PETER BOGDANOVICH SNAPS THE CUFFS OF HIS starched lavender shirt out from under the sleeves of his dark blue denim jacket and adjusts the jaunty purple apache scarf tied around his throat. The director, most famous for making The Last Picture Show, and most notorious for his romance with murdered Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, is in the passenger seat of my car, parked in front of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. He's got a new film to promote -- his first in nine years -- and has agreed, at least in principle, to lead me to some of the landmarks of his past life here in Los Angeles. But at the moment, he doesn't feel like going anyplace.
"I like the Peninsula Hotel. Let's just stay here," Bogdanovich says in a tone that has just enough hope in it to be only half-joking. Time to step on the gas and drive.
If he's reluctant to venture out, he has good reason. For Bogdanovich, 62, who moved to Los Angeles from Manhattan in 1964, this is a city full of memories, most of which fall into two categories -- tragedy or scandal.
It was a scandal when the onetime $600-per-article contributor to Esquire hustled his way into a feature-film career and then promptly left his wife of eight years, producer Polly Platt, for The Last Picture Show blond starlet Cybill Shepherd. It was a tragedy when his next girlfriend, Stratten, was viciously murdered when she was only 20 by her estranged husband, who then committed suicide. Bogdanovich's subsequent marriage to Stratten's much younger half-sister, Louise Hoogstraten, was a scandal wrapped in a tragedy.
Given Bogdanovich's relationship mileage, it's somehow fitting that our first stop is the art deco building on Sunset that is now the Argyle hotel but was once the Sunset Tower, home to stars like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and in its day touted as "Hollywood's Most Distinguished Address." Bogdanovich and Shepherd lived here for about two years.
"We rented a seventh-floor apartment in the back," he says, squinting through his trademark tinted tortoiseshell glasses. "It was an exciting time for me. A new life. But I was also sad because of my daughters, and I felt bad for Polly, too." He glances across the street at the Continental Hyatt House, which dredges up such a painful memory he actually winces. "I stayed there for a few days when I first left my wife."
We make a screeching U-turn and head west on Sunset toward Bel Air and the 7,000-square-foot Spanish-style mansion that Bogdanovich bought when he and Shepherd wearied of high-rise living. At the time, Bogdanovich was one of Hollywood's new kings -- a former movie geek turned Oscar-nominated director who, along with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and just a few others, led the way in the early '70s to a new kind of filmmaking. He acquired the A-list life and he didn't want to let go. The Bogdanovich rendered in profiles past is a total egomaniac with a compulsion for reminding folks he was on a first-name basis with Hollywood legends. After he filed for bankruptcy in 1997, the Los Angeles Times depicted him as a flat-broke dandy who wore $323 blue clogs and tooled around town in a Mercedes in order to keep up appearances. What his press clippings neglect to capture, though, is that he has a nice, parched way of delivering an anecdote and enjoys performing on any stage -- even one the size of a car seat.
"Talk about a one-man show! He should be on Broadway!" says Shepherd, marveling about how her ex-boyfriend (and still close friend) has always been able to hold forth on any topic as well as impersonate his directing heroes like Howard Hawks and John Ford. Ford was Bogdanovich and Shepherd's neighbor when the couple lived in Bel Air, and if Shepherd were to do her own impression of the great Western director she might emphasize other things. "We'd go visit him. He was kind of bed-ridden at the time and had nothing on but a little hospital gown and a sheet over him. He liked to flash me."
FROM THE TIME BOGDANOVICH WAS A LITTLE BOY in Manhattan, he wanted to hang out with guys like John Ford and Orson Welles. The brainy son of Borislav (a post-impressionist painter) and Herma Bogdanovich, he compiled index-card critiques of every movie he'd see, a habit he maintained until he was 31. While other kids were playing stickball in the street, young Peter was getting Method-y at Stella Adler's Studio of Acting, and he made his professional debut at the American Shakespeare Festival at 16. After catching Citizen Kane at the local movie house, however, he was moved to switch from acting to directing.
