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Past Perfect 

Bogdanovich wears the eccentricities of a national film treasure well

Ensconced in a plush sofa in the lobby of the Georgian Terrace hotel in Atlanta, Peter Bogdanovich apologizes for not getting up.

After a career like his, you can't blame the man for being tired.

In person, lapsed auteur Bogdanovich is everything his legend promises: slightly prissy with a regal manner emphasized by a preponderance of man-jewelry and an ascot. It's a steamy 85 outside, even at 10:30 in the morning, but in the coolness of the hotel lobby, Bogdanovich is wearing a denim jacket with the collar standing at attention. Beneath it is a dress shirt, also with collar perked up to kiss his earlobes. Bogdanovich looks at once both very Hollywood and slightly not of this time. The starched and pressed dandy's clothes and manner have the careful, fussy aura of another age, maybe the 70s, when Bogdanovich was in his full glory, riding high on a string of hits like The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) before a subsequent string of flops burst his bubble.

Or maybe it's the 20s or 30s -- his self-professed favorite decades with 1924 the setting for his latest film.

Bogdanovich's most recent, captivating directorial effort is The Cat's Meow (which opened last week in Charlotte). It stars Kirsten Dunst and Eddie Izzard in a dramatization of the real-life, mysterious death of silent film director and producer Thomas Ince in 1924 while cruising aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht with Hearst's mistress Marion Davies (Dunst) and Charlie Chaplin (Izzard). The Cat's Meow has obvious parallels to Bogdanovich's own life, exhibiting both his obsession with old Hollywood and the compromising elements of fame. (See Matt Brunson's full-length review in last week's CL or his capsule review in this week's Film Clips.)

"I sympathize with Hearst and Ince and Chaplin because I sort of knew where they were coming from," says Bogdanovich. "Chaplin was on the make, Hearst was obsessed with a woman, Ince was worried about failure. I've been down those roads, so I didn't have any trouble understanding."

Bogdanovich says he first heard the story behind The Cat's Meow from Orson Welles 30 years ago. "He told me the particulars of what you saw in the movie... and I was shocked."

Then, says Bogdanovich, "About 30 years later I'm on an ocean voyage on the Queen Elizabeth" chatting with Roger Ebert, who says, "Wow, sounds like a good movie."

When Bogdanovich got home from the cruise, the script for A Cat's Meow was waiting for him, as if it were fated to be his comeback film. Fate of an uglier kind has tended to haunt Bogdanovich's career. After his 1971 hit The Last Picture Show, the newly hot director painted the town with fresh, young, blonde flame Cybill Shepherd, earning a reputation post-success for high-living arrogance. The Bogdanovich of the 70s and 80s had a tendency to cheese-out, hanging poolside at the Playboy mansion, wooing Playmate Dorothy Stratten and then marrying Dorothy's younger sister Louise after Dorothy was tragically murdered by her boyfriend.

At the same time, the swinging director always managed to redeem himself and the air of superficiality that swirled around him by contributing some of the most original scholarship to American film cinema. In some ways an American answer to the French cinema-philia of the golden age, of Truffaut and Godard, Bogdanovich conducted extensive interviews from his earliest days as a journalist in the 60s with forgotten film directors, which are included in the best-selling 1997 book Who the Devil Made It and the documentary Directed by John Ford.

Now Bogdanovich has a kind of reverse sordid glamour for his many brushes with tragedy and his epic rise and dirt-eating fall. In the press, he has transformed into something loveable, our own national film treasure and shrine to the fickle bitch-mistress of fame.

Bogdanovich helped revitalize interest in flagging careers, and alerted America to the genius in its midst. Part intellectual, part fan, Bogdanovich for a time had a down-on-his-luck Orson Welles living in his Bel Air mansion.

You can hear the tenderness seep into Bogdanovich's voice when he describes his professional and personal relationship with Welles, of whom he says, "There's nobody like him... he was the greatest director I ever saw working. Orson's personality created an atmosphere that just made you better than you could possibly be... he brought out the best in people."

Recently, journalists have noted an air of sadness to Bogdanovich's disposition that may be a result of a life of hard knocks, or simply the process of aging and watching the film culture you loved now trampled or, worse yet, ignored by future filmmakers, critics and writers.

"What I miss from, say, the 60s is a kind of back and forth about films. There doesn't seem to be much film culture left where people would discuss what you're asking, about this director or that director, or the overall career, or past in films, what's changed about movies.

"And I'm sad that the younger audiences don't seem to have even the remotest interest in anything preceding about 1990. That's distressing. But then they haven't seemed to place very much interest in history, either. It's like it's only Now that exists, and I think that's rather depressing." *

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