Old School

When John Waters appeared at Edinburgh Film Fest to talk about his career and his monologue-movie THIS FILTHY WORLD, he spoke of the tragedy of Divine’s passing — not only did his star miss out on the success of HAIRSPRAY, but his death cast a pall over the film. “Who would say ‘Let’s go see that comedy starring that guy who just died?'” he asked, rhetorically. This didn’t stop a drunken female fan in the audience from bellowing “I would!” Waters, who is a real gent, which one might not guess from some of his movies, looked slightly pained, and answered, with great restraint, “Yes, but you know what I mean.”

Well, I’d been meaning to revisit THEY ALL LAUGHED, and Ben Gazzara’s passing seemed as good a reason as any. Fiona had never seen it. While not having Gazzara around any more is a cause for sadness, in a way it was good to see the film with a slightly different pall over it than the usual one, which is of course due to the presence of Dorothy Stratton, murdered before the film came out. And it’s hard to separate that tragedy from the movie’s history. When the distributors decided to write the film off, Bogdanovich bought it back from them and distributed it himself, which bankrupted him.

So the movie has baggage — it also has John Ritter, who died much too soon, and a lingering view of the twin towers during the opening credits. A pretty heavy load for a movie to bear when it’s trying to coast along on charm.

Because there’s virtually no plot, something which perplexed me when I saw it as a kid (it was one of the few movies our local VHS/Betamax rental place had in stock). I got the distinct impression I was missing something — a bunch of characters are set in motion for obscure reasons, move around Manhattan, get up to mysterious stuff, switch partners, fall in love, and then it’s over. I grasped that some of the men were private eyes, and I grasped who they were following — Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratton — but since the husband-clients who engaged the ‘tecs spend most of their time offscreen, and are virtually never seen conferring with their hired snoopers, I had little idea why anything was happening. It’s like Truffaut says to Hitchcock, whenever A & B are discussing an absent C, the audience scratches their scalps and wonders who the hell C is.

On top of the puzzlement, there’s an almost total lack of dramatic tension, a necessary ingredient in farce and screwball, I’d have thought. Some of the slackness comes from our not being sure what’s afoot, some of it from a genuine sense of there being nothing at stake. The characters deal with romance in such an easy-going manner — the film takes it as read that everybody is unfaithful to everybody else, and nobody seems to mind except a couple of unsympathetic husbands — that it’s hard to get engaged with the entanglements of the lead characters.

Yes, characterS — the hero role is split between Gazzara and Ritter. BG brings movie-star manliness and dignity to a bed-hopping character who arguably lacks dignity in some key ways, while Ritter, as absolutely everybody has pointed out, is playing Bogdanovich, down to the blazer and big plastic specs. His impersonation is so good he illuminates the ways in which Ryan O’Neal before him had channelled the Bogdanovich persona. But O’Neal’s own, more muscular personality still came through, whereas Ritter is subsumed.

The other cast member who suffers is Colleen Camp, who most people seem to find annoying in this. I think the problem is that she’s been drilled in the mannerisms of Madeleine Kahn in WHAT’S UP, DOC? (herself modeled on the henpecker in BRINGING UP BABY), and it’s too one-note, especially as the character has more screen time and seems intended to be at least somewhat appealing.

BUT — there are compensations for all of the above, even for those who don’t like country music (yes, it’s set in New York and has a largely country music soundtrack, with a splash of Sinatra and Benny Goodman). Bogdanovich’s conceit of transposing screwball style onto a 1981 location-shot New York movie is, in itself, quite charming. Patti Hansen (now Mrs Keith Richards) is a sensational discovery (rather eclipsing Stratton) as the lady cab driver who casually flirts with Gazzara. She’s got cute freckles and an unselfconscious manner which suggests she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing but trusts it all to work out.

There’s a very young Elizabeth Pena!

Bogdanovich’s daughters play Gazzara’s daughters, and are terrific — everybody’s got the Bogdanovich 40s timing down pat.

