Oscars 2012: 'Last Picture Show' Director Peter Bogdanovich Reflects on His Big Night in 1972 (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 1972 at the 44th Academy Awards, Old Hollywood and what was then just coming to be known as the New Hollywood crossed paths. Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin exemplified the new wave of American filmmakers shaking up a moribund studio system. Bogdanovich, 32, was competing to become the youngest director in Academy history to win an Oscar. In the end, Friedkin and his policier The French Connection prevailed over Bogdanovich and his valedictory The Last Picture Show. But even as that new generation of filmmakers was grabbing the baton, tribute also was paid that night to one of Hollywood's greats as Charlie Chaplin was welcomed back from a long exile in Europe to receive an honorary Oscar. Bogdanovich, though part of the new breed, appreciated the moment since he had enormous respect for the masters who came before him -- John Ford, Orson Welles, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock. He got to know them all and hear their tales. They didn't all get the Oscar recognition they deserved, Bogdanovich explains here, as he sets the record straight.
The Hollywood Reporter: Have you watched the Oscars from the beginning, since they began being broadcast in 1953?
Peter Bogdanovich: Oh, we didn't have a TV when I was growing up. My parents didn't approve of it. I do remember listening to it on the radio in New York City -- my most vivid memory was the year Sinatra won. It was in '54 for From Here to Eternity. I got so excited when Frank won -- I was all alone by myself on Riverside Drive -- I got so excited that I jumped up and the rug slipped out from under me, and I almost broke my neck. That was my most enthusiastic reaction to the Oscars ever.
THR: Do you remember early instances of feeling outraged that favorites were not winning?
Bogdanovich: Well, I remember Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars or something in 1960, and I didn't like that picture much. It was the same year as Anatomy of a Murder, I think, and North by Northwest, and I was sort of becoming an auteurist.
THR: Did Hitchcock deserve it for Psycho in 1961?
Bogdanovich: Well, I was never a big fan of Psycho. I mean, I respected the picture but I didn't really like it. It got nominated, but Hitchcock never did win a competitive Oscar. I met him that year for the first time. I had the temerity to tell him I didn't like Psycho. I sort of said, "Not my favorite of your films." He said, "That's because you didn't understand the humor with which it was approached." I said, "The humor?" He said, "Yes, I could never make a picture like that seriously."
THR: But when you got to know people like that, people who famously never won like Hitchcock and Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, do you think it bothered them?
Bogdanovich: I think Cary may have cared about it. I think he was pissed off about it. I remember when he and Dyan Cannon were getting divorced, it was a big thing in the papers that she said that Cary Grant was crazy because every year during the Oscars, he would sit in front of the TV and yell at the people.
I interviewed Cary about the Oscars once for New York magazine in the '70s. And he went to great lengths saying, "Well, it used to be fun. It wasn't this big thing." He said, "It was a party. We'd all just sit around and get drunk and then we'd get up and say, 'All right, Freddie March, we know you're making a million dollars, come on up and get your little award.' " And Jimmy Stewart echoed that. It was like the Golden Globes today; everybody sat around and got bombed.
THR: What about Orson Welles? Of course he won for co-writing Citizen Kane but not for directing.
Bogdanovich: Yeah. I once said, "You won the screenplay." He said, "I don't really like you pointing that out. I try to forget that." He preferred to see it like he had never won.
Funny story about the Oscars with Orson: When he got the special Oscar in 1971, I said, "That's terrific, Orson, they're going to give you a special Oscar. Are you going to go pick it up?" He said, "No." I said, "Why not?" He said, "I'm not gonna do that for them. They're not gonna get me that way." So he didn't go; he asked John Huston to go. And we were sitting, literally, in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, watching the Oscars, Orson and his girlfriend Oja Kodar and Cybill and I. And when Orson won, John got up and got the award and said, "I'm gonna take this to Orson, who is in Spain, shooting. Sorry he couldn't be here." And Orson yells at the TV, "Yeah, bring it right over, John!"
THR: So when you got eight nominations for Last Picture Show in 1972, how did you feel about it?
