Writer-director Peter Bogdanovich does a mean Cary Grant impression.
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon” and “What’s Up, Doc?” spent much of the 1970s hanging out with the stars and directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Jimmy Stewart, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles. (The latter was a frequent houseguest.) He credits those experiences with giving him a deep appreciation for cinema’s past.
“Between 1912 and 1962, there was an extraordinary outpouring of artistic expression, as there usually is with the beginning of an art form,” said Bogdanovich, who will appear tonight at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
“There needs to be a basis of understanding (about film) for a cultured person. (We’ve) got to know that like we know music or painting or literature.”
Bogdanovich, 75, will receive the festival’s King Vidor Career Achievement Award, which honors excellence in filmmaking, at the Fremont Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo. Jim Dee, owner of the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo, will lead a question-and-answer session, followed by a screening of “The Last Picture Show.”
Learning from the best
Like his father, Serbian painter and pianist Borislav Bogdanovich, Peter Bogdanovich learned from the masters.
“A young artist will often go to a museum and copy a painting as a way of learning — ‘How did this person achieve this effect? I’ll try to do the same thing,’ ” explained the Kingston, N.Y.-born filmmaker, who followed a similar method as a movie buff. “I absorbed an enormous amount of technique (but) had talent of my own.”
Bogdanovich was such an assiduous student of film that he kept track of every movie he saw from age 12 to age 32 — recording his impressions on 4-by-5-inch file cards. Rather than a screenwriter or director, Bogdanovich originally planned to become an actor. Starting at age 16, he spent four years studying with Stella Adler, the famed acting teacher who instructed Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen.
But his theatrical career failed to take off.
It was Roger Corman, the prolific B-movie filmmaker who helped launched the careers of James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and Jack Nicholson, among others, who gave Bogdanovich his big Hollywood break.
Corman recruited the budding filmmaker to work on the 1966 biker flick “The Wild Angels,” starring Peter Fonda. Not only did Bogdanovich rewrite an estimated 80 percent of the script, but he also served as a location scout and second-unit director.
In return, Corman produced Bogdanovich’s official directorial debut, “Targets.” (Bogdanovich directed 1968’s “Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women” under an assumed name.) “Targets,” a 1968 thriller, follows a Vietnam War veteran who goes on a shooting rampage.
Although he remains “extremely proud” of “Targets,” “I haven’t had an impulse to make that kind of film again,” Bogdanovich said. “It’s extremely graphic and rather scary, and I’d rather make people laugh than scare them.”
The success of “Targets” led directly to a trio of box-office blockbusters. Set in a small Texas town in the early 1950s, the 1971 coming-of-age drama “The Last Picture Show” — based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name — follows friends Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) and love interest Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her film debut) as they transition to adulthood.
“The Last Picture Show” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best director; two supporting actors in the film won Oscars. Bogdanovich switched gears entirely in 1972 with “What’s Up, Doc?,” a screwball comedy starring Barbra Streisand.
“I called Cary Grant and told him, ‘My movie is opening at Radio City Music Hall,’ ” Bogdanovich recalled. “Cary says to me … ‘Here’s what you must do: You go to the back of the theater and you listen to 6,000 people laugh at something you wrote.’ ”
The filmmaker took Grant’s advice. “It was the greatest high I ever had,” he said. Bogdanovich followed “What’s Up, Doc?” with 1973’s “Paper Moon,” a Depression-era comedy about a con man who forms an unlikely partnership with a young girl. The movie paired Ryan O’Neal with his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, who won an Oscar for the role.
Bogdanovich’s other acclaimed films over the past few decades include 1974’s “Daisy Miller,” 1985’s “Mask” and 2001’s “The Cat’s Meow.” He’s also made two documentaries —1971’s “Directed by John Ford” and 2007’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
But Bogdanovich named a critical and financial flop — the 1981 romantic comedy “They All Laughed,” about a private detective (Ben Gazzara) who falls for a tycoon’s wife (Audrey Hepburn) — as “my favorite of my pictures.”
“A picture like ‘They All Laughed’ really sums up who I am,” he said. “I’ve always liked to make people laugh.”
His latest film, 2014’s “She’s Funny That Way,” is “a flat-out comedy” about a hooker-turned-ingénue (Imogen Poots) and the Broadway director (Owen Wilson) who woos her. Bogdanovich described Wilson as “an old-fashioned movie star” — a throwback to the men he once knew.
Bogdanovich has written biographies of Ford, Welles and “Sands of Iwo Jima” director Allan Dwan, and shared his interviews with famous filmmakers in the books “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With …” and “Who the Hell’s in It: Portraits and Conversations.”
“They gave it glory”
“They interested me as human beings more than anybody else,” the filmmaker said. “(Here) was a whole generation — probably two generations — of the pioneers who made this movie business real. They gave it glory.”
“The Golden Age will never come back,” Bogdanovich acknowledged. But the filmmaker, who enjoys friendships with Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Quentin Tarantino, hasn’t quite lost faith in cinema’s future.
“My hope is that if I can make a picture that’s funny, that works, that gets a big audience, maybe it will encourage other people to make pictures like that,” Bogdanovich said.
What: Independent Film and King Vidor Awards
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
Cost: $10 to $12
Info: 805-546-3456 or www.slofilmfest.org