Audrey Hepburn has too little to do — it’s an odd romantic comedy which spends most of its time stalking — but when she finally gets a line or two, the film gains emotion. But it’s weird, with one character getting divorced, how Hepburn never seems to consider ditching her fat-cat hubbie for new love Ben. Hard to feel heartbroken for her. Maybe she’s afraid she’d lose custody of her kid, but if so, that’s a dramatic point which the film ought to bring out. It’s as if PB is so intent on keeping things light, he forgot to charge the story’s batteries with some actual motivating power.

To be honest, skipping through the director’s filmography, it’s a problem I tend to find in his original screenplays. Where the source material provides an edge, you get THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Where he has to engage with the dynamics of the thriller, as in TARGETS, it’s rather electrifying, in part because of his discomfort with the nastier qualities of the genre (and his story collaborator, Polly Platt, was a good influence). But Bogdanovich on his own wrote AT LONG LAST LOVE — not as awful as its reputation suggests, but singularly lacking in forward momentum.

The movies Bogdanovich admires usually only seem to coast along. While I admit I can’t remember a thing about the storyline of TOP HAT, I do recall that THE GAY DIVORCEE sets up narrative expectations early on and even delivers a superb plot twist. And Hawks’ disparagement of plot should never be taken at face value — his characters nearly always have goals.

In the end, THEY ALL LAUGHED is pretty enjoyable — we didn’t know precisely why we were watching, but we never felt like switching off. And the film would appear to be seriously overlong, at nearly two hours, but survives. I can’t resent its formlessness too much — the plots of Bogdanovich’s best films, which are seriously good (PAPER MOON was my first exposure to The New Hollywood, and I still love it) always threaten to disintegrate, and hang together against the odds. So one should allow him the odd film which doesn’t quite make it to the finish line intact. The sad thing about his career is that Hollywood, or the public, or fate, did not allow him these “failures”.

16 Responses to “Old School”

  1. They All Laughed is indeed lovely, but at the time of its appearance incredibly sad because of Dorothy Stratten’s horrendous death (immortalized by Bob Fosse in his swan song Star 80 : the Citizen Kane of “feel bad” movies)

    Bogdanovich has had such a srange careerThe Last Picture Show made him Sue Mengers’Golden Boy. It was she, not he, was was the auteur behind What’s Up Doc? as she represented all the talent on screen. But it was Bogdanovich who brought out the best in the insanely problematic Streisand — particularly in the moment when she sings a snatch Cole Porter to Ryan O’Neal whereupon they both fall off the piano bench.

    Jacques Rivette is a great fan of At Long Last Love which I saw when it premiered at Radio City and found stupifying — a light musical comedy that weighs a ton. I suspect it was Cybill Shepher’d Total Lack of Charm that did me in.

    Most recently Bodanovich has made his mark as Dr. Melfi’s psychiatrist on The Sopranos It’s an expert performance.

    As for film the world he once inhabited as a director is as dead as Sue Mengers herself.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Alas, I’ve never seen AT LONG LAST LOVE…but Cybill Shepherd is utterly entrancing as DAISY MILLER and it’s hard to think of another actress who could have played that role so well. As my other half pointed out, “She’s both elegant and vulgar at the same time!” Both those facets are essential to Daisy.

    I also love THEY ALL LAUGHED as it’s the only film that really captures the underlying sadness in Audrey Hepburn’s persona. After all, she was anorexic, suffered at least one major nervous breakdown, endured two disastrous marriages to husbands who treated her abominably…oh, and both her parents were Nazi sympathisers, leaving her a lifetime legacy of guilt for crimes of which she herself was wholly innocent!

    So how could the world at large fantasise her as some sublime fairy tale princess? The poor woman had tragedy seeping from every pore…but only Bogdanovich dared to tap into it on screen.

  3. I think Robin and Marian gets the Hepburn melancholy too — especially with that ending!

    Bogdanovich certainly benefited from some strong female collaborators — his partner’s Polly Platt’s influence on his early work, as designer and script collaborator, shouldn’t be underestimated. Maybe she was his Marcia Lucas.

  4. With AT LONG LAST LOVE, which I continue to watch and enjoy despite its manifest problems, I think the structure is provided by the yards and yards of Cole Porter songs. That and the gap between performances by, say, Astaire and Rogers and Eric Blore and those of Burt Reynolds and Shepherd and John Hillerman, which is accentuated by the use of live singing voices rather than the usual dubbed-in ones. It’s as if what Bogdanovich shows us is a fallen world, one full of Astaires Manques.

