Saturday, March 08, 2008

PETER BOGDANOVICH—Targets; The Last Picture Show; At Long Last Love

"Costa, Bogdanovich and Welles, oh my! Costa, Bogdanovich and Welles, oh my!! Costa, Bogdanovich and Welles, OH MY!!!" Thus goes the little paraphrased ditty that San Franciscans chant as they warily skip down Market Street, here in the merry old land of EOR ("Embarrassment of Riches"). Between the Still Lives: Films of Pedro Costa retrospective running at the Pacific Film Archives ("PFA"), The Magnificent Orson Welles retrospective (likewise at PFA), and Midnights For Maniacs' eight-film tribute to Peter Bogdanovich running at the Castro Theatre, Bay Area cineastes are being forced to make some fierce choices this weekend.

I wouldn't have missed the opening night of the Bogdanovich tribute for anything; however. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks continues to offer his unique all-bases-loaded programming and—dressed reverse chic in tux jacket, white bowtie and sneakers—audiences couldn't wish for a more handsome, likeable, down-to-earth host.

Introducing Targets (aka Before I Die, 1968), Jesse detailed that his "genuine" Bogdanovich tribute came about in response to recently screening At Long Last Love (1975) at his Midnights for Maniacs Burt Reynolds triple-feature. The film hadn't played in over 30 years and Jesse was terrified that perhaps it really was a terrible film and that there was a reason why it hadn't been screened all this time. His fears evaporated watching the film. Even though the film was detested by critics, Jesse confidently asserted that was only because the critics were "fucking stupid." He found At Long Last Love to be "a genuine Lubitsch musical" way ahead of its time even as it paid tribute to films of yesteryear. Jesse contacted Peter Bogdanovich and argued At Long Last Love had been seriously overlooked and misunderstood and that Bogdanovich needed to come out to San Francisco for a retrospective at the Castro Theatre. Bogdanovich's response was, "Why do you want to play that film?" Through a volley of conversations, Jesse managed to convince Bogdanovich to attend the weekend tribute.

Kicking off the weekend with Bogdanovich's first film Targets—"an amazing exploitation film where you get to see Peter in action, getting drunk with Boris Karloff—a treat all by itself"—Targets was written by Bogdanovich, Polly Platt, and Sam Fuller. "Sam is flying around somewhere," Jesse quipped, "so you have to give him that."

After the screening, Jesse underscored that Targets was the perfect film to start off the weekend tribute because "the movie is in love with movies and Mr. Bogdanovich has always made films for people who love films." Jesse then brought Bogdanovich onto the stage for conversation.

After figuring it out, Bogdanovich realized he filmed Targets 41 years ago. "As you can see, I looked a little younger then." The Last Picture Show was some 38 years hence, to which Jesse indelicately remarked, "I wasn't even born yet!" "You had to say that," Bogdanovich grimaced.

Complaining at first that he couldn't see the audience, Bogdanovich shielded his eyes from the lights and then commented appreciatively, "There's a lot of you!" The audience broke into acknowledging applause. He recalled wrecking up San Francisco during the filming of What's Up, Doc? and Herb Caen writing a vicious column about it, even though they repaired whatever damage they caused.

One of the main reasons he was glad to be able to attend the tribute—which he sincerely appreciated—was for the opportunity to watch his films with an audience. Watching them alone holds absolutely no interest for him, he confessed. With an audience he can momentarily forget all the travail that went into making the films and luxuriate in the communal spectatorship.

"The Last Picture Show," Bogdanovich related by way of introduction, "was one of those life-altering experiences. We all went to Texas in October and—when we came back in December—we weren't the same people. My marriage broke up. I fell in love. My father died. All that happened while we were making the picture. You can't really tell by watching the picture; but, I see it. I remember when that happened and that happened. That was the scene after Cybill cried all night. Her nose was red but, luckily, it was in black and white and you couldn't tell.

"Then when [the film] came out, it changed everyone's careers also. People ask me if I expected it to be so well-received and the answer is no. I really didn't know what to expect. It didn't cost much. It cost $1.3 million, which in those days was not a lot of money either. We actually took quite a while to shoot it; we shot it in 60 days. I just hoped it would make its money back. Then it got all these nominations and awards and great reviews, y'know?

