The return of Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich was once viewed as being among America’s greatest filmmakers, and was discussed in the same breath with his contemporaries – Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In 1971, Bogdanovich directed The Last Picture Show, and if you are a film student, you’ve seen it – the movie is still held up as an essential document of film of the era. But somewhere along the way Bogdanovich got lost. Some point to his post-Picture Show split from his wife Polly Platt, whose fertile imagination continues to appear, uncelebrated, in her work as producer for similarly era-defining films such as Say Anything and Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson’s Bottle Rocket.

But through the seventies, Bogdanovich’s films moved from interesting genre exercises (Paper Moon, Nickelodeon) to frustrating genre exercises (the Burt Reynolds-starred musical At Long Last Love), and, with the lone exception of 1985’s Mask, hits have been few and far-between.

Perhaps this will change with The Cat’s Meow, opening this Friday. Bogdanovich retells a classic Hollywood scandal in this film: That of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst (here played by the stentorian Edward Hermann) and his tempestuous relationship with actress Marion Davies (played by Kirsten Dunst), who may have been having an affair with Charlie Chaplin (played by the exceptional Eddie Izzard). It all led up to a death aboard Hearst’s yacht and was hushed up with great aplomb.

Advanced rumors have it that Bogdanovich is in prime form in this film, which would not be surprising: He began his career in film as an aspiring actor who moonlighted as a film critic and historian, and has played these three roles with increasing confidence in the past few decades: It hardly seems like a Hollywood documentary is made without Bogdanovich’s this visage appearing to offer some obscure factoid. His obsession for Hollywood history is such that he often uses antiquated cinematic narrative forms in his films, aping the look and feel of mid-century filmmakers such as Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, which can come off a little odd in films set in contemporary times, but feels marvelously in sync with period pieces.

It’s a lush, meticulously paced approach to storytelling – one sorely lacking in onscreen nowadays – and we can be grateful that Bogdanovich, at the very least, is preserving it as a living filmmaking technique. And besides, who doesn’t enjoy sitting down next to a fine storytelling and listening to something really wicked? And where are stories wickeder than in Hollywood.

 

The Cat’s Meow will open at the Uptown Theatre this Friday.