A re-post of the huge thing I wrote after Bogdanovich died, ending with my personal encounter with him where he kissed my hand.
I cannot sufficiently express what his films have meant to me, let alone his writing about films which has been almost as influential.
When we were kids, our parents let me and my brother stay up late twice (in my memory, at least) on a school night so we could see two movies. One was The Sting and one was What’s Up Doc? Both were formative experiences for me, albeit in very different ways, and What’s Up Doc? continues to be an O’Malley Tradition (Lucy was Eunice Burns for Halloween this year!) I am lucky to have friends – from literally every era of my life – who also love What’s Up Doc? and can recite it start to finish. Seriously. Childhood friends. College friends. Friends from work. It’s like a secret code. You’re standing at a party, and you’re bored, and someone says “Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?” and you know you are in the presence of a Kindred Spirit.
I was too young at the time to put together who made what, to be curious about the person behind the camera, who made this thing. (That came maybe a year or so later with the one-two punch of East of Eden and Dog Day Afternoon, which I have written about before.) I did not know that What’s Up, Doc? was consciously referencing all of the great screwballs of the past. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that it was the funniest most entertaining thing I had ever seen, and it changed how I felt about movies, about comedy, about the cinematic experience. My friend Mitchell said the same thing happened for him. He saw it as a kid and it instantly opened his mind to the highest levels of comedy: “And to this day it still informs my sense of humor”.
Soon after What’s Up, Doc?, I saw Paper Moon – another huge moment of movie-watching as a kid.
Did I know it was the same guy who made me laugh so hard with What’s Up, Doc? I don’t think so. Paper Moon “got to me” in a deeper way initially than What’s Up, Doc? because the lead character was a kid. Just like me! Addie Pray got under my skin in the same way Harriet the Spy did. She was part of the Tomboy Continuum, the long stream of Tomboys who helped me navigate through the world (or at least that’s how I see it now.) I wrote a whole piece about this for my column at Film Comment.
It was just a couple of years later, when I was a teenager, and full-on educating myself about the history of cinema, as much as I could, that I put it together. I loved both of those movies, right, so I sought out his other movies, and there weren’t too many of them. I had no idea then that his career had crashed and burned in the 1970s. Last Picture Show was easy to find, and I was just haunted by it, in love with it! By this point, he had “come back” and there were films I saw in the movie theatre. Movies like Mask. Texasville. Noises Off. Saw them all. I felt a personal connection with him, because he had gotten under my skin as a kid. I had also discovered his books. His books – particularly Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s In It. Who the Devil Made It came first. I inhaled it. Before he became a director, he worked as a journalist, and sought out the old classic-era directors, and silent film directors too, and interviewed them – at LENGTH – about their careers. (These interviews make up Who the Devil Made It. I still reference it all the time. I bought it second-hand, hard-cover, and the binding has literally fallen apart. It’s a goldmine.)
Who the Hell’s In It came years later, a series of essays and observations about actors, some of whom he worked with, others he hadn’t. An incredible book.
These two books are foundation stones for my own work. Over the course of his strange career, he has done so much for the love of film. Who else was tracking down Allen Dwan and asking him detailed questions about this or that shot in a film made 50 years before. Incredible.
Eventually, I learned about Dorothy Stratten. It may have been through Star 80, I don’t know, where he is portrayed in a pretty poor light. But Bogdanovich became so toxic after her murder – even though he didn’t do ANYthing, he was not responsible for her murder, he didn’t do a damn THING – that everyone dropped him. The whole industry dropped him, he who had been so celebrated just a few years before, when he burst onto the scene. You know who didn’t drop him? John Cassavetes. During the long time where Bogdanovich didn’t even leave his house, Cassavetes stayed in touch, and even had him come and direct one scene from Love Streams, telling Bogdanovich there was one scene he just couldn’t get a handle on, could Peter come over and help him out? It was only later that Bogdanovich realized that that was bull shit. Of course John Cassavetes knew how to direct that scene. He was John freakin’ Cassavetes! He did that to help Bogdanovich back into the saddle again, to remind him: You’re a director. You’re still a director.
