The California Curse

"It ain't what it's cracked up to be," quipped Peter Bogdanovich of success. "Come into the tent; I'll explain it." Thus began my recent interview with the famed director, part-time actor, and author of numerous books on film history and the great filmmakers.

If he chose to, Bogdanovich could easily write a firsthand account of the circus of which he once was ringmaster—that is, Hollywood's elite. He certainly wished that book were available to him when he was a young upstart on the Hollywood ladder. "I wish there was a primer on how to handle success," he said. "Unfortunately, there isn't. You read a lot of books on how to handle failure, but success bites you a different way. As I've said before, failure is easier because you can always say, 'Well, nobody understands me,' and you can cozy up to that. It's hard to say that when you're successful."

Bogdanovich still evokes the glamour of his glory days—particularly his signature neckerchief, or the way he casually drops names of old friends, like Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. Yet there is an underlying sadness to the 62-year-old artist—a humility acquired as a result of tragic consequences in his at-times brilliant life. Like his good friend, longtime Paramount producer Robert Evans—whose success came crashing down as the result of arrogance, decadence, and bum luck—Bogdanovich, too, had it all and lost it all.

Said Evans in a recent article on Bogdanovich in The New Yorker, "Success went straight to Peter's head. But it left his head and went to his feet pretty quickly—they were in cement. It's a dry-ice town, baby: Colder than cold."

Still, as with Evans, there's resilience to Bogdanovich.

Rise and Fall

What most people don't realize is that the Manhattan-bred Bogdanovich actually began his career as an actor and, early on, learned a thing or two about rejection and heartache. After studying under Stella Adler for four years, working as an actor, a theatre director, and an assistant to a revival-house curator, he began writing articles, books, and program notes about Hollywood in the 1960s. A lifelong film buff, Bogdanovich sought out such great filmmakers as Welles, Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Fritz Lang, writing books on all of them. "I studied at the feet of all the masters of whom I asked questions. I was very, very fortunate that so many of these giants—masters who founded the medium—were alive and willing to tell me their secrets," said Bogdanovich.

Settling in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, he fell in with producer Roger Corman, assistant directing on two low-budget pictures: The Wild Angels and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. In 1968 Bogdanovich got the chance to direct his first feature, Targets, followed up in 1971 by his screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel The Last Picture Show—one of my favorite films.

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, and a 19-year-old Cybill Shepherd (for whom Bogdanovich famously left his wife during the making of the film), Picture Show was a box-office and critics' darling. He quickly followed up that success with two more winners: What's Up, Doc?, a comic valentine to the 1930s starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, and Paper Moon, for which Tatum O'Neal became the youngest actress to win an Oscar.

Bogdanovich had it all for a while—power, the envy of men, a Bel Air mansion that had belonged to Clark Gable's widow, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, and, as he can now admit, dangerous arrogance. Story has it his ego was so inflated that he took to directing scenes from horseback. But just as quickly as Bogdanovich rose to fame, so too did he meet his dramatic downfall, in large part the result of a string of box office duds: two Shepherd vehicles, Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, and Nickelodeon. After a brief bounce-back in 1979 with the Corman-produced Saint Jack, Bogdanovich made the romantic comedy They All Laughed, a film that ultimately devastated him both emotionally and financially. By the time the film was released, its costar—and Bogdanovich's girlfriend—Dorothy Stratten was murdered, and the filmmaker went bankrupt trying to buy back the rights to the film from the original distributor.

Lost and Found

As low as it got for Bogdanovich, he did not leave directing behind. He was hired to helm the excellent 1985 film Mask, followed by an uneven output of films—the comedy misfire Illegally Yours, the mildly received Picture Show sequel Texasville, the farce Noises Off, and The Thing Called Love in 1993. Bogdanovich spent the rest of the '90s working in television, and though it may have looked like he had virtually disappeared from Hollywood, he was, in truth, learning valuable lessons about the economy of filmmaking. Those acquired skills would serve him well when it came time to return to feature filmmaking with The Cat's Meow, his latest offering and a film that could be referred to as Bogdanovich's comeback—though only time will tell how he will follow it up.

Shot economically and quickly, The Cat's Meow impressively pulls off the look and feel of 1920s opulence, as set aboard William Randolph Hearst's personal yacht. Said the director, "I honestly feel that I couldn't have made this picture under the circumstances it was made [without] having learned so much from doing television work in the last few years. It got me in the groove of moving faster and thinking small without thinking 'hack work' and limitations. I tried very hard in doing the television work not to compromise and say, 'OK, well, it's going to be shit. So let's just shoot it.' I tried to get everything I needed, but the trick is, you've got to know what you want and you've got to get it quicker than you can with a long schedule. So you cannot shoot coverage. You cannot shoot luxury shots. You can't shoot things that 'maybe I'll need.' You've got to know what you need and only shoot that."

Not only does The Cat's Meow look great, it boasts sharp performances from an ensemble that includes a 19-year-old Kirsten Dunst pulling off a 27-year-old Marion Davies, Edward Herrmann as the paranoid Hearst, Eddie Izzard as a lustful Charlie Chaplin, Cary Elwes as scheming director Thomas Ince, Jennifer Tilly as rising gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Absolutely Fabulous' Joanna Lumley as novelist Elinor Glyn.