Bogdanovich: I was overwhelmed. It felt great. You know? I was in Stockholm shooting, and it took some of the heat off the fact that I couldn't meet Ingmar Bergman because he was busy.
THR: He was in Spain too, no doubt.
Bogdanovich: (Laughter.) That was a memorable Oscar night in '72 when we were nominated and Chaplin came back to America. I did the montage of clips that introduced him to the television audience, and at the party afterward in some ballroom, Charlie was seated in a chair in the middle of this huge area. People, they'd come and shake his hand -- like a receiving line. And someone said, "Oh look, Charlie, there's Peter Bogdanovich, who did the clips." And Charlie said, "Very good, thank you." And then he said, "Jackie Coogan." [He was referring to the silent-era child star who had gone on to play Uncle Fester in TV's The Addams Family.] And I said, "Yes?" And he said it again, "Jackie Coogan," with a lot of emotion. And I said, "Yeah?" I said it as sympathetically as possible. And he repeated it again. And I said, "Yes?" And he said, "He used to be a little boy and now he's an old, fat man." That was his comment.
Bogdanovich: He was a little out of it. I remember we had a set-to with the Academy because Bert Schneider [who orchestrated Chaplin's return] asked me to do the montage, so I did it and it was 13-1/2 minutes. And Bert called me into his office after we sent it to the Academy. And he says, "Well, the Academy says they can't run it. It's too long, they can't run 13-1/2 minutes of film on a live show. What do you think we should do?" I looked at Bert and I said, "Bert, it's Charlie Chaplin." Bert said, "Right." He picked up the phone, called [show producer] Howard Koch and said, "Howard, we're not gonna cut it." And Howard said, "Well then, we can't run it." And Bert said, "Fine, then Charlie won't come." So they ran it.
Bogdanovich: It got the best review of anything on the show.
THR: Seeing any minute of Chaplin would be better than anything else they'd have on.
Bogdanovich: The place went crazy.
THR: When you were nominated that year for Last Picture Show, was there anything equivalent to what is now the awards season that just seems to go on and on?
Bogdanovich: It wasn't anything like it is now. It was much more subdued. There was less activity around it. But I was terrible. I handled it very, very badly. I just said all the wrong things. And Billy Friedkin said all the right things. We went on a show together and the interviewer said, "Which film do you think is the best film, Peter?" And I said, "Mine, but it won't win." "Why?" "Well, the best picture never wins." Ohhhh my God. Terrible. And they turned to Billy and they said, "What do you think is the best film, Billy?" He said, "The Last Picture Show, of course he's gonna win." I was an idiot. I just handled it so badly.
Then at the show, I remember when they called my name for the nominees, the camera cut to me and just at that moment, Jeff Bridges, who was all the way across the hall, gave me the thumbs-up, like thumbs-up, good luck, and my reaction was to shake my head -- like, I'm not gonna win. And that's what came on TV, shaking my head no.
THR: What was it like sitting there for 3-1/2 hours?
Bogdanovich: It was fun. Cybill and I had a good time no matter what happened, we just had a good time. Billy Friedkin came up to me and said, "Peter," and he had tears in his eyes, "Peter." And I said, "Billy, congratulations." He said, "Peter, you're gonna win a million, a hundred of these." And he threw his arms around me and hit me in the head with the Oscar, in the back of the head. I said, "OK, Billy, it's OK, it's all right."
THR: Oh man. Were the shows better when they had a seasoned entertainer like Bob Hope or Johnny Carson as the host? Or was it really always kind of a ragged, up-and-down affair?
Bogdanovich: It was always pretty smooth when Hope did it. The best thing to do is to have somebody like Billy Crystal, he is good at it. Actors aren't very good at it; it needs to be a comic. The format has always been a little difficult, but I don't know how else you do it. I had a funny idea. They asked me to produce the Oscars one year, sometime in the '70s. And I said I have an idea. The curtain goes up and we're in Jack Benny's living room, his TV show. And the whole show is people coming to Jack Benny's house, rehearsing to do the Oscars. And they said, "That's an interesting idea." So I called Jack and I told him the idea. There was a long pause and he said, "I can do a monologue like Hope."