They All Laughed, the last film Bogdanovich directed before Stratten’s murder, was a cursed film. It’s a real beauty, a delicate funny beauty, but Stratten was murdered a month or so after they finished shooting. Her murder was so upsetting, so awful, that a dark cloud was over the film. Nobody went to see it. Bogdanovich paid himself to get it into theatres, which ruined him financially. He was toast. For almost two decades, They All Laughed was a disappeared film, a film that might as well have never been made.
Finally, though, it arrived on VHS. I snatched it up. So excited. The missing piece! This legendary film I heard so much about. I saw it, and swooned over it. It might be one of his best. It’s magical. With a hell of a cast: Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Patti Hansen, Colleen Camp, and Dorothy Stratten, an adorable – and very funny – ingenue. I fell in love with it. I’ve seen it so many times I know it by heart.
The people who know this movie truly LOVE it. One of its biggest fans and champions is Wes Anderson, who did a three-part interview with Bogdanovich about the film (the interview is included in the special features of the DVD of They All Laughed.)
I’m not sure if They All Laughed is streaming anywhere, yet another advertisement for the importance of physical media.
Years after seeing the film, I now have a blog, and I write a couple of pieces about They All Laugh. They are very nerdy pieces, about the filmmaking itself. The first piece is on Bogdanovich’s masterful use of eyelines in the complicated Algonquin Hotel sequence – as well as the wordless opening sequence.
Some time after that, a filmmaker named Bill Teck reached out. He was going to be making a documentary about They All Laughed, he had found my piece, and would I care to be interviewed? Of course! He came up to New York, we did the interview at a hotel in Soho, and it was really fun to talk about this not so well known film and why I think it is so special. Teck is a kindred spirit! I had no idea who else he was interviewing, but regardless, I felt honored to be there. I had a couple moments of almost dislocation, remembering being that little kid rolling around on the living room floor laughing so hard about the Chinese dragon on the loose in What’s Up Doc, and here I am now, a grown woman, and I’m being interviewed about Bogdanovich and one of his films. My relationship with Bogdanovich goes back before the time I even knew how a film was made. He is there, before I even knew anything about anything.
This story is about how life presents us with dovetails like this. Things set in motion decades ago come back, tenfold, after the passing of years and years, and suddenly I’m in a situation that my younger child self could barely comprehend, but it all makes a weird kind of sense. The key to this is: you have to have stayed in touch with your kid self, with your kid self’s wants and dreams and hopes. You have to still remember being that kid for any of these beautiful slightly eerie dovetails to occur.
Occasionally I’d hear from Bill about the progress of the film (which is called One Day Since Yesterday, and it is now complete, and you can find it!). Bill was financing it himself and it took a long time. This was a real passion project for him. He got interviews with everyone: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepard, Ben Gazzara (right before he passed), and Bogdanovich himself. He also interviewed a couple other online writers and bloggers, like my good pal Jeremy Richey. We both were in it. REPRESENTING. But I hadn’t seen any of it. I just knew it was progressing.
In 2012, Miriam Bale programmed They All Laughed at the 92nd Street Y downtown (this was YEARS before she tapped me give my talk about Elvis at the Indie Memphis Festival. I barely knew her. Another dovetail.) Mitchell happened to be in town, randomly, and Bogdanovich was going to be there for a QA after. At this point, the documentary still hadn’t come out yet. I think a couple years had gone by.
After the film, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry did a QA with Bogdanovich. Mitchell and I were SO HAPPY to be there. Here is a picture Mitchell took during the QA. It’s the only picture I have of the whole night – which is actually kind of perfect.
I recorded the QA by the way. Here’s the transcript! It was so special!
Afterwards, Bogdanovich sat in the lobby signing copies of Who the Hell’s In It. I stood off to the side, getting up my courage to go over and talk to him. There was a line of people waiting. I talked with Miriam and Alex a bit. I was keeping my eye on that line. I felt like I was at a high school dance. Mitchell was in cahoots. He had analyzed the line. He kept saying, “Wait … just wait …” We were co-conspirators in the TIMING of this thing. I waited until the crowd tapered out and I got in line at the very end. There was no one behind me.
Once I reached Bogdanovich, I barreled ahead, “Mr. Bogdanovich, my name is Sheila O’Malley and I was interviewed by Bill Teck for that documentary.”
He looked up at me quizzically for a minute. My heart sank, thinking he had no idea what I was talking about (even though he referenced the documentary in the QA!).
