"Peter the Great: The Man Who Slept With Frankenstein"
June 8th, 2011
Maybe it's a guy thing, but I've always admired men who know how to do
every aspect of their craft. Richard Petty, for example, didn't just drive
cars, he could also get under the hood and fix the engine. Likewise there are
a handful of filmmakers who don't just direct, they can also "get under the
hood" and do whatever it takes to make a great movie. Peter Bogdanovich belongs to
that elite group of Hollywood directors who can also write, produce, edit,
and act. He does it all, and he's a critic, author, and film historian to
boot. Last Spring, Bogdanovich added another moniker to his resume. He is now
a professor at UNC School of the Arts, where he shapes the minds and
talents of aspiring filmmakers.
"I'm basically deconstructing one of my own pictures for the (student)
directors. In other words, I take a picture of mine, run it for them, and go
through it scene by scene, and tell them why I shot it the way I did".
Bogdanovich achieved superstar status in the 1970's, helming such classics
as The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What's Up Doc?. But his
big break came in 1968 when horror meister Roger Corman let the young man
from Kingston, NY take over a low budget project starring an elderly and
ailing Boris Karloff. Targets was a morality play about societal violence, and
centered on a serial killer who picked off motorists and pedestrians with
a high powered rifle.
Bogdanovich had hoped the film would have an impact on gun laws in
"I thought it would raise a little bit of controversy. It didn't raise
much. The thing that's awful about the film is that it's not dated.
Unfortunately that story is very much alive. A guy gets a gun and starts killing
Targets met with high praise from critics, and has since become a cult
classic, due in large part to Mr. Karloff, who had risen to worldwide fame
37 years earlier as the Frankenstein monster. In Targets Karloff plays an
aging horror movie star who takes a young director (played by Peter) under
his wing. In one scene, the two men have imbibed a bit too much, and end up
passing out on the same bed, giving Bogdanovich the distinction of being
the only man to have ever slept with Boris Karloff.
As his film career progressed, Peter also displayed an uncanny talent for
casting just the right people for each project. In The Last Picture
Show, Bogdanovich launched the careers of Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, and
netted Oscar wins for veteran actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.
Later, in Paper Moon, he coaxed an Academy Award performance out of young
Tatum O'Neal. Throughout it all, he maintained a disdain for auditioning.
"Auditioning is humiliating, and not a fair way to judge talent. You get a
(good) actor into a room, and he's very nervous. Then there are actors who
are very good at reading, but when they get to the performance, it isn't
as good as it promised to be in the reading. [That's why] I would often cast
people by just sitting and talking with them for a half hour or forty
Bogdanovich is truly an actor's Director, himself having performed on
stage, film and television. "Directing is an extension of acting because I'm
trying to get them to give the best performance they can give", Peter told
me. "I remember a simple thing like Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels trying
to get off of his motorcycle. I told him he looked effeminate getting off
the bike. He said 'I don't know what you're talking about'. So I got on the
bike. I had never been on a motorcycle, but I used to ride horses, and when
I tried to get off the bike, I realized what the problem was. A motorcycle
is a lot higher than you think it is, so you have to swing your leg quite
far out to get over it, just as you do getting off of a horse. So I told
Peter not to bend his leg, but to put it straight out. Now I wouldn't have
known to give him that advice if I wasn't an actor, and said 'let me try it'".
In fact, Bogdanovich's acting credits are extensive, having appeared on
such hit shows as The Sopranos and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and he is
still in great demand on both the small and big screens. But you won't see
him acting in or directing what he calls pretentious films. Said Peter,
"Storytelling is about the story and not the telling. A lot of recent films
are just cut, cut, cut (and special effects)...it's flashy filmmaking where
you are distracted from the story."
No doubt his students at the School of the Arts have already heard and
heeded that message. I also hope they realize how fortunate they are to be
under the tutelage of one of America's greatest filmmakers. Me, I just think
he's cool because he slept with Boris Karloff.
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