The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter Bogdanovich, Oscar-nominated director of ‘The Last Picture Show,’ dies at 82

Director Peter Bogdanovich in 2002. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Peter Bogdanovich, an Oscar-nominated director who was part of the vanguard of New Hollywood filmmakers who helped reinvigorate American cinema, gaining wide popularity with 1970s movies such as “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon” before suffering a string of personal and professional calamities, died Jan. 6 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 82.

Nicholas Latimer, a spokesman for Mr. Bogdanovich’s publisher, Knopf, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Boyishly handsome, with neatly combed hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a signature bandanna that he wore knotted around his neck, Mr. Bogdanovich was alternately celebrated and despised, acquiring a reputation at the onset of his career for making friends with vaunted old directors just as quickly as he made enemies with younger colleagues.

“I don’t judge myself on the basis of my contemporaries,” he told the New York Times in 1971. “I judge myself against the directors I admire — Hawks, Lubitsch, Buster Keaton, Welles, Ford, Renoir, Hitchcock. I certainly don’t think I’m anywhere near as good as they are, but I think I’m pretty good.”

Like French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and François Truffaut, he started out as a film critic and journalist before going on to make movies. But he broke into the industry in a distinctly American way, as a protege of B-movie maestro Roger Corman, who produced his feature-film debut — the taut crime thriller “Targets” (1968) — and who also helped launch the careers of contemporaries such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Like those other directors, Mr. Bogdanovich brought a bold new energy to Hollywood, shaking up a studio production system that was increasingly viewed as out of touch with younger audiences and shifting tastes. But while other filmmakers raced to distance themselves from cinematic tradition, Mr. Bogdanovich sought to revive some of the glories of the old Hollywood, positioning himself as an heir to vaunted directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, whom he interviewed and befriended early in his career.

“No one makes old movies better than Bogdanovich,” Scorsese once said.

In a phone interview, film historian Jeanine Basinger described Mr. Bogdanovich as a bridge between old and new Hollywood, noting that his film scholarship and interviews with veteran directors and actors — collected in books such as “Who the Devil Made It” (1997) and “Who the Hell’s In It” (2004) — helped introduce classic films to new audiences. “His work reflected the very best of the past, put into a modern format and updated,” she said, adding that Mr. Bogdanovich “showed us that this tradition of original and personal filmmaking in America can continue.”

Mr. Bogdanovich directed some 20 feature films, writing many of them himself, but remained best known for “The Last Picture Show” (1971), a coming-of-age story about high school seniors in a windswept Texas town. Shot in black and white and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay, the film was funny, poignant and rapturously received.

“The Last Picture Show” evoked older films such as Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Hawks’s “Red River” but was “so good,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, “that, in 1971, everything about it looks absolutely original.” The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay, and won two, for supporting actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

Mr. Bogdanovich received further acclaim for his next two films: the screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), which starred Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, and “Paper Moon” (1973), a Depression-era road movie that featured O’Neal and his real-life daughter, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal, who became the youngest person to win a competitive Academy Award.

Yet by the mid-1970s, Mr. Bogdanovich was making headlines as much for his personal life as his movies. His marriage to screenwriter and production designer Polly Platt, one of his closest collaborators, broke down when he started a much-publicized affair with Cybill Shepherd, one of the stars of “The Last Picture Show.”

“It was inevitable,” he later told the Times. “My upbringing, the movies I’d seen, had made me totally vulnerable to falling in love with an actress. For ‘Picture Show’ and the role of Jacy, we had found this girl from Memphis, Cybill Shepherd. She was 20 and perfect — very smart and funny. And I felt myself falling in love with her. I tried to avoid it. I told her, ‘I don’t know whether I want to go to bed with Jacy, or you.’ ”

Mr. Bogdanovich directed Shepherd in “Daisy Miller” (1974), a period drama adapted from a novel by Henry James, and “At Long Last Love” (1975), a critically reviled jukebox musical. Reviewing the latter, film critic Frank Rich declared that it was “like watching a musical unfold within ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ”

A few years later, Mr. Bogdanovich fell into a love affair with Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy model whom he cast in his bittersweet romantic comedy “They All Laughed” (1981). Shortly after filming wrapped in 1980, she was murdered by her estranged husband. Her killing inspired another movie, Bob Fosse’s “Star 80,” and traumatized Mr. Bogdanovich, who wrote a book, “The Killing of the Unicorn” (1984), about Stratten and her murder.