Though it was not Bogdanovich's initial idea to cast Dunst in the Davies role, and he was wary that her age might hamper her take on the character, in the end he couldn't have been happier with her performance—which is really the anchor of the film and marks Dunst's graduation from teenager to leading lady. "I can't say she was my first choice," said the director. "She certainly would be now if anybody asked me. I had a great time working with her. She was a pro."

Fate's Call

The Cat's Meow tells the never-proven story of how publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst might have fatally shot one of his guests, Tom Ince, while aboard Hearst's private yacht. According to the film's story, Hearst mistook Ince for fellow guest Charlie Chaplin, whom Hearst believed was having an affair with his beloved mistress, Davies. In screenwriter Steve Peros' version of what happened to Ince—who reportedly died, according to the official medical report, of acute indigestion following the boat trip—Hearst gets away with murder.

In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Glyn wickedly tells her fellow shipmates over dinner about the "California Curse," which afflicts all who come to Hollywood. She says, "You know the curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following symptoms: You see yourself as the most important person in any room, you accept money as the strongest force in nature, and, finally, your hold on morality… vanishes without a trace."

"I thought it was one of the key moments in the picture, if not the moment," Bogdanovich told me about the scene. "There's [another] very good line in the picture. Didi, the blonde flapper [played by Claudie Blakley], says, 'I can't believe he [Hearst] only lets us have one drink,' and Elinor says, 'Well, Didi, it is illegal,' because it was prohibition. And Didi says, 'Yes, but not for us.' That sense of there being different rules for different people—it isn't just in California. It isn't just in Hollywood. It's just that it's magnified out here. And people get away with murder on a certain level," said the director, who in recent years returned to his childhood neighborhood on New York's Upper West Side.

Not only could the director personally relate to the California Curse—having been under its spell—but Bogdanovich also had strong ties to the film's story. He had first heard about the supposed Hearst scandal 30 years ago from Welles, who had been told the tale from Davies' nephew. "Then 30 years later, on an ocean voyage, I happened to tell the story for maybe the first time in the 30 years that I knew it. I told [film critic] Roger Ebert, who made a crack and said, 'Sounds like it'd make a great movie.' I get home from that ocean voyage and the script's on my desk—so spooky."

Screenwriter Steven Peros, who wrote the script in 1988, first heard of the supposed scandal from his New York University film professor. Peros subsequently adapted the script into a stage play. A Los Angeles stage production of The Cat's Meow was reviewed in Back Stage West in November 1997. Of course, Bogdanovich was completely unaware of any of this until the script arrived.

When it did, he immediately responded to the material. As Bogdanovich told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "It's a great story I always wanted to tell. It's about famous people who have this mythic level.… Money, power, fame, and success are things blown up to be such a big deal. And as one who's had it and lost it, I know that firsthand."

Hope Springs Eternal

In addition to helming a number of TV movies, Bogdanovich has also kept busy in the past few years by doing some occasional acting jobs, most notably the recurring Elliott Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi's (Lorraine Bracco) psychotherapist on the hit series The Sopranos. "What's been very helpful about doing The Sopranos is it's gotten me in touch with acting on a personal level in a way that I hadn't been in a while." As Bogdanovich explained, directing is an extension of acting for him, and directing actors is, in his opinion, his strong suit as a filmmaker. "I enjoy it the most of any part of the process. I like actors. I like working with them and I like helping them to give the best performances they can give."

When asked what kinds of actors he enjoys working with he replied, "I like actors who don't seem like they're acting, particularly in movies. That's true onstage, too. My favorite performances are the ones where the so-called line between the character and the actor are erased."

His all-time favorite actor—though he never directed him—is Cary Grant. When I mention that there are probably many young actors who have never seen a Cary Grant film, Bogdanovich frowned and gave a sad shrug. "The treasure is there," he said, in the hopes that performers reading this will take notice. "It's not even buried treasure. It's right there. They just need to spend the time to look at it and see what's gone before them and see what footsteps they're walking in that they're not aware of. [They would] see that the wheel has been invented and they don't have to invent it. Look at performances that exist, because I always say, If a movie is any good, it's not old. We don't say, 'You ever read that old play by Shakespeare?' or, 'Did you ever hear that old symphony by Mozart?' But they always say, 'Have you seen that old movie?' I hate that. If it's good, it's fresh. To Have and Have Not—what could be better today?"

As Bogdanovich sees it, movies are at an all-time low and have been for a while. "It seems like we're scraping the bottom. People say, 'What's different about movies?' The answer is, 'Everything.' Nothing is the way it was during the so-called Golden Age. I would say it started in about 1912, when people really didn't know how to make pictures, and ended in 1962 when the studio system fell apart. Nobody was under contract anymore. Everybody wanted to be on their own. In the wake of Brando, actors were saying they wanted to be versatile and not be typed. Then on top of that, in the '70s you had the idea that a movie should open in 2,000 theatres and have a big gross the first weekend. All of it has been a detriment to the art form."

What about The Cat's Meow?

"Hope springs eternal," he replied. "Even in the face of gloom, I think, Well, there's always hope. The hope is that you make a good movie and that people go see it." BSW