Peter Bogdanovich: The Outcast

Peter Bogdanovich's latest film is about a sensational Tinseltown death - apt, really, because the studios tried to kill his own career, the director tells David Usborne
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The Independent Culture

Peter Bogdanovich, the director, actor, lecturer and film journalist, has a theory about Hollywood. All was well with the studios until 1962. That was the year it all "started crumbling," he asserted as we sat in the two-floor apartment where he has lived for the past four years, behind the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Now, he says, the studios are bereft of virtually all common sense.

Bogdanovich, 64, has good reason to lament an industry that lifted him to dizzying heights in the early 1970s, when he directed three huge hits in a row - The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon - before spitting him out. Some would argue that his slide from grace had more to do with him - and his perhaps unwise choices in young girlfriends - but enough of that for now.

Why 1962, exactly? Bogdanovich - whose 1998 tome Who the Devil Made It about the legendary directors of Hollywood's golden era confirmed him as a leading historian of film-making - mutters something about the demise of the original studio system at that time. But it was really about an animal that liked carrots. "That was the year Warner Brothers disbanded its cartoon division," he says. "In effect, that was the death of Bugs Bunny. If you kill Bugs Bunny, it's all over."

Of course, nothing is over - not for Hollywood, and not for Bogdanovich. He agrees that the studios are still making lots of money, on the whole, but he despairs of most of their product (too many special effects, not enough craft in the making of movies). Meanwhile, after a hiatus of almost a decade, Bogdanovich has a film of his own opening in Britain, The Cat's Meow. With a mouthwatering ensemble cast that includes Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard and Joanna Lumley, it screens early next month.

Emerging half an hour late for his interview from upstairs in his apartment, looking dandyish with a handkerchief tied in a knot above the open neck of his ironed shirt, Bogdanovich grumbles above all that nearly every film he made after Paper Moon had been hobbled by poor marketing by the studios - meaning that very few people saw those works, which included Mask and A Thing Called Love. The same fate, he says, seemed to befall The Cat's Meow in United States, where it opened two years ago. He claims not to know how much business it did at the box office, but it was not spectacular.

Never mind if the films were good or bad. Bogdanovich may have trouble assessing this, because he doesn't bother with reviews. "Lot of critics tend to write the review for me. If only they knew I won't read it," he says, adding with a chuckle: "I don't read reviews unless they are 100 per cent approbation. I have someone read them and tell me if there is anything negative, and I don't read them."

Yet the reviews in America for The Cat's Meow were respectable. Izzard, rather surprisingly, plays Charlie Chaplin in this true story - or one version of a true story. It follows the events of a weekend in 1924 when William Randolph Hearst, the world's first true newspaper baron, invited his young starlet girlfriend, Marion Davies (played by Dunst), and a group of pals aboard his motor yacht for a jaunt down the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego and beyond. Chaplin was one of the guests. Prohibition was in full swing, but the champagne would flow and a good time was promised to all.

What happened aboard the yacht has long been one of the darkest secrets of Hollywood lore. Suffice it to say that, in the film, the ocean adventure turns murderous, calling for an immense cover-up orchestrated by Hearst. That there was such an attempt to conceal the truth from the press of the era is established fact (see box). As to the precise circumstances of the death, however, nothing has ever been proven. The version Bogdanovich offers here was outlined to him by Orson Welles.

It happens that, days before our interview, Bogdanovich had been browsing through his personal diaries from the late Sixties and stumbled upon the day Welles talked to him about the event. (The diary also reminded him of an appeal made by Welles that he should never reveal to anyone the central secret of his version - who the murderer was. But never mind that.) For years afterwards, Bogdanovich had forgotten all about it.

Then, in 1999, something odd happened - or rather, two things. First, he was lecturing on films aboard a cruise ship - the QE2, in fact - when he found himself talking about the Hearst affair to America's best-known film critic, Roger Ebert. "Roger said to me, 'That would make a good movie.'" Then, when Bogdanovich returned home, he found a script lying on his desk - tracing the Hearst story just as Welles had recounted it to him. "It had come completely unsolicited from the producers, who felt that I would be the right person to make it. And I felt like I should. It seemed like a sign from somewhere."

If he was the right person, there were several reasons. First, it was about digging up Hollywood's past, a scholarship Bogdanovich indulges in frequently. (His next book, Who the Devil Is In It: 20 Movie Stars I've Known, comes out in the US later this year.) But there was also this: the story was partially about an older man's fascination with a woman less than half his age - Hearst and Davies - and about a fatal crime of passion. Bogdanovich has had plenty of personal experience of both.