The episode also led Mr. Bogdanovich to grow closer with Stratten’s younger sister, Louise. They married in 1988, when he was 49 and she was 20. “It’s like a shipwreck. We both ended up hanging on to the same piece of driftwood, and we saw that we loved each other,” he told the website Vulture, looking back on their relationship.

By then, Mr. Bogdanovich was struggling to regain his footing as a critically beloved, commercially successful director. Major box office failures — including that of “They All Laughed” — had tarnished his reputation. He declared bankruptcy twice in a dozen years, and was angered by suggestions that his early, best-reviewed films were in large part the result of his collaboration with Platt, who went on to work as a producer and collaborate with filmmaker James L. Brooks.

“The whole thing about my personal life got in the way of people’s understanding of the movies,” he told the Associated Press in 2020. “That’s something that has plagued me since the first couple of pictures.”

Still, he pressed on, continuing to make movies and befriending younger directors such as Quentin Tarantino, with whom he lived for a time in the 2000s.

“I’m not bitter,” he told the Times in 2002. “I asked for it. Success is very hard. Nobody prepares you for it. You think you’re infallible. You pretend you know more than you do. Pride goeth before the fall.”

Peter Bogdanovich was born in Kingston, N.Y., on July 30, 1939, and grew up in Manhattan, where movies served as an escape from a melancholy family, haunted by the accidental death of an older brother. His father was an artist from Serbia, and his mother was a homemaker who came from a wealthy Jewish family in Austria.

Mr. Bogdanovich saw up to 400 films a year, jotting down observations about each movie on notecards, while also trying his hand in theater, taking acting classes with Stella Adler as a teenager and directing an off-Broadway production of a Clifford Odets play at age 20.

He first became known in the film world as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art, where he organized retrospectives that helped draw renewed interest to the work of older directors such as Hawks and Ford, whose “simplicity of style” he sought to emulate.

“I’ve gotten some very important one-sentence clues, like when Howard Hawks turned to me and said, ‘Always cut on the movement and no one will notice the cut,’ ” Mr. Bogdanovich told the AP. “It was a very simple sentence, but it profoundly effected everything I’ve done.”

He married Platt in 1962 and soon moved to Los Angeles. They had two daughters, Antonia and Alexandra “Sashy” Bogdanovich, and divorced in 1970, although they continued collaborating through the release of “Paper Moon.” His marriage to Louise Stratten also ended in divorce.

As Mr. Bogdanovich told it, he was offered just about every hit movie of the early 1970s, including “The Exorcist,” “Chinatown” and “The Godfather,” which he said he declined because he was “not interested in the Mafia.” Instead he made movies including the 1976 comedy “Nickelodeon,” a flop set in early 20th-century Hollywood that starred Burt Reynolds and Ryan and Tatum O’Neal.

Although he struggled to find a wide audience, he remained prolific, directing films such as “Mask” (1985), a biographical drama about a boy born with a rare bone disorder; “Texasville” (1990), a sequel to “The Last Picture Show” that reunited him with Shepherd; and “Noises Off” (1992), based on a play by Michael Frayn.

Mr. Bogdanovich also acted, playing a therapist who treats Dr. Melfi in TV’s “The Sopranos.” At other times he played a version of himself, including in an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” and in Welles’s long-unfinished “The Other Side of the Wind,” which was posthumously completed and released on Netflix in 2018.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

“Movies used to be something powerful. It’s been a bit ruined now,” Mr. Bogdanovich told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, lamenting the rise of blockbuster juggernauts. “I don’t know if we can get it back — I think we can. But it’s lost its innocence.”

Yet he added that he still hoped to connect with moviegoers, whether in a romantic comedy like “She’s Funny That Way” (2014), which he co-wrote with Louise Stratten, or in a documentary such as “The Great Buster” (2018), his last completed film, about Buster Keaton.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘If you have a thousand people watching your movie and one of them understands what you’re trying to do, you’re lucky,’ ” Mr. Bogdanovich said. “That sounds almost pretentious, but I know what she meant.”