Years later, Bogdanovich met Welles, his idol who became his good friend, his mentor and, for a spell, his and Shepherd's carbo-loading roommate. Welles may have been a fixture at the old Ma Maison (where Wolfgang Puck first came to prominence in L.A.), but if anyone so much as touched Welles' stash of Fudgsicles or tapioca pudding, the director's fury would be felt through the entire house. "The thing Orson loved was Kentucky Fried Chicken," says Bogdanovich. "We'd have to bring it in barrels. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Fresca! That was his idea of heaven."
Bogdanovich's idea of heaven, for a time, must have been the opulent estate on Copa de Oro, which we are just approaching. Every structural element -- from the window frames to the iron gatework to the glass doors that lead to a dining room where he once held fabled dinner parties -- inspires Bogdanovich to do a little life-at-the-top reminiscing. "See that over there?" he says, indicating a beige retaining wall covered with thick vines. "I built that. Somebody broke in once. Cybill and I were in bed, and we heard somebody coming up the stairs. And I was so angry, I opened the door, and the guy was there and he started running." Bogdanovich shakes a fist over his head and yells out the rest of his lines. "I said, 'Get the fuck out of here, you motherfucker!' and chased him out. I could have gotten killed!"
Shepherd moved out after two years and was subsequently replaced by Stratten and, eventually, Hoogstraten. "It was pretty tough to move," says Bogdanovich, who took a final stroll of shame through the empty house after being evicted for not making his mortgage payments.
IN 1997, HE QUIETLY CREPT BACK TO MANHATTAN, moved into a brownstone apartment on West 78th Street, roughly 10 blocks from where he grew up, and started piecing things back together. He hit the lecture circuit and provided dry, insightful commentaries on DVD reissues of classic films like The Lady From Shanghai. He's practically a regular on E! True Hollywood Story. Thanks to his old pal The Sopranos creator, David Chase, he ended up with a recurring role on the series as Dr. Elliott Kupferberg, the unforgiving supervising therapist of Dr. Melfi. It's the biggest hit he's been attached to since his 1973 Depression-set comedy Paper Moon. Back in the '80s, Bogdanovich hired Peter Kaplan to write a screenplay for him, and The New York Observer editor repaid the favor by giving Bogdanovich a TV column for a couple of years, which was long enough to spin his extended blurbs about vintage movies you can find on the tube into a book called Movie of the Week. Lying on the back seat of the car is a paperback edition of his 1997 book, Who the Devil Made It? "It got the best reviews I've ever had," he says of the collection of interviews he conducted with directing greats he met back in the '60s and early '70s. "It didn't get one bad review."
As we drive away from the Bel Air house, I broach the possibility of visiting Bogdanovich's old neighborhood. He doesn't refuse, he just corrects the question.
"My old neighborhood? I've had several old neighborhoods," he says. "I certainly don't like the first one, which was in the Valley. Saticoy Street, between Kester and Van Nuys Boulevard. We had a three-bedroom house there, paying $125 a week. With a yard. Then it went up to $145. We thought it was a tremendous amount of money." He runs a hand over his slicked-back brown hair and checks his watch.
On April 12, Bogdanovich's new film, The Cat's Meow, starring Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann and Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), will open. The plot of the period mystery is driven by a murder that is committed and covered up during a weekendlong party on the luxury yacht of curmudgeon millionaire William Randolph Hearst. But it's also about the terrible banality and insensitivity that comes with excess and privilege. Mostly, The Cat's Meow plays like Bogdanovich's indictment of the place he lived for 32 years.
"I'd just felt I'd had it out here. If you're not hot in Los Angeles, it's a very lonely town," says the director, whose gigs by the mid-'90s had dwindled down to TV movie of the week schlock like To Sir, With Love II. "It's a lonely town even if you are hot."