"I remember, we were shooting What's Up, Doc? here when Bert Schneider—who was the producer of The Last Picture Show—called me and got me in the trailer from wherever he was and said, 'Are you sitting down?' and I said, 'Okay, I am now' and he said, 'Do you want to hear the opening line from the review in Newsweek?' 'Yeah….' 'The Last Picture Show is not only the best film in an otherwise dreary season, but is the best film by an American director since Citizen Kane.' I said, 'Holy shit, really?' Then there was a knock on the door, 'Peter, we're ready for you' and I thought, 'I got to get out of here; I'm shooting another shot.' You can't expect those kinds of things. I remember Orson Welles sent a telegram: 'Reading your reviews is like opening presents at Christmas.'

"Anyway, what can I tell you? We had so much fun making this film. I'll tell you a funny story. Ben Johnson, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor [for his performance as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show], he turned it down three times. 'Oh Pete, there's too much goddamn words in it. It's kind of a dirty picture. I might want my mother to see it and she can't see this.' So I called John Ford, who I had known for years, and I said, 'Jack, I've got a really good part for ol' Ben and he won't do it. He says there are too many words in it.' Ford said, "Oh Jesus, he always says that! When we were shooting Yellow Ribbon, he would come on the set and say to the script girl, "Any words for me today?" If she said yes, he'd sulk. If she said no, you just have to ride the horse, he'd be happy. Where is ol' Ben?'

" 'He's in Tuscon.'

" 'If you give me the number, I'll call him.'

" 'Would ya?'

" 'Yeah, I'll call him.'

"About 15 minutes later I get a call from Ford. 'Hello, Jack.'

" 'He'll do it.'

" 'You talked to him?'

" 'I said, "Jesus, man, I mean Peter's got a good part for you, y'know, and if he says he's truly worried about it, do the goddamn thing, I mean Jesus, what do you want to be? Duke's sidekick your whole life?" He'll do it.'

"About 10 minutes later an assistant told me, 'Ben Johnson's on the phone.' 'Hello, Ben?'

"[Imitating Ben Johnson with a trembling voice] 'You put the old man on me.'

" 'I really want you to do the picture….'

" 'Oh Jesus, Pete, I don't know, I mean there's so many goddamn words in it.'

" 'Well, when are you going to be back?'

" 'I'll be back next week.'

" 'Well, come and see me.'

" 'All right.'

"He comes to my office. He still hasn't told me if he's really in, y'know? He's telling me this and that and the other thing. His mother thinks it's a dirty picture. Every excuse he can come up with. I remember he even had the script open on his lap or on the table in front of him and finally I said at one point, 'Ben, if you do this picture, you could win the Oscar for this.'

" [Raising his voice.] 'Why the hell do you say that?'

" 'I don't know. I just think you in this part, you could win the Oscar.'

"He slammed the script and said, 'All right! I'll do the goddamn thing!'

"He won the Oscar. He worked 10 days on the picture. Right after that, Larry McMurtry—who wrote the novel The Last Picture Show is based on—and I were working on a script for a western we wanted to do, which never got made; it's a long story. We were going to do a western with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and so on. By the way, 13 years later Larry rewrote the script and it became Lonesome Dove; but, when we were doing it, it was called Streets of Laredo, which is the sequel to Lonesome Dove. Anyways, to make a long story short, I sent the script to ol' Ben. He calls me up, 'Hello, Pete?'—this was after he won the Oscar—'Pete, I read the script.'

" 'What do you think?'

" 'Well, it's good but not too many words for me.' That's what happens when you win an Oscar.

"Now, Cybill. I saw her on the cover of a magazine, Glamour, I didn't even know this magazine existed; but, I was buying some toothpaste at Ralphs and there she is looking at me from this magazine cover and she had this expression on her face—I don't know how to describe it—it was a smile but it wasn't just a smile. She was wearing a shirt that had little "I love yous" all over it, literally, and the look on her face belied the sentiment on her shirt. You don't know if she really loves you or not. Her smile was ambiguous, I knew that; but, I thought, 'That's the right smile for this character.'

