Peter Bogdanovich, New Hollywood Auteur of ‘Paper Moon,’ ‘Last Picture Show,’ Dead at 82

Peter Bogdanovich - Credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Peter Bogdanovich - Credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Bogdanovich, the celebrated, Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind classics like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, as well as a frequent actor, died Thursday, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 82. Bogdanovich’s daughter, Antonia Bogdanovich, confirmed his death, saying the director died of natural causes.

Bogdanovich began his career as a film critic and reporter before meeting producer Roger Corman, who’d been so impressed with some of his work that he enlisted him to help out on some of his films. Despite this ostensibly unconventional path into the film industry, success came quickly for Bogdanovich: He earned praise for his first film, the 1968 thriller Targets, and his follow-up, 1971’s The Last Picture Show, earned eight Oscar nominations (including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and arguably remains his signature film.

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The filmmaker’s stellar opening run continued the next year with What’s Up, Doc?, a wildly successful screwball rom-com starring Barbra Streisand — in a character so molded after Bugs Bunny she’s eating a carrot in her first scene — and Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal also starred in Bogdanovich’s next film, the Depression-era dramedy, Paper Moon, in which he and his real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal, played a father-daughter grifting duo (Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for her performance at the age of 10).

But the rest of Bogdanovich’s career would be tumultuous, marred by major flops, financial troubles and personal tragedy. In 1980, Dorothy Stratten — an actress and Playboy Playmate Bogdanovich had begun an affair with while directing her in the romcom They All Laughed — was murdered by her husband, Paul Snider, who then killed himself. While Bogdanovich managed to self-release They All Laughed in 1981, it performed poorly. Three years later, he published the book,The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980, which was deeply critical of Playboy and Hugh Hefner, and effectively blamed both for Stratten’s death.

“I destroyed him,” Bogdanovich said of Hefner in a 2019 Vulture interview. “I destroyed the whole Playboy myth — which, by the way, was a myth. The so-called sexual revolution of the late ’50s and ’60s was just another way of making it easier for guys to get laid. They weren’t feminists. It was just another way of getting laid faster.”

Bogdanovich was born in Kingston, New York in 1939 and fell in love with movies at an early age. As a teenager, he studied acting, but eventually decided he’d rather direct. His earliest work was in the theater, but he maintained his love of movies in the reviews and features he wrote for Esquire in the late Fifties and early Sixties. After moving to Hollywood and meeting Corman, the producer tapped him to help on the 1966 Peter Fonda biker movie, The Wild Angels; Bogdanovich rewrote the script and directed the end of the movie, which became one of Corman’s biggest box office hits at the time.

Targets — which was inspired by Charles Whitman’s mass shooting at the University of Texas in August 1966 — followed in 1968 (that same year, Bogdanovich directed another movie, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, under the pseudonym Derek Thomas). With the film’s success and Corman’s backing, Bogdanovich could have easily made a career in such genre flicks, but as he explained to The Dissolve in 2013: “As it turned out, I never made another film like it, really. I thought I would make a series of films like it, because it did well enough that I thought it would be the sort of film I would make. But then I read Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show, and I fell in love with the idea of making that as a film, mainly because I didn’t know how to do it. I’m always challenged when I don’t know how to do something. I figure, ‘There must be a way.’ And Last Picture Show made my career.”

While the early Seventies were arguably Bogdanovich’s heyday, his fortunes changed halfway through the decade with a string of duds like Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon. After a few years away, he returned with the 1979 crime comedy Saint Jack, which earned high praise, but failed to perform at the box office. Around the same time, Bogdanovich’s long relationship with Cybill Shepherd — which began when he directed her in The Last Picture Show — ended too, and Stratten’s tragic death followed shortly after.

After publishing The Killing of the Unicorn, Bogdanovich returned to filmmaking with the 1985 Cher-starring drama, Mask. In 1990, he released a Last Picture Show sequel, Texasville, though the film wasn’t nearly as successful as the first. Following 1993’s The Thing Called Love, Bogdanovich took another long break from filmmaking before returning in 2001 with The Cat’s Meow; the last scripted feature he directed was 2014’s She’s Funny That Way. After making a documentary about the director John Ford early in his career, Bogdanovich returned to the form later in life, directing the 2007 Tom Petty doc Runnin’ Down a Dream, and a 2018 film about Buster Keaton, The Great Buster: A Celebration.

Along with his myriad directing and writing credits, Bogdanovich did plenty of work in front of the camera as well. Starting in the Nineties, he picked up roles in TV shows like Northern Exposure and the early Noah Baumbach film, Mr. Jealousy. Most famously, though, he had a recurring role in The Sopranos as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, therapist to Tony Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi.

Bogdanovich also carried on as a film critic and scholar throughout his career, publishing pieces on directors like Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1992, he and Welles (a longtime friend and mentor) collected their conversations over the decades into the book, This Is Orson Welles. In 1997, he published Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors, and in 2004 issued a follow-up of sorts, Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors.

In a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bogdanovich acknowledged he’d had quite an “up-and-down kind of existence,” but he also aptly summed up the power of a good film and what he constantly strove for throughout his career. “My mother used to say to me, ‘If you have a thousand people watching your movie and one of them understands what you’re trying to do, you’re lucky,’” he said. “That sounds almost pretentious, but I know what she meant.”

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