Peter Bogdanovich has died, America’s only famous chronicler of Old Hollywood, a young friend of Orson Welles and an admirer of John Ford, and a director in his own turn of celebrated dramas like The Last Picture Show (1971), a coming-of-age story about bored kids who don’t like their small town and have only their good looks to recommend them, a Hollywood specialty that won him Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), an attempt to bring back screwball comedy.
Bogdanovich came up in cinema the old-fashioned way, by luck, pluck, and a knack for deception. He was born in 1939, in Kingston, N.Y., and spent his teenage years watching movies and learning acting both by study and by apprenticing in various theaters around the country. He got lucky in 1959, when he directed a production of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, which critics liked. He then showed some pluck in the ’60s, writing articles, later screenplays, but especially monographs on famous directors, as an education for up-and-coming artists or a eulogy for the death of Old Hollywood—Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Allan Dwan. He also wrote profiles of the stars they directed. Then he did it again when the Baby Boomer interest in Old Hollywood was revived, writing Who the Devil Made It (1997) and Who the Devil’s in It (2004), volumes of his conversations with the directors and the stars that made Hollywood what it was.
But on the occasion of his passing, I want to speak in praise of the director Bogdanovich—he had an unusual ability to direct comedy, specializing in farces that mixed outrageous love with unbelievable gags requiring expert timing and the most careful plotting so that it’s hard to follow who’s coming on, who’s going out, who’s chasing whom, and how things are going to turn out. Well, you can pretty much guess that things are going to turn out well, after all—a comedy more or less guarantees a happy end. But you won’t guess how it comes about, and you won’t believe how many laughs it takes to get there. Comedy is mostly gone from our entertainment, romantic comedy as good as canceled, and farce above all is a lost art—we find it hard to laugh at ourselves anymore.
In 2014, Bogdanovich made one last attempt to restore farce to its rightful place in cinema with his last hilarious movie, She’s Funny That Way, produced by his young friends Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. This is a story about actors falling to pieces, women following their dreams, and the magic required for cinema to continue charming us as we continue with our way of life, looking for love, fulfillment, and happiness.
She’s Funny That Way stars Izzy, played by the lovely Imogen Poots as a comic version of Queens itself—walk, accent, and mannerisms—straight out of a midcentury comic routine of the unpolished, rough-around-the-edges part of New York, or even vaudeville. Izzy goes to Manhattan, where she’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who ends up succeeding in Hollywood, a town that loves an actress with a past. America is the land of opportunity, after all, even for those who are not respectable, indeed, the magic of America is somehow tied up with the fact that the lowest can ascend to the highest, as our celebrities not infrequently do. This dizzying rise from low to high is also the specialty of comedy, which always reminds us that respectability isn’t the same thing as pleasure and that there is something in us that yearns to buck convention and reach for the stars instead. We’re a restless people.
Izzy tells her story to a very cynical, not to say bitter, reporter, a woman of a certain age played by Joanna Lumley, who cannot believe what she’s hearing: Izzy was seduced by a man who promised her a chance to fulfill the American dream and then lived up to it at some cost to himself. Unbeknownst to her, he’s a famous theater director, Arnold Albertson, played by Owen Wilson in his best movie. He believes in beauty, but cannot himself make beauty—he depends on writers, actors, everyone else to make the magic happen, and the same is true in his love of prostitutes who dream of making it somewhere in the great American economy.
This is a great conservative insight, that the difference between actors and prostitutes is one of degree, not of kind, since they counterfeit love and beauty respectively but don’t live up to their beliefs. So in Bogdanovich’s movie, it turns out that Arnold is directing a play about a prostitute who finds her way to success—it’s not just a coincidence, but somehow essential to our world, where the young especially dream of celebrity rather than more serious things and the only thing you are not allowed to do is judge people.
It gets worse: Izzy auditions for Arnold’s new play without realizing she’s showing up for an embarrassment, meeting an illicit lover at his job. Worse still, Izzy gets the part because the very romantic and hangdog playwright, played by Will Forte, and the lead actors, Delta and Seth, played by Kathryn Hahn and Rhys Ifans, love her very realistic performance. Worst of all, Arnold’s wife, Delta, is the star of the show, and her co-star Seth seizes on Arnold’s adultery with Izzy to tempt Delta to become an adulteress herself, forgetting about the two children she is raising with Arnold.
That’s the farce—everyone has to pretend to be fine in order to go on with this play, which is supposed to celebrate the modern, liberal, nonjudgmental, sex-positive America, but love and revenge are rife behind scenes and portend a catastrophe nobody can escape. This Progressive ideology, faced with emotional reality, leads to tears and hilarity. Conservatism has its revenge over liberal hubris in the form of laughter! As you might expect, the madness, once started, proves hard to contain—it spreads beyond the stage, and soon the playwright’s psychologist girlfriend, played by Jennifer Aniston, gets involved. On the one hand, Izzy is her client, but on the other, her playwright boyfriend falls for Izzy, so any notion of professionalism goes out the window, and psychology is replaced by, well, psychopathy.
Then there’s the judge! In a surprising turn, the movie turns out to be not just about the stage, but about the bench as well! An old man, Judge Pendergast, played by Austin Pendleton, is obsessed with the prostitute Izzy, because he needs a muse to inspire him when he writes his decisions, because justice can be quite grim without a beautiful young woman. The judge hires a private detective to follow her: Justice, don’t you know, is blind, and therefore in need of surveillance! But this detective, an equally old man, played by George Morfogen, turns out to be the playwright’s father and is caught in a conflict between helping his client, the judge, or his son, who’s also in love with the girl.
You can see how this situation might blow up. Don’t worry, Quentin Tarantino shows up to save the day—he plays himself. The movie is wonderfully fast-paced and witty, so you can bet on watching it once a year and discovering new hilarious situations each time, and appreciating the actors more—their timing, their commitment to the absurd situation, and their realism about the madness of liberal America once love was turned into a Progressive ideology. Love drives them all mad, or at least makes them abandon respectability. The story is decidedly anti-Romantic but pro-nature: Love will only work out if people, instead of pretending to be very important, acquire some humility and then some self-knowledge.
I won’t spoil all the surprises—indeed, the shocks, laughs, and moments of disbelief move so fast you cannot count them all—but I will say that the movie is explicitly a tribute to the first, greatest director of farces in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, whose movie Cluny Brown (1945), starring Charles Boyer, the most suave actor in old Hollywood, and Jennifer Jones, the most comically earnest of the pretty girls, provides not just the funniest lines in the movie but the inspiration for the story as a whole.
She’s Funny That Way is indeed intended as an introduction to the movies of the comic masters—Lubitsch and Wilder, Hawks and McCarey, Cukor and Preston Sturges—which was Bogdanovich’s most important work. Bogdanovich tried all his life to resurrect the old taste, or at least to persuade people to give that older America a chance—through his movies, through his writing, through his documentaries and work for TCM, indeed, every chance he got, he tirelessly tried to remind America how witty cinema used to be. Today, no less than before, wit makes love into a worthwhile comedy. Bogdanovich knew this, and there’s no better way to celebrate his memory than to enjoy his most delightful work!