the meantime, Bogdanovich had become involved with Cybill Shepherd, leaving Platt. He made an adaptation of the Henry James novella, Daisy Miller (1974), starring Shepherd, that spelled the beginning of the end of Bogdanovich's career as a popular, critically acclaimed director.
He followed Miller with At Long Last Love (1975), a musical in which the stars, Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, sang live. The film was widely ridiculed, as none of the actors were singers.
Bogdanovich then returned to the past by making Nickelodeon (1976), starring Ryan and Tatum O'Neal with Burt Reynolds. He replaced Cybill Shepherd in the film because she was now box office poison.
After a three-year hiatus, Bogdanovich made Saint Jack (1979) for Hugh Hefner's Playboy Productions Inc. Bogdanovich got Playboy to produce the film as part of the settlement of a lawsuit Shepherd had filed for publishing nude photos of her pirated from a print of The Last Picture Show.
St. Jack featured Ben Gazarra and a Singaporean actress, with whom Bogdanovich began an affair, then moved her to the U.S. Shepherd was (as Platt had been) devastated. The affair with the Singaporian woman was short-lived.
Bogdanovich then made another film, this one in New York, They All Laughed (1981), a low-budget ensemble comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and 1980 playmate of the year, then age 20, Dorothy Stratten.
Stratten was discovered working at a Vancouver Dairy Queen by local hustler Paul Snider when she was 18. At 19 she moved to Hollywood as a Playmate centerfold.
Bogdanovich, then 38, fell in love with Stratten. When Stratten moved in with Bogdanovich, and told Snider she was leaving him, Snider shot and killed her, then committed suicide.
Bogdanovich pulled They All Laughed to distribute himself, against all advice, driving the emotionally devastated director into bankruptcy.
Bogdanovich then spent four years writing The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten (1960-1980).
Bogdanovich's career as a noted director was over, although he achieved modest success with Mask (1985) starring Cher and Eric Stoltz.
Bogdanovich later had a 13-year marriage to Dorothy Stratten's 19-year-old younger sister Louise Stratten, who was 29 years his junior, from 1988 to 2001.
Strangest of all, Bogdanovich now lives with ex-wife Louise Stratten and her and Dorothy’s mother.
Peter Bogdanovich's ruin as a director was guaranteed when he ditched his wife and artistic collaborator Polly Platt for Cybill Shepherd. In 1998, the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress named The Last Picture Show to the National Film Registry, an honor awarded only to the most culturally significant films. Yet Bogdanovich now remains a minor, forgotten figure in cinema history, one who lost his career to a series of seemingly self-made misfortunes.
And Bogdanovich’s lasting psychological legacy: He devoted his life to a fantasy constructed around a young, naive, dead woman with whom he was involved for a few months, now more than 40 years ago.
Yes, love is the most destructive, long-lasting addiction, one that ruins lives, both the lives of the dead, and those who remain.