Of course, New York isn't easy on its celebrities either. Last March, New York gossip columnists had a field day with the news that he and Hoogstraten had split, saying that Bogdanovich didn't know until he read it in the newspapers that his 34-year-old L.A.-based missus was leaving him after 12 years. ("I'm focusing on Louise now" was the Women Are From Venus . . . statement she gave to the Daily News.) "Pfffft. I found out when I got the papers, which she warned me were coming," he says, correcting the record and using a dismissive wave of his hand as if to show that after all he's been through, this latest scandal doesn't even make it on the radar. "I don't take it personally at all. It's all about a problem she was going through."
Their holy vows may be history, but their screenwriting partnership isn't. If everything goes according to plan, Bogdanovich will soon be directing a sexy screwball comedy they wrote called Squirrels to the Nuts. That they both sound eager to work together won't be the most unconventional aspect to their relationship. After all, Bogdanovich wrote a book-length eulogy about Dorothy Stratten called The Killing of the Unicorn and has always been open about the fact that she was the love of his life.
And what about the screening party two years ago, on what would have been Stratten's 40th birthday, when director Quentin Tarantino had a group of people over to watch They All Laughed (co-written and directed by Bogdanovich and starring Stratten)? "I couldn't be there, but Louise sat next to him," says Bogdanovich matter-of-factly, as if having your director buddy pay homage to your deceased girlfriend and inviting her sister who happened to be your wife is perfectly ordinary. "She said he knew every line of dialogue. She finally had to say, 'Quentin, cut it out! I can't watch the picture!'"
WE PASS A PROLIFERATION OF POPEYES CHICKEN & Biscuits franchises and car dealerships. We're definitely nearing Bogdanovich's old Valley pad.
"This looks like it here. God, I think this is it! I think this is it!" Bogdanovich says. We get out of the car and walk down Saticoy Street in search of the house that he, Platt and their two daughters, Antonia and Alexandra, lived in so many years ago. "Wait, that's not the house. But this is the area. I remember the oleanders."
Bogdanovich surveys an overgrown hedge on another lot and pronounces the scrubby patch of yellowing lawn the remains of his former address.
"Um, Mr. Bogdanovich? This is 15115 Saticoy. You said we were looking for 15113."
"Oh well," he says, then takes a nervous glance around the neighborhood and turns toward the car. "I'm going to get shot at here . . ." He's had enough of the past for one day.
On the way back to the Peninsula over the Sepulveda Pass, Bogdanovich addresses the public's enduring Dorothy-Louise fascination by warbling a line from a song made popular by Frank Sinatra, "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." "You can't resist her/Sorry for you/She has no sister/No one could ever replace . . ." Then he floats out an explanation. "It's like, 'Is there any more at home like you?' People acted like it was some strange thing that Dorothy had a sister I might be interested in, but I don't know why. It was her sister. It's sort of normal, I think. Not such a stretch."
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And even if it is a stretch? Bogdanovich's freelance writer daughter Antonia feels it's none of our business. "Just because you're in entertainment doesn't mean you deserve to have your life exposed. I want him to be remembered for the great movies that he's done, not for the personal things," says Antonia, bristling in particular at the trash-publication announcement of his and Hoogstraten's marriage -- his face on a People magazine cover. "They made him look like a pervert. I mean, they took the worst mug shot. It was emotionally difficult." But she's also thankful for the ups and downs. "I know it sounds weird, but if we would have just had this pristine life, we wouldn't have any perspective. I've seen failure and success. And I think he's completely changed his life around. He's feeling well. He looks great. My dad always talked about moving; he was always saying, 'I've got to get out of here.' He doesn't like driving, never has. He does his own errands, but he'd prefer to do them on foot or in a cab. He's just a New Yorker, he is."
By 6 o'clock, Bogdanovich's jumbo bottle of designer water is drained and resting on the floor of the SUV. Before he heads back into the Peninsula for a meeting, there's just enough time for him to give an avuncular hug and answer one last question: What's the biggest misconception about you?
The long, tired face of this man who has been rendered as everything from brilliant to kind of twisted actually lights up.
"For years, there was this general misconception about me that I started out as a critic, like Truffaut," he says. "Well, this is a complete fallacy. I was never a critic. I was an actor who started writing about films as a way of making a living."