To his regret (one assumes), Bogdanovich is as well known in the industry for his romantic débâcles as for the films he has made. The Last Picture Show starred a young Cybill Shepherd, who became Bogdanovich's girlfriend. He cast her in two more movies under his direction: both flopped. After the couple broke up, Bogdanovich even more famously began going out with a beautiful former Playboy playmate, Dorothy Stratten. She ended up with a role in his next film project, They All Laughed (Audrey Hepburn's last film.) Midway through shooting in New York, Stratten, then just 20, returned to Los Angeles formally to separate from another man she had married before meeting Bogdanovich, named Paul Snider. The next day Stratten and Snider were found dead in his apartment. Investigators concluded that Snider had killed her, then himself.

After Stratten's murder, Bogdanovich found himself ostracised in Hollywood. It may not have helped that some time later he married her younger sister, Louise (they parted in 2001).

These are difficult things to talk about, especially to a man as congenial and urbane as Bogdanovich. Without prompting, he soon mentions both Shepherd and Stratten, discussing how the camera can enhance or, at times, diminish an actor's beauty. For Shepherd, the camera flattered: "She looked great in life, but on camera she looks better." It was the other way around with Stratten. "In life, people stop would turn around, dogs would stop. It was terrifying to walk outdoors with her. On screen, she was great, but the camera didn't quite get her." (Dunst is utterly luminous in The Cat's Meow. She looks as if she was born to act the part of a Twenties starlet.)

It is only towards the end of our meeting that we touch on Stratten's violent death, and how this experience relates to The Cat's Meow. "So, this tragedy in the movie did reverberate in that area, yeah," he concedes. "A murder is a cataclysmic event and it's not an easy thing to get over. Human beings are built not to do well with shock. You don't ever get over it. You learn to live with it."

Bogdanovich reflects on how death, especially violent death - in films, even in the news - has been cheapened today. "There is only one death here, and it's enough. I don't know about these films where 50 people get killed. It gets to be that someone gets killed and, you know, it's no big deal. Death in the movies is often so glib and gets thrown away, and people tend to minimise it."

It's strange, then, that Bogdanovich figures that part of the problem in the marketing of The Cat's Meow in America by its distributors, Lion's Gate, was that they failed to tell prospective audiences that there was even one murder in the story. "Mistakes were made. I kept saying to them, 'Why didn't you mention the murder?'" He also says the reviewers did not help (how would he know?) by giving away too much of the plot before anyone went to see the film.

He takes some of the blame himself in one respect: he's not sure the title helped. In Britain, some of us may still know what "cat's meow" means - it could just as easily have been "whiskers" or "pyjamas" - but these are not phrases you'll hear on any American main street. He and I joke briefly about what title might have worked better. Murder on the yacht of a very famous tycoon while Charlie Chaplin was on board? * * Maybe not. The fact that it has taken the film two years to get distribution in Britain - in spite of having Izzard, Lumley and several other British actors in the cast - has also exasperated him. You can see why this might be the kind of film - almost a play that happens to be on celluloid - that would appeal more to European audiences than American. The problem, he said, was cowardice. "Because the film was not a smashing hit here, they were scared of it in Europe."

Bogdanovich gives Izzard much of the credit for finally securing the film an airing in Britain. His discovery of Izzard was an accident; a friend had urged Bogdanovich to buy tickets for a stand-up night in New York featuring a comedian he'd never heard of. "I thought Eddie Izzard was a rock group or something." At the time, he was struggling to cast Chaplin. "I was bowled over. I thought he was absolutely uproarious. And about five minutes after the show had started I was thinking, 'He's short, he's English and he's a comedian. He could play Chaplin.'"

Bogdanovich admits that actors sometimes find working with him a bit of shock, because he actually directs them. "They are not used to it, because most directors don't do that. I have to inaugurate them into my way of working. 'I am directing, that is what I do,' I tell them. A few reply, 'But I have never been directed.' Barbra Streisand [What's Up, Doc?] said, 'You know, I have never been directed, never.' I said, 'Well, I will direct you now.' And then we had some disagreements. But we got along."

What he also does is make actors work for more than a few seconds at a time. Bogdanovich likes to let scenes run, without resorting to endless cutting and editing. There are several quite long scenes in The Cat's Meow involving almost the entire cast that were captured in one take. "Otto Preminger used to say that every cut is an interruption. And he didn't mean an interruption just for the audiences, but an interruption for the actors, too."

