The Academy Award for Best Director was first awarded in 1929. As the name implies, each year the Academy recognizes the Director whose work stands out above all others. For many Directors an Academy Award for Best Director it is the ultimate accomplishment. There is however an accolade that is much rarer and arguably much more interesting.
Peter Bogdonavich is one of only a handful of Directors whose films have scored a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. “The Last Picture Show” (1971) (based on a book by Larry McMurtry of the same name) has over 50 reviews by critics and they are all positive. This 100% consensus among critics puts “The Last Picture Show” in the company of films like “Citizen Kane” (1941), “North by Northwest” (1959), and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Even legendary films like “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) had detractors among critics.
Like anyone who eventually masters their craft, Peter started at the bottom and worked his way up. He didn’t go to film school; he put himself through his own kind of university by engaging with a number of directors whose work he admired.
John Ford once yelled at him, “Jesus Christ Bogdanovich! Is that all you can do? Ask Questions???”
He must have been getting all the right answers.
Initially everyone thought of Peter as an actor and he does have an impressive list of acting credits. There is an old story the Bogdanovich family likes to tell which perfectly illustrates what young Peter was like.
My mother and father and I were on a train from New London, Connecticut to New York when I was 5 years old. I was given a plastic toy telephone by my parents to keep me occupied for the duration of the trip. To make use of my new toy, I carried on a fictional 3-way conversation between Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin… I played all 3 parts and did the part of Stalin in Serbian (my first language). Everyone on the train car loved it. After seeing my one man show, my parents thought, “This kid is an actor!”
When I was 14 years old my mother enrolled me in a Saturday afternoon acting class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The teacher was impressed by me. A year later when I was 15 I was invited me to spend the summer in Travis City Michigan as an apprentice for a theatre. I said yes and my parents allowed me to go.
It was a program called “Summer Stars.” Every week a different star would come in and preform with the company. Even though I was only supposed to be an apprentice, I landed a lead part. We would rehearse during the days and preform at night. It was fun. Veronica Lake came up that summer… she was probably the biggest star we had.
At 16 I studied under Stella Adler; I lied and said I was 18 because I was tall so I knew I could away with it. I thought I would be an actor but I was slowly getting interested in directing. I saw directing as a way to play all the parts.
Eventually I directed by first Off Broadway play at 20 years old. It was a play by Clifford Odets (which I revived) called “The Big Knife.” It was pure luck that he let me do his play. I had to get the rights from Clifford and one of the actors I worked with at Stella’s knew him and gave me his address. I wrote him a long and passionate letter and he let me have the rights. I had never directed a play in my life and it was the first time he had ever let anyone do any of his work off Broadway. I asked him years later why he let me do it and he said, “I took a drop in the Ocean.”
It took me 9 months to raise the $15,000 we needed to put on the show. It played for the 1959 – 1960 season and got good reviews. It wasn’t financially successful but we ran about 65 performances.
That was the beginning of my Directing Career
I liked directing… I knew what to do and I could get inside all the parts. By then I had decided I wanted to direct movies instead but I kept directing plays hoping someone might discover me and take me to California to start a career as a movie director.
Around the same time I started making money writing articles for little magazines. I saved up enough money to take myself to California in 1961. I spent two weeks straight interviewing just about everyone who would talk to me. I wrote a piece about that trip and it was eventually published by Esquire Magazine as the lead piece in their August 1962 issue. That’s how I made a living until I started to make movies… I was a journalist.
By chance I met Roger Corman at a screening and he asked me, “I read your stuff in Esquire, would you like to write for the movies?”
Of course I told him yes and did some writing work for him on “Wild Angles.” Eventually he asked me if I wanted to direct my own movie. Again I told him yes and he gave me an opportunity… “Targets” (1968) and “Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women” (1968).
“The Last Picture Show” was adapted from a novel I read (of the same name). I didn’t quite know how to make it into a movie but that’s part of the challenge. Larry McMurtry was hired to work on the script with me.
“The Last Picture Show” was nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1972 and won 2 (Best Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role). Peter was personally nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
He’s not interested in Science Fiction or Futuristic themes… he makes movies about people. “The Last Picture Show” stuck a chord with people and world discovered Peter Bogdanovich. For anyone interested in being a filmmaker, his 1971 classic is “unmissable.”
By the way… Peter doesn’t pay attention to Rotten Tomatoes and had no idea his movie was one of only a few with a perfect score… probably because he is still a busy actor and director with many projects in the works.