"So I bought the magazine and—in typical Hollywood fashion—I ripped the cover off and said to my secretary, 'Find that girl!' This is a true story. About an hour later, she came around and gave me a slip of paper that said, 'The girl is Cybill Shepherd, C-Y-B-I-L-L' and I thought, 'Oh shit, C-Y-B-I-L-L.' She was modeling in New York and had done nine covers for Glamour. When I went to New York three months later to do some casting, she came over to where I was staying. …She wore blue jeans and a jean jacket and she was very tall, taller than I expected, not petite, but—y'know—all woman, so to speak. And very beautiful. Actually, she photographs even better than she looks, which is one of those mysteries. She always looked good but she photographed even better." At this juncture Jesse cautioned, "You know, she's going to be here tonight?" Bogdanovich assured Jesse Cybill had heard all this before. "Anyway, I had just had a small breakfast on the coffee table and you know those little vauzes they send up with room service? There was a little rose in there. For some reason, Cybill decided to sit on the floor. The manager sat over there and Cybill sat on the floor in front of the coffee table. Why, I don't really grasp; but, we were talking. 'What do you do in college?' 'Well, I'm reading Doestoevsky' and we were talking about that. And while she's talking to me she's flicking the rose back and forth and I thought, 'That is just how Jacy the character would treat guys. She's perfect.'

"So I went back to California and I said, 'I've got the girl' and they said, 'Did you read her?' and I said, 'No, no, I didn't read her.' 'Well, why do you think then she's perfect?' [Bogdanovich mimics the gesture of Shepherd flicking the rose back and forth.] They said, 'You better read her.' So we flew her out, it was all right, the reading wasn't great, but I knew she would be great, and she was. Right from the get-go, Cybill had a great sense of humor and you'll see—if you haven't seen the picture in a while—she's very funny in a very important way. She understood the character's funny qualities without commenting on them and she plays the comedy scenes great. Jeff Bridges is great. Everybody. I mean, Cloris Leachman.

"[Cloris] had the last scene in the picture. This is a true story. You may not believe it, but it's true. I told her, 'You could win the Oscar for this.' After every scene that we did, she would turn to me and say, 'Is that it?' The most important scene, which was the last scene in the kitchen at the very end, and she came to me about two weeks before shooting and said, 'I want to run through the last scene for you. I want to do it for you.' I said, 'Cloris, I don't want to see it.' 'What do you mean you don't want to see it?' 'I don't want to see it until we shoot it.' 'Can't I rehearse it for you?' 'No. You can rehearse it at home. You can do whatever you want. But I don't want to see it.' 'Why not?' 'Because the first time I see it, I want to see it when we're shooting and you're in front of the camera.' 'Well, gee whiz….'

"Now, I had learned this lesson because Henry Fonda had told me that when he and Jane Darwell came to the last scene in The Grapes of Wrath, Ford wouldn't let them rehearse it. What you saw was the first take. I knew that—for an emotional scene—it's better to save it. The director is really the only audience. I didn't want to waste that first time emotion in the scene when the camera was running. When it came to that scene, [Cloris] was shaking and she did it brilliantly on the first take and I said, 'Print!' She said, 'Can I do it again?' I said, 'No, you got it.' 'I can do it better.' 'No, you just won the Oscar.' And that's what you see in the film, the first take."

After the screening of The Last Picture Show Cybill Shepherd joined Jesse and Bogdanovich on stage and was greeted by a standing ovation. Bogdanovich acknowledged gratefully the appreciative response of the audience to The Last Picture Show. "It couldn't have been nicer. Thank you so much."

Cybill Shepherd was required to see the casting director of The Last Picture Show four times. "I had to be in a bikini to make sure I didn't have any hideous scars for the nude scene." She recalled that—when she met Bogdanovich and he opened the door to his hotel suite—she had never met anyone so handsome and dashing. "I was so excited. I was carrying a copy of War and Peace. Peter said, 'Oh, tell me about that book.' I said, 'Oh yeah, Dostoevsky, he wrote a great book.' I was so nervous. He was so charming. He was a great first acting coach, actually a great acting coach throughout my whole career. It was an extraordinary way to start in this picture because the actors I was acting opposite were so superb. I would have had to work to be bad." Watching the film again, Bogdanovich complimented that—for her first role—he is still amazed at how great she is, how polished.

