"I'm so sick of superheroes," says the filmmaker and writer on film Peter Bogdanovich as we sit down at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Of today's cinematic offerings, the 77-year-old - who is best known for a trio of films he directed in consecutive years during the early 1970s, when he was in his early thirties and at the vanguard of a 'New Hollywood' sometimes described as the 'American New Wave' - adds, 'It's devolved. We don't have movies on a level of How Green Was My Valley or The Grapes of Wrath or Rio Bravo or Anatomy of a Murder. Those are great films. We haven't got those. We just don't." One should forgive Bogdanovich for feeling nostalgic, as he had just attended a TCM Film Festival screening of a true American classic: his own 1971 black-and-white The Last Picture Show.
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Born and raised in New York, Bogdanovich fell in love with the movies at an early age. "I wanted to be in movies," he says, explaining that he lied about his age so that, as early as 16, he could begin studying at the Actors Studio with the legendary Stella Adler. He also loved watching and dissecting the classics, which led to his writing about films on the side - monographs for museums and articles for magazines, program notes for The New Yorker cinema and the like. Eventually, he followed this work to Los Angeles, where he struck up friendships with many of the great older filmmakers whose work had long inspired him. It was there that Bogdanovich also met, by chance, the young independent film producer Roger Corman, who was familiar with his writing, hired him as a screenwriter and ultimately gave him his first chance to direct, 1968's Targets, starring an aged Boris Karloff.
That low-budget film, in turn, led to The Last Picture Show, an adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name which resulted in eight Oscar nominations, including one for Bogdanovich, for best director; two Oscar wins, in both of the supporting acting categories; the end of Bogdanovich's marriage to production designer Polly Platt; the beginning of his relationship with one of the film's stars, Cybill Shepherd; and many of the professional opportunities that followed. Some of them he seized (like 1972's What's Up, Doc?, with Barbra Streisand, and 1973's Paper Moon, with Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal, the latter en route to a record-breaking Oscar at just age 10), and others he did not (the opportunity to direct The Godfather). "We all went to Texas as one person and we came back as somebody else," he says reflectively.
After his remarkable run from 1971 through 1973, Bogdanovich ran into a wall. "I had three flops in a row," he acknowledges, referring to 1974's Daisy Miller, 1975's At Long Last Love and 1976's Nickelodeon. It was just the beginning of a string of bad luck that included bankruptcy, separation (from Shepherd) and heartbreak: in 1980, Dorothy Stratten, the young actress who starred in his They All Laughed (released in 1981) and who had become the love of his life, was murdered at the age of 20. "That was like an atom bomb," he says, adding that it made him think hard about the role of gun violence in society - and in Hollywood. "It makes it seem like it isn't that important because you've got 20 people getting killed," he explains. "One person getting killed is pretty rough, as I learned."
Bogdanovich eventually began to claw his way back to life - with successful films like the 1985 Oscar winner Mask; with a return to acting, most notably as the shrink of the shrink on David Chase's The Sopranos ("I loved doing it, it was great stuff"), the show that he believes began to turn TV into a stronger medium than film; and by turning his old interviews with Golden Age filmmakers and stars into the massively acclaimed books Who the Devil Made It? (1997) and Who the Hell's In It? (2004). "I liked them," he says of the legends with whom he crossed paths, some of whom, like Orson Welles, remained among his closest friends after he became a filmmaker himself. "I actually enjoyed their company more than my contemporaries. I wasn't that interested in my contemporaries." He pauses and adds, "Jerry Lewis once was interviewed about me and said, 'I think Peter's looking for his father.' It's true that my father died during the making of Picture Show and I missed him enormously. I probably was, in a way, looking for surrogate fathers."