    As for DAISY MILLER, which I’ve seen a lot more recently, the major problem is one which all Henry James adaptations face: what are you left with when you no longer have the Jamesian narrative voice to carry you? (It’s no wonder that the single, to my mind, most successful James adaptations, THE HEIRESS and THE INNOCENTS, both had intermediate stage scripts to provide structure and dialogue.) Is simple *plot* enough to suffice? In the case of DAISY MILLER, no. Nor does it hep that the title performance, which might have worked in a comic context, is essentially one-note and repetitive

  5. At Long Last Love is quite structured, and the structure is revealed by the dancing figurines who trade partners at the start: that’s what you get. What it doesn’t have is any kind of motor to make it go anywhere, any jeopardy, any reason to care about the characters and their charmed existences. So it’s bizarrely meditative, which on the plus side gives room for the kind of experience you have with it, Chris.

    I would think it’s possible to adapt James to the screen without a play in between — you simply do all the writing work that the playwright would do. But that’s not easy of course, and there aren’t so many writers with all the necessary skills. And some James stories may simply lack the potential for dramatic transposition (he wasn’t too successful as a playwright himself, I understand).

    One I rather like: The Lost Moment.

  6. Paul Duane Says:

    Apparently some quixotically inclined individual has been working on a documentary all about They All Laughed for years now, as referenced in this rather nice blogpost mourning Gazzara’s passing:

    http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=48783

  7. So when are you going to tackle THE CAT’S MEOW, which would make an interesting double-feature with STAR 80, come to think of it. Kirsten Dunst is rubbish, of course, but Edward Herriman is amazing!

  8. Great Gaz appreciation!

    I liked The Cat’s Meow, and still don’t understand why it didn’t lead to greater things for PB. Izzard doesn’t quite work… true, he’s an English comedian with mime training, but he’s not called upon to use any of that here, so what we’re left with is a startling lack of physical resemblance to one of the best-known men ever. True, Robert Downey Jnr was unlikely to be beaten in that department, but still…

    I liked the design and the story and the way Bogdanovich seemed compassionate to all his characters… I think the next PB I revisit will probably be Saint Jack though.

  9. Christopher Says:

    Saint Jack is an old fave from early cable days…

  10. And I saw this one on early VHS! He’s Mr New Media.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    Gazzara even survived an earlier film with Audrey Hepburn, that notorious Eurotrash train-wreck BLOODLINE. One of those rare films that actually is as bad as its reputation suggests…and I say that as a fan of the novel, and the writings of Mr Sidney Sheldon in general. School in the 70s would have been a dull place indeed without dog-eared Sheldon books to pass around under the desk!

  12. I’ve been meaning to watch that for the longest time. Great title sequence, I do remember that much,

  13. david wingrove Says:

    Believe me, it goes downhill rapidly after the titles. Co-star James Mason referred to the whole movie as a ‘performing animal act’…which makes it sound a lot more dignified than it actually is!

    Sources say there was so much dodgy tax-shelter money being laundered on BLOODLINE that profits were guaranteed all round even if the film itself was a commercial disaster – which, predictably, it was.

    One scene that was cut after previews in America involved Michelle Phillips getting her knees nailed to the floor by gangsters. Classy. As some critics pointed out, even her acting wasn’t that bad!

  14. It wasn’t up to the level of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight or Sidney Sheldon’s The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer

  15. The Other Side of Midnight is quite decent soft porn, apart from the plot. Bloodline seems like it shades into the unacceptable towards the end…

  16. david wingrove Says:

    BLOODLINE starts off as ‘unacceptable’ and gets steadily more so as it goes on.

    THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT is an immortal classic of its kind and was, allegedly, Andy Warhol’s all-time favourite film. Stylistically, it’s a ‘new’ movie that looks convincingly like an ‘old’ movie (apart from the sex). That’s something that THE ARTIST attempts but never even remotely seems to manage.

    Oh, and I even like the plot in THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT. It’s got love…lust…intrigue…passion…revenge… So nice to see a film that reflects my own day-to-day concerns!

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