Portraits and Conversations

By Peter Bogdanovich

Knopf. 528 pp. $35

What can you say about a book that begins, "Some thirty years ago, in Rome, Orson Welles and I were having a late-night drink . . ."? In a breezy and anecdotal manner, the author sets a glamorous stage, establishes authority, suggests a historical perspective, drops a big-time name . . . and he hasn't even finished his opening sentence. If you're a movie fan, the only possible thing to say is "Hurrah!" You know you may be in for a dishy read, and Peter Bogdanovich delivers.

A companion piece for his earlier book about movie directors, "Who the Devil Made It," "Who the Hell's in It" is less substantial but every bit as entertaining. Ranging historically from Lillian Gish to River Phoenix, it's a who's who of American movie star history, and there are no small names included. Bogdanovich carefully documents his relationship to each one. Whereas he had only glimpses of Gish (when she spoke to a museum movie crowd) and Marilyn Monroe (when he sat behind her in a Strasberg acting class), he conducted 25- and 30-year friendships with actors such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. The only subject in the entire book whom Bogdanovich didn't spend any time with was Humphrey Bogart, yet the reprint of his thoughtful article on Bogart's emerging cult status (written for Esquire in 1964, about seven years after the actor's death) feels as intimate and personal as all the others. It reveals a deep understanding of the dilemma of movie stardom: the difference between the star-as-person and the star-as-persona.

"Who the Hell's in It" contains other material that has been published previously, such as Bogdanovich's encounter with Marlene Dietrich on an airplane bound for Kansas and his insightful talks with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. All this older material, which appeared in print between 1962 and 2001, has been revised or expanded, and freshened by new commentary. There is also an introduction, in which the author sets up his material, explains its origins and lays out his own credentials, which are substantial. (For those just back from Outer Mongolia, Bogdanovich is a celebrated movie and TV director, actor and author of more than 12 books on filmmaking. In fact, he makes himself one of the main topics in his book. He immediately says he will not present the stars in the order of their births (as he did with the directors in "Devil"). Instead he will showcase them "in a more personal way." This "personal" way gracefully moves Bogdanovich onto stage center in every chapter, and rightfully so. He's not a reporter on a two-hour celebrity interview assignment. He's a bona fide member of the inner circle he writes about. He explains how each famous star "came into my life," but he's honest enough to admit that could mean he was asking for an autograph (Brando) and self-confident enough to remind us he might have been directing one of them in his own movie (Boris Karloff in "Targets").

Far from being alienating, this personal (even autobiographical) slant gives the book a unique cachet. Bogdanovich has been an up-close eyewitness to fame, and that changes everything for the reader, who suddenly has a table at the big party. His insights are casual and conversational, yet also coolly professional, sharp and keen-eyed. They are not, however, the mean-spirited "gotchas" sometimes presented by wannabe reporters whose agendas are less than friendly. Interviews with movie people are always best done by other movie people -- Truffaut on Hitchcock, Cameron Crowe on Billy Wilder. In the jive talk business, only another jive talker can break through the protective script.

But besides being a true insider, Bogdanovich is also a real movie fan who's never forgotten how certain stars affected him, or how their movies made him respond. He's brilliant when interviewing actors he loved (John Wayne, Henry Fonda), nailing down their fan appeal but then stepping back to analyze clearly what it was like for them to have to be who people thought they were. His face-to-face encounters with the often analyzed but always elusive Frank Sinatra tell us that "Sinatra often had a kind of surprisingly lost quality when he wasn't acting. . . . One of the things I remember most was that often cool yet nonetheless sad look in his eyes."

A million academics trying to explain Audrey Hepburn could never come up with what Bogdanovich witnessed and beautifully recollects, his memory of Hepburn at her son's wedding, dancing with Jimmy Stewart. "Both tall and casually graceful. . . . This haunting, strangely moving image . . . could stand as a symbol for all the lost movies of Audrey Hepburn, the ones she never made because she chose not to, and then ran out of time." These are the observations of a movie director, a man with an eye for the emblematic action, the small moment that reveals truth.

Inside the bon vivant and raconteur that is today's Bogdanovich is an honest-to-goodness film historian. Reading his reconsiderations of his earliest thoughts and writings, it becomes apparent that movie stars once attracted him for their glamour and fame, but he now appreciates their situation much more deeply. It is an appreciation touched with his own sadness. He has the awareness of a man who has himself been up and down the ladder of success and lived not only to tell about the illusion of fame, but also to understand it. He's a movie fan who grew up to have academic interests in the movies, but unlike many of us, he refuses to be boring about it.

I should admit that I have met Bogdanovich. My first encounter with him was at the Museum of Modern Art tribute to Howard Hawks in 1962. He had written the tribute booklet and interviewed the master himself. I was awed by the daring he showed at publicly championing an American genre director, and respectful of his grasp of the films themselves. Over the years, whenever I occasionally spot him at various film events, he is always talking, happily surrounded by groups of enchanted listeners. Readers of this book will be like those listeners. If sometimes they might find him a bit overly present in the golden circle in a less than relevant way ("I was the youngest ever to have the lead in the annual school production"), let's all remember this. Anyone who cares about old movies should love this man who was once Edward Everett Horton's stage dresser, and who, years later, pays tribute to what he learned from that magnificent old scene stealer: "how much you could get out of the smallest gesture if it was placed right." All his life, Bogdanovich watched and listened and learned. His "portraits and conversations" are placed just right, and contain the small gestures that make his new book well worth reading.

Patrick Anderson is away.