"I still squirm when I see Jacy," Shepherd admitted. "It still makes me squirm, this performance. I always wanted to believe that I was never like this woman. It wasn't until I wrote an autobiography called Cybill Disobedience that I actually realized that I was more like Jacy than I ever imagined."

Bogdanovich and Shepherd began teasing each other. He claimed to be shocked when he read her autobiography, to discover that more was going on than he ever imagined. He didn't know, for example, that Elvis had proposed to her while he was upstairs. Shepherd claimed to have forgotten that incident. "We had a motto," she said, "never to cheat on each other while we were in the same town." Bogdanovich quickly inserted that she made up that motto; he never knew about it until he read it in her book. He thought, "When did we ever discuss that?"

Although Bogdanovich felt Shepherd did some extraordinary work in Daisy Miller (1974), and despite its great reviews, the film did not do good business when it came out. Paper Moon (1973), which received less favorable reviews, did better business. Daisy Miller was the first of the Henry James adaptations, about five years before anyone else did it, and Bogdanovich recalled they did long scenes without a cut, sometimes 15-18 pages. "You don't notice it, because you're not supposed to," he said, but Bogdanovich remains quite proud about that.

As for At Long Last Love, Shepherd knew the film was doomed because they had such a good time making it. Further, she knew it was a bad sign when she slammed three fingers—two in a closet door and one in a car door—on the day they wrapped filming. She still sports a scar on her thumb.

Jesse teased out the scene in the swimming pool. Shepherd confirmed that swimming live and singing live in a swimming pool is the funniest thing ever because, first of all, you don't want to drown. Secondly, it was supposed to be singing and swimming and she found it was not at all as effortless as Esther Williams' films. Bogdanovich recalled that she pulled Burt Reynolds' noseplug and it snapped back in his face, actually hurting him, and he said, "Owwww" and—though she wanted to laugh—Cybill had to keep singing.

The conceit of At Long Last Love was that Bogdanovich wanted to do all the singing live. "Most musicals are done in playback," he explained, "the voice is recorded in a studio and then on set you lip synch to what's been recorded. But I didn't like that. I thought, 'Let's do it the way Lubitsch did it back when they couldn't do playback and have them really sing live.' Which was challenging since Burt was not a singer—"to put it mildly"—but, then again, he wasn't a dancer either. They got around all that somehow. "It was reviewed as my homage to Astaire and Rogers but it was actually the opposite. It was really about a bunch of frivolous people who couldn't talk to each other so they sang lyrics that were made up by somebody else. Like when you can't think of anything to write and you buy a greeting card." At Long Last Love was really about these superficial people unable to communicate directly. Conceding he might be superficial as well, Bogdanovich said he likes to sing to people too. Shepherd recalled that he courted her during the filming of The Last Picture Show by singing songs. She then talked him into singing one of those courtship songs and joined in. It was a charming close to their on-stage appearance together.

The Peter Bogdanovich tribute continues through the weekend, with Bogdanovich present for introductory comments. The Saturday evening screening of Nickelodeon (1976) marks the world premiere of the director's cut in black and white, which is how Bogdanovich originally wanted the film to be shot, at the objection of his producers and the studio (who won out at the time). Nickelodeon will be preceded by a short by Sofia Coppola called Lick the Star (1998), wherein Bogdanovich plays the small part of the Principal. The screening will be something of a treat for Bogdanovich, as he has never seen it.

On Sunday, They All Laughed (1981)—allegedly Bogdanovich's favorite film—and one which Jesse asserts is "easily one of his best", worshiped by Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, among others, will be followed by the long-awaited Director's Cut of Mask with the full original Bruce Springsteen soundtrack put back in. Songs by Bob Seger were substituted in place of those by Springsteen shortly before the film's release after a failure to reach agreement with Springsteen. Sunday's screening will be the first time it will be shown on a big screen with the reinstated soundtrack.

Cross-published on Twitch.