The technique also forces everyone on set to concentrate. "If anyone fucks up, you have to go back to the beginning of the shot," Bogdanovich points out. "Good actors love it. Actors who are more movie actors - well, they find it difficult. Orson used to say it separated the men from the boys."

The result this time is a film that may lack the whizbang pace and effects of some Hollywood blockbusters (Dunst went straight from shooting The Cat's Meow in Berlin and Greece with Bogdanovich to the first Spider-Man movie), but which has an irresistible charm and grace. The long scenes help to under-score the quality of the acting. "I am very proud of the picture," Bogdanovich says. "We did it very fast; the cast was awfully good. It's a perfect example of a really brilliant ensemble piece."

Bogdanovich now finds himself as busy as he's ever been. Lying on the table is a thick pile of typewritten pages that will shortly become his new book, when final corrections are made. (He writes out everything in longhand and leaves the typing to an assistant in Los Angeles.) He has been appearing regularly as a psychiatrist in the wildly successful HBO Mafia series The Sopranos, and has even starting directing an episode or two. ABC recently broadcast a film he directed about the actor Natalie Wood, and he has a baseball-themed TV movie in the works for the sports channel ESPN.

Bugs Bunny may be dead, and Bogdanovich was long ago written off by Hollywood as being as good as dead. The evidence now, however, is that reports of his demise were much exaggerated.

'The Cat's Meow' opens on 4 June

The real story of 'The Cat's Meow'

By Andrew Gumbel

One fine November evening in 1924, a party of Hollywood celebrities and their friends boarded the Oneida, a 280ft yacht belonging to the press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, at the Los Angeles port of San Pedro.

The occasion was a birthday party for a talented 44-year-old film director called Thomas Ince, whom Hearst was interested in hiring for his fledgling studio. The yacht was well stocked with food and bootleg liquor - this was the height of Prohibition - and the understanding was that everyone would make merry well away from the prying eyes of the Hollywood gossip mill.

That much we know. We also know that, by the time Oneida docked at San Diego the next morning, Ince was either dead or just hours away from death as a result of an unspecified misfortune. Such is the bare premise of one of Hollywood's most enduring mysteries.

We don't know for sure who else was on the yacht, although the guests almost certainly included Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, the novelist Elinor Glyn and Charlie Chaplin. And we do not know the cause of Ince's death, which has variously been ascribed to acute indigestion (possibly caused by rotgut liquor), heart failure (possibly induced by an attack with a hatpin), or a gunshot wound to the chest or head.

In the version fed to the papers the next day and largely accepted by officialdom, Ince was taken off the yacht suffering from severe chest pains and moved by train to the town of Del Mar for a medical examination. From there, he continued on to Los Angeles, where he died with his wife and three children at his bedside.

Several factors led the columnists of rival papers to doubt this story. There was no inquest and the body was cremated within 48 hours, making further investigation impossible. The death certificate listed Del Mar, not LA, as the place of demise.

Soon, the Oneida incident was the stuff of full-blown conspiracy theories. How come the modestly talented gossip columnist Louella Parsons was given an unprecedented lifetime contract with Hearst newspapers a few months later? Was she on board the yacht, and was this the price exacted for her silence? Why was a physician with little newspaper experience, Frank Barham, installed as publisher of the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald-Express? Was he also an Oneida guest?

The conspiracy theory demanded, naturally, that Ince had been murdered, and that required a motive. Enter another member of the Hearst entourage, one Gretl Urban, who testified that she had walked in on Chaplin making love to Marion Davies just the week before. The story entered crime passionnel territory.

But some myths have been punctured. Parsons' biographer George Eells established in the 1960s that the gossip columnist could not have been aboard the Oneida because she didn't make her first trip to California until May 1925. He concluded that Ince probably died of overeating. Yet, if there was no crime, why were there so many signs of a cover-up? One explanation is offered by Hearst's biographer David Nasaw. "While it was true that Hearst had done his best to keep Ince's presence on the Oneida a secret, he had done so not to cover up a murder, but because he did not want the press or police investigating his yachting party with champagne flowing in flagrant disregard of the Prohibition laws."

That theory is supported by evidence that the San Diego district attorney's office considered opening an investigation into bad liquor aboard the yacht, but dropped the idea - perhaps under pressure from Hearst.

A case of alcohol poisoning is not nearly as much fun as a murder mystery. In her novel Murder at San Simeon, Hearst's granddaughter Patricia - no stranger to sensational headlines - imagined an elaborate scenario in which Hearst shot Ince in revenge for raping Marion Davies's secretary. Now that's a conspiracy theory.