There is a sense that, for cinephiles of my generation, Peter Bogdanovich is our Walter Mitty, living out our fantasies. Bogdanovich became a successful and scholarly critic, curated film exhibitions at MoMA and elsewhere, hobnobbed with the greats (the first time I met Peter he was with Orson Welles and the second time he was escorting Jean Renoir’s widow), became a highly praised movie director in his own right, and had intimate relations with some of his stars. I remember, shortly after the release of The Last Picture Show, an elevator ride with another aspiring director of our generation who was thoroughly ticked off by the film’s acclaim. Personally I never gave much serious thought to making movies, even though my father passed on his 8mm camera. (I did once toy with the idea of shooting my model of the Titanic sinking in the bathtub, and I did take some scary actuality footage from much too close to President Kennedy than I should have been permitted, anticipating the assassination a year later in an editorial on the Rutgers campus radio station.) I don’t think I ever felt threatened by or jealous of Bogdanovich; he was one of us, one of the good guys.
A recent Vanity Fair piece by John Heilpern referred to Bogdanovich as “the 70s wunderkind” and pointed out the parallels between his career and that of Orson Welles, for whom he had played the role of a Boswell for several years. Some argue that Citizen Kane predominated over Welles’s subsequent work in a way similar to how The Last Picture Show looms over Bogdanovich’s later efforts. Although films like What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon, and Daisy Miller were pretty good, he wound up making only six additional films in the two decades separating Picture Show and its sequel, Texasville. In the quarter-century after that, he has made another dozen or so, mostly for TV. I think this “decline” has less to do with a lack of talent or the diminution of it and more to do with the changing nature of American moviemaking. The directors he most admired, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, were entrenched in the studio system, where they knew that they would continue working (sometimes on projects they viewed as more personal than others), often with a personal stock company of actors and technicians who had become friends or acolytes. In a way, Welles, mostly by choice, suffered much the fate of Bogdanovich, rebelling against studios and consequently losing his moorings.
The Last Picture Show was in some sense a happy accident. We recently screened Martin Ritt’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Hud, which mined some of the same dust-strewn Texas turf. There is in these works the same kind of feeling for a lost America that one gets from John Ford, about whom Bogdanovich made the appropriately titled Directed by John Ford. In Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Grapes of Wrath, for example, Ford laments the passing of simpler eras. By the time of Picture Show, the lament is for the closing movie theater itself, where Ford and Hawks had enraptured a generation with tales of a Duke Wayne who generally found a way around complexity. Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion) hovers over the action like Hamlet’s ghost, a refugee from Ford’s Wagon Master and cavalry Westerns.
So, The Last Picture Show was a very personal film for Peter Bogdanovich, something he has not been quite able to replicate since. Some of us, I think, have a kind of visceral and quasi-religious feeling for certain movies. Such is the case here with Peter, and combined with McMurtry’s and the actors’ extraordinary contributions and his own talent, The Last Picture Show becomes his masterpiece.