The Peter Bogdanovich I Knew

Movies Features Peter Bogdanovich
The Peter Bogdanovich I Knew

It’s not always a wise choice to meet your idols. Especially when they have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, as Peter Bogdanovich most certainly did. So I’m sure my hands were literally trembling when I went over to introduce myself to him on a warm Sarasota evening.

It was the Closing Night Gala of the Sarasota Film Festival. Tom Hall had invited me as a juror, thank God, and Peter as a special guest. We stood for at least an hour at opposite ends of the VIP section in our respective spring suits and ties, sipping champagne and looking up at the Florida stars, before I eventually found the courage to cross over to him.

If it all sounds like the beginning of a Hollywood rom-com, that’s actually not far off from how it felt, at least to me (and trust me, Peter would have loved that anyway; he was especially passionate about romantic films). My greatest hero is my father. His favorite film of all time is The Last Picture Show. So the Bogdanovich name was sacred to me from an early age. My admiration only grew as I explored his other films—What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, hell I even loved the ones that critics sniffed at, like Daisy Miller. And once I discovered his writing? I positively swooned over Peter Bogdanovich.

So that night under the Florida stars, I mustered up my best confident face, walked over and said, “Everything I’m trying to do in my career, Peter Bogdanovich already did bigger and better.” It was one of my stock lines, even before I ever met the great man. Peter was a critic, an interviewer, a curator and a filmmaker. Exactly the four roles I play in my own, much more modest film life. To my great relief, he laughed slyly.

We hit it off immediately. We started talking about classic films, and his face lit up. I asked what he was working on currently, and he told me about a new project he was putting together (She’s Funny That Way, which he did end up making, and which I found delightful). He asked me about my own filmmaking. He asked me what I thought of the film he was acting in that was playing the festival, Cold Turkey, and really listened and considered my answers (I loved it, especially the performances by Peter and the wonderful Alicia Witt). In fact, from early in that initial conversation, once he had satisfied himself that I knew what I was talking about, he treated me not as a fan but as a true colleague. From that day forward, for the rest of our friendship.

This was heady stuff for a young filmmaker. Imagine Toni Morrison asking how you developed the characters in your novel, or Keith Richards sitting down to compare blues licks with you. That’s what it felt like.

But that might not even fully capture what the experience of knowing Peter was like, because in addition to being a legend himself, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of, appreciation for, and insight on all the great American filmmakers. Many of those great filmmakers were his friends. He came up as one of the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s, of course. Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma and Spielberg and Lucas and Cimino and Friedkin and the rest were his contemporaries. But his closest friends in the industry stretched back well before his time—Welles and Hitchcock and Ford and Hawks, among others. Those were the giants he drank with, learned from, argued with, wrote about. He was our last direct link to that era.

In the years to come, whenever I was in Los Angeles I’d visit Peter and have the kind of conversations most film buffs can only dream of having. I think he always got a kick out of our symmetry; he was constantly looking back to filmmakers two generations older, and now here I was looking back nearly two generations to him. Peter was a master storyteller verbally as well as cinematically, and he was a great mimic, too. It truly was like being in the very room with Orson, or Hitch, or whomever he was channeling. Sometimes he’d tell me stories I’d read before, in his books. Sometimes he’d tell me stories he’d told me before. I never, ever stopped him. How could I?

One of his favorite stories to tell involved a lunch with his friend Jimmy Stewart. A man approached the table and briefly told Stewart about how much his career had meant to him, and specifically about one favorite scene in which Stewart had played a key role. After the man left, a thousand-yard stare crossed Stewart’s face and he said to Peter, “You see? We give people these little pieces of time. And they keep them forever.”

At least that’s how the story appears in Peter’s book—that book is even entitled Pieces of Time. But every time I heard him tell the story in person, he wouldn’t say “pieces of time.” Whether he was misremembering, or had corrected his memory, or—who knows?—had long since exercised a screenwriter’s prerogative to punch up a line, he’d say “jewels of time” instead.

I love that little phrase: Jewels of time. Peter gave me a jeweler’s case worth of those, in the time I knew him, through his stories and reminiscences and his insights and perhaps, most of all, through his championing of me and my vision as a critic and filmmaker. He even graciously agreed to appear in Six L.A. Love Stories, my scripted feature directorial debut, produced by his daughter Antonia, my friend and collaborator and a hell of a filmmaker herself. He was spot perfect in his role, of course. And when he told me he loved our film (and those that know Peter know he would rather stab himself in the eye than give an insincere compliment), it’s not an exaggeration to say that it was a seminal moment in my life.

I don’t want to exaggerate how well I knew Peter. Others knew him much better. And of course most never had the chance to meet him in person. But I do know this: In his articles, his books, his interviews, his documentaries and in his transcendent films, he left us all a treasury of those jewels of time. May we keep them forever.

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