Who the Hell’s in It
Portraits and Conversations
A new book by Peter Bogdanovich
532 pages, illustrated; Alfred A. Knopf, $35.00
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More than an entertainer, Peter Bogdanovich is a born storyteller. Whether through the films he directs, the books and articles he’s written, or from what he relates through the characters he has played. He can be an excellent guest on TV talk shows — at his best if seated next to someone related to old Hollywood — and could have a career as a stand-up impressionist. One of the key figures of the short-lived ‘new American cinema’ in the 1970’s, he was feted when his films The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, and Paper Moon made piles of money. But his celebrity status didn’t last long, and like a few of his peers — Francis Coppola, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson especially — Bogdanovich found out that in Hollywood, any Hollywood, new or old, you’re only as good as your last picture.
For nearly forty-five years, Bogdanovich has been preserving the memory of pre-1960’s American film, a tireless pursuit that has netted any number of interviews and magazine articles, books and museum monographs. One of the most vocal proponents of Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock, Bogdanovich also knows the B-picture quite well and was the only one with the foresight to track down Edgar Ulmer for an interview before it was too late. Given the European sensibility that permeates most of his earlier pictures (The Last Picture Show is nearly an homage to the nouvelle vague), Bogdanovich’s gushing fannishness for the studio years seems an aesthetic paradox until you realize that these were the same films and era that fired the imaginations of Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer. He’s an actor’s director and began as an actor himself, studying under Stella Adler. (Recently he’s worked more as an actor, on TV in The Sopranos.)
Who the Hell’s in It is a companion piece to Bogdanovich’s 1998 book, Who the Devil Made It, and those old-school cuss word titles will surely baffle urbanites and most suburbanites born after 1960. (Common sense won out over joining the pre-Vietnam colloquialisms and titling this review ‘For the Love of Pete.’) They’re derived from Hawks’s remark about films made by his colleagues, “I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture.” The earlier book is an invaluable document of studio-era filmmaking; Who the Hell’s in It attempts to define stardom. The allure of any star isn’t necessarily felt by everyone in the audience — I’ve known people who’ve “hated” one of my favorites, Marlene Dietrich — but there are particular qualities that separate a star from an artist from a celebrity from the actor who’s simply doing a job. Bogdanovich’s interviews and friendships with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant merged the fan’s adoration with an eager inquisition of craft and the eventual realization of so much having to do with charisma, individuality and luck. You could be the best actor in the history of the world, but there really is only one Cary Grant.
Billy Wilder and Dean Martin on the set of Kiss Me, Stupid
In his introduction, Bogdanovich ponders the nature of the actor. Or, Actor. The very word, he writes, “carries a rather mundane connotation of a boringly self-involved, humorless and demanding person, often childish and vain — in other words, tediously high-maintenance.” But these are the faces on the front line, and no one considered the contribution of the director or writer or producer until it grew into fashion in the 60’s. (It could be argued that one studio — MGM — held some sway over the paying public, as did Hitchcock, the first celebrity director.) Many people continue to trust strongly in those figures moving about on the screen that the actor is often credited for a picture’s quality, or lack thereof.
In the early 60’s, Esquire magazine sent Bogdanovich to interview stars and watch them at work, maybe hoping that he could come up with a suitable definition for that intangible charisma. Several of these articles have been dusted off, revised and lengthened for the book, allowing us to witness Bogdanovich’s evolution as a writer as well as the progression in his relationships with Hollywood luminaries. There’s a poignancy that comes of this, as when he chats with Lauren Bacall about Bogart seven years after his death (“she had smiled softly quite often with the slightly disconnected yet direct look in her eyes of stoic heartbreak”), juxtaposed with a conversation some thirty-five years later where she was “still as much in love with him as ever.”
Interviewing Jack Lemmon on the set of Irma La Douce invites a stream of funny sidebars involving co-star Shirley MacLaine and director Billy Wilder, such as Billy’s flirtation with a young Japanese stripper/actress (“It vould be impossible betveen us…because at some point I vould remember Pearl Harbor!”), but Bogdanovich is at a slight distance from Lemmon as if he’d ricocheted off the actor’s tics and jitters. A brief passage on Montgomery Clift, depicting a queer moment when the actor and author met by chance at the New Yorker Theatre, is as fleeting and ethereal as that beautiful, reticent star. And the remembrance of Sal Mineo is a surprise out of left field.
“I do admit to nostalgic sentimental attachments,” he writes. “Yet that is what pop culture has always been, and always will be: what gets to you as you age is eternally about who and what you grew up with. You ache not just for the performer’s past, but for your own.” He’s been faithful to his own influences and inspirations. (To a fault: of the twenty-five people he’s profiled, only five are women — Lillian Gish, Stella Adler, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe.) Adler developed into something of a maternal figure, and is remembered dotingly and respectfully. Both her chapter and the one on Cary Grant are rife with critical deference, personal adoration, and slack-jawed fandom. When Cary calls Peter to thank him for sending over a “little Cary Grant” made of flowers, the combined charm, elegance and downright absurdity of the situation is impossible to resist.
The author is acutely aware that post-‘Boomers’ will draw a blank on most of the people in the book. In his introduction, Bogdanovich relates the time in 2002 when he was directing a twenty-something actor and, at a loss for suggestions, asked him to put “more Cary Grant” into his delivery, only to get a vacant stare in return. Despite all the lip service given to ‘classics’ in the movies, the stature of any given film or star is precarious at best. For nearly forty years, Gone With the Wind was hailed (with the prodding of an effective marketing campaign) as the greatest movie of all time, but does that sentiment hold true today? The sad reality is that James Cagney and Henry Fonda and John Wayne (each covered lovingly by Bogdanovich) have faded into obscurity to a great many. “To keep the past alive…is among my principal objectives,” he writes. “The modest goal here is to awaken a few so that maybe they’ll look at what’s out there just waiting to be discovered and relished.”
Peter Bogdanovich and James Stewart
One thing he’s succeeded at, mostly with the help of James Stewart, is placing a definition on stardom. Through Bogdanovich’s phonetic transcription (done to great effect throughout the book, especially with Stewart, Wilder and riotously with Grant), the actor breaks it down in his homespun drawl: “If you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across — then what you’re doing is . . . You’re giving people little . . . Little, tiny pieces of time . . . That they never forget.”
Stewart’s gig was humility — but imagine the ego that could master humility. “If everyone is that interested in you,” the author writes of Charlie Chaplin, “how can you not be equally interested, both in maintaining and contemplating [yourself]?” Perhaps the single most famous of all movie stars, the Little Tramp incites Bogdanovich to ponder the “blinding self-absorption that often comes as a by-product of extraordinary fame and power.”
Other than the psychological position, Who the Hell’s in It understands that a studio-era director, no matter their worth, would’ve been lost without the stars. Stewart with Capra and Hitchcock and Ford; Cary Grant with Hawks and Hitchcock; John Wayne with Ford and Hawks. Could To Have and Have Not work without Hawks and Bogey and Baby? Bogdanovich has mined the best and worst of Jerry Lewis (that monumental chapter runs nearly eighty pages), reflecting the ‘Chickie Baby’ 60’s while earnestly justifying this generally maligned entertainer. Decade after decade, star after star, it’s a full plate. But it may come from a time and place foreign to some. Artfully probing the mythic character of Bogart, Bogdanovich remarked to Lauren Bacall that Bogey’s “kind of American” didn’t seem to exist anymore. To which she replied, “And that kind of America doesn’t exist either.”