Turns out, he was just trying to place me. The light dawned. He said, “Oh, yes! I just saw the footage from your interview just the other day.”
His whole demeanor had changed. He is clearly a very nice man, and friendly, not forbidding at all, but there was a difference between polite gracious Book-Signing behavior and “Oh, hey! I know you!” behavior.
He started laughing: “Yes, it was very funny. In the interview you said, ‘Look, everyone talks about The Last Picture Show, blah blah blah, but They All Laughed is the one to see.”
Oh my God. “Last Picture Show blah blah blah”??? Are you kidding me, Sheila? As he said it, he rolled his eyes, AS me. If you have ever heard him speak or tell stories, you know he is a compulsive (and very talented) mimic. I basically stood there and watched him BECOME me as I said this incredibly rude thing about one of his films.
I was horrified. I have no memory of saying that. (But … it sure sounds like me.) I said, “Oh my God, I dissed your masterpiece. I’m so sorry.”
This cracked him up, and he said, “No, it was so great! You said it just like that: ‘Last Picture Show, blah blah blah…’” (again, he became me, this bored person saying “blah blah blah”) He said, “I know he interviewed a lot of bloggers, but you were my favorite.”
Too much was happening. I couldn’t take it in.
Meanwhile, Mitchell is standing off to the side watching this all go down. I thought it would be a nice hand shake and “bye-bye nice to meet you” with this man I admire so much. Instead, it was a human interaction – and the tables were turned. It wasn’t me focusing on him, solely. He was equally focused on me. I totally forgot to be nervous.
He said, “I think Bill starting off the whole documentary with your Last Picture Show comment.”
I started laughing again.
It was so perfect that Mitchell was there to SEE this. I had a witness. A reporter! Otherwise I might not have believed it. Mitchell said to me later, “I couldn’t get over watching him quote you TO you. That was unbelievable.”
I introduced him and Mitchell. They shook hands. Since nobody else was behind me in line, there was no pressure to wrap it up. Mitchell knew the timing we needed to make this happen. We all then proceeded to chat for about 20 minutes, about They All Laughed, and how great it was that it was finally finding an audience.
He said to us, “This is the most personal picture I’ve made.”
We talked about different actors in the film, and I told him how much I loved George Morfogen, who played Leon, the boss. Bogdanovich said, “He’s one of my oldest friends. He’s going to be in my next picture.”
Mitchell said, “He played the head waiter in What’s Up, Doc!”
Now THAT’S a deep freakin’ cut. It stopped Bogdanovich in his tracks. It was like he suddenly realized …. Oh. Okay. These are some serious nerd-people if they know who played the freakin’ head waiter – who only has two lines – in What’s Up Doc. He said, “Yes, he did!”
Mitchell then said one of our favorite lines from What’s Up Doc (doing a perfect imitation of the Head Waiter): “What kind of wine are you serving at Table One?” Bogdanovich burst out laughing. (Mitchell observed later that part of it might have been happiness that his best friend was so remembered and appreciated. He had created a role for his dear friend that stuck in people’s minds.)
Then he said, out of nowhere, “You know, every time you make a picture, you hope that you can capture some kind of magic.”
He sounded a little wistful. It came out from the little and pure space that had opened up in our trio.
I asked, “Does that happen often?”
“It’s only happened to me once, on this picture.”
It was a quiet moment and it felt very natural. Vulnerable.
We talked about Moonrise Kingdom, which had come up during the QA. (Speaking of Wes Anderson.) The three of us talked about how much we loved it. Mitchell told him, “That was filmed in our home town in Rhode Island.” Bogdanovich got SO into this: “Really??” He wanted to know everything. We told him about all the different sites in the movie that we knew. I told him I made out with my high school boyfriend near the lighthouse, and again, he burst out laughing. He was so into it.
Finally, the conversation wound down. I didn’t want to stop talking with him. But it was late, and it was time to go.
I held my hand out and said, “Your work means so much to me.”
Instead of shaking my hand, he took it, lifted it to his lips, and kissed it.
You don’t get too many moments like this in life. Moments when you meet someone who helped form you and then that person …. does an imitation of you right to your face.
I treasure the memory, blah blah blah.