Daisy Miller at 50: Revisiting Peter Bogdanovich’s First Miss

Movies Features Peter Bogdanovich
Daisy Miller at 50: Revisiting Peter Bogdanovich’s First Miss

People forget how integral Peter Bogdanovich was to the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s. An ascot-wearing enfant terrible who was a movie critic for Esquire, directed a film for the late, great Roger Corman (just like his fellow New Hollywood icons Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) and had Orson Welles for a shopping buddy, Bogdanovich was—as some would say—un-fuck-wit-able in the early ‘70s.

His 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show put Bogdanovich on the map, garnering raves, big box-office receipts and Oscars for supporting players Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. He followed that up a year later with What’s Up, Doc?, a gleefully nonsensical tribute to screwball, Hawksian rom-coms starring main lovebirds Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. The following year, O’Neal and Bogdanovich teamed up again for the Depression-era comedy Paper Moon. O’Neal acted alongside his daughter Tatum, who made Hollywood history by being the youngest recipient of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Paper Moon was also the first release from The Directors Company, a production outfit Bogdanovich formed at Paramount Pictures with Coppola and William Friedkin. Unfortunately, this company was short-lived; the only films that came out of this union were Paper Moon, Coppola’s 1974 wire-tapping thriller The Conversation and Daisy Miller, another Bogdanovich joint (released 50 years ago this week) that practically signaled the beginning of the filmmaker’s end.

It was Bogdanovich’s old pal Welles who encouraged him to adapt The Portrait of a Lady author Henry James’ 1878 novella Daisy Miller. The Last Picture Show star (and Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend) Cybill Shepherd plays the title character, a flirty, flighty, fast-talking gal from Schenectady, hanging with her mom (Leachman again) and bratty little brother (future rock/Americana singer James McMurtry, AKA Larry’s son) at a Swiss spa.

Miller also meets expatriate American Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown), who immediately becomes smitten with Miller and her mischievous antics. Even when she puts him in the friend zone and frolics around Rome with a suave Italian dude (Duilio Del Prete), Winterbourne continues to be there for Daisy. He even tries to steer her on the right path of social acceptance when snooty socialites (Last Picture Show castmate Eileen Brennan plays a particularly uppity dame) start shunning her for being an incessantly independent woman.

Bogdanovich shot the flawed-but-fanciful Daisy Miller on location with a heavy arsenal of behind-the-scenes talent: screenwriter Frederic Raphael (Eyes Wide Shut) supplied the regal, rapid-fire dialogue; New Hollywood “mother cutter” Verna Fields handled editing; British costume designer John Furniss assembled fits that got him an Oscar nod for Best Costume Design. However, this dapper, ditzy, dizzying comedy of manners failed to catch a buzz. Even though this came out the same year Paramount dropped a successful, all-star adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Bogdanovich discovered that stateside audiences weren’t ready for heavily-costumed period pieces just yet. 

“The Merchant Ivory films that came out later had not come out yet,” Bogdanovich told Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies’ The Plot Thickens podcast. ”So, nobody was ready for this sudden departure of me going into the 19th century.”

Critics were divided; while The New York Times’ Vincent Canby gushed over it (“Peter Bogdanovich’s handsome film version… is something of a triumph for everyone concerned and very much an unexpected one”), Michael Sragow gave a blunt counterpoint (“… the film is boring”) in the same pages a couple weeks later. Even the higher-ups at Paramount didn’t have kind words for it. After a screening, Bogdanovich asked then-president Frank Yablans for his thoughts. “What do you want me to say?” Yablans fired back. “You’re Babe Ruth, and you just bunted.”

A huge factor of Daisy Miller’s failure was Bogdanovich and Shepherd’s much-publicized romance. It seems Joe and Jane Public didn’t approve of the glowing bond these two attractive stars shared, especially when they appeared on the cover of People, flaunting the joy they had living in sin. On that same episode of The Plot Thickens, Bogdanovich recalled the time he got a call from Cary Grant, telling him to stop showing the world that he and Shepherd are happy and in love. When Bogdanovich asked why, Grant simply said, “Because they’re not happy and they’re not in love.”

Just as Bogdanovich had three grand slams in a row, he would go on to have three duds in a row. He helmed another ambitious project with Shepherd, pairing her up with Burt Reynolds in the musical At Long Last Love. With Bogdanovich casting two song-and-dance novices in a film where they perform Cole Porter tunes live, At Long Last Love bombed harder than Daisy Miller. The next year, Bogdanovich reunited with Reynolds, along with his Paper Moon stars Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, for Nickelodeon, a madcap valentine to Hollywood’s silent-film era that also fizzled at the box office. (It truly was the Babylon of its day.) 

It’s amazing how Bogdanovich went from Hollywood golden boy to box-office poison in the span of a decade. Even Reynolds kicked him when he was down; he and Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham got comedian Robert Klein to play a self-centered, Bogdanovich-esque filmmaker in their 1978 stuntman salute Hooper. Bogdanovich ended the ‘70s by getting his former mentor Corman to produce Saint Jack, a forgotten 1979 adaptation of a Paul Theroux novel. Its unflattering view of Singapore and its sleazy underworld prompted the film to be banned in Singapore and Malaysia.

Now that Kino Lorber is releasing it on Blu-ray this week, it appears that Daisy Miller is ready to be reappraised. (IndieWire got the ball rolling last week.) The movie does have its surprising devotees. In his 2022 book of film essays Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino spends a chapter praising Daisy Miller and the performances of Shepherd and Brown, a former writer of horror film magazines who had a brief run as a movie/TV actor before taking his own life in 1978. You could even make the case that if it wasn’t for the bold, auteur-driven Daisy Miller, we probably wouldn’t have had Martin Scorsese adapting Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in 1993 or Greta Gerwig dropping her version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 2019. Although it set off his run of box-office turkeys, Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller basically walked so 19th-century period pieces from Yankee filmmakers could run—and also contend for Best Costume Design Oscars.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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