Thursday, January 24, 2008


Peter Bogdanovich's book Who the Hell's in It is a collection of sketches and interviews with great actors, a sort of sequel to his Who the Devil Made It, about directors, except that the earlier book was all Q&A's, whereas this newer one mostly eschews the interview format. The book is quite valuable in those instances when Bogdanovich knew the actor well, like Jerry Lewis (there's an amazing and amazingly long interview with Lewis included) or River Phoenix, who gets a very loving chapter.

Bogdanovich directed Phoenix's last movie, 1993's The Thing Called Love, and has nothing but effusive praise for his performance therein, and claims there was only one evening in the whole shoot when he suspected Phoenix might be using drugs. In his contemporaneous review, Roger Ebert describes River in the film as "an actor whose mind and heart are far, far away, and he is like a black hole, consuming light and energy.... He looks ill - thin, sallow, listless. His eyes are directed mostly at the ground. He cannot meet the camera, or the eyes of the other actors. It is sometimes difficult to understand his dialogue. Even worse, there is no energy in the dialogue, no conviction that he cares about what he is saying."

When Bogdanovich didn't know the actor in question very well, he makes up for that by describing in great detail every single time he crossed paths with them. The chapter on Brando contains a long passage on the time the teenaged Bogdanovich saw Brando through the window of FAO Schwarz, so he went in to tell him how much he liked his work. (As Brando walked away, Bogdanovich notes, he stepped in dog poop.) The chapter on Cary Grant goes on at great length about the little statue Bogdanovich gave Grant for his birthday one year. Of Hank Fonda, Bogdanovich notes, "During the sixteen years I knew Fonda, we saw each other very little." Another way to say this is, "I met Fonda a couple of times over the course of sixteen years."

If Bogdanovich wants to write about himself so badly, why doesn't he just write his memoir? The man has had a pretty interesting life: A writer on film for Esquire in the 1960s, he made films for Roger Corman before breaking through in 1971 with The Last Picture Show, whose 19-year-old star Cybill Shepherd caused him to leave his wife; he would eventually leave Shepherd and move in with Dorothy Stratten, who was barely 20 and still married to the husband who would kill her shortly thereafter; Bogdanovich declared bankruptcy, then moved on to Dorothy's little sister Louise when she was just 20 (the nice thing about being a director is that you get older but the starlets stay the same age), then declared bankruptcy again (once, in the depths of his fiscal depravity, the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler offered Bogdanovich 500 bucks, and he took it), which is hard to do because once you declare bankruptcy once, people generally aren't willing to lend you enough money to allow you to go bankrupt again. Then he was in The Sopranos. Now that's a life worth writing about.

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