THE MAN WHO SHOT LIKE THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
Among The Movie Brats, there was a tremendous amount of John Ford adulation (Scorsese, Spielberg, Schrader and John Milius) and then there was Peter Bogdanovich.
For one, Bogdanovich’s Ford influence extended beyond The Searchers. Peter was a true student of Ford’s filmography. And it was both his writings on and his friendship with the man, as well as many other old pros like Hawks & Hitchcock, that helped Peter break into the business. Yet unlike his other Ford loving contemporaries, Scorsese and Spielberg, he doesn’t pay homage to the one-eyed old man by having characters watch Ford’s films. Even when that would be easy to do, like The Last Picture Show (that honor he reserves for Hawks). Bogdanovich and his then wife, Polly Platt, would spend time on the old man’s sets, including a wonderful piece Peter would write for Esquire on the set of Ford’s late-career apologia Cheyenne Autumn (which is where the couple would meet their friend Sal Mineo, who would later give Peter the novel of The Last Picture Show). Bogdanovich would direct for the American Film Institute a tribute documentary about the old man titled Directed By John Ford, which would get amusing mileage from Bogdanovich, including the irascible old helmer’s smartass answers to the puckishly young pups questions.
PETER: Mr. Ford, you made a picture called Three Bad Men. You had quite an elaborate land rush in it. How’d you shoot that?
FORD: With a camera.
But despite popular critical consensus during Bogdanovich’s most active career period, I reject that there’s an overt Ford influence on his filmography.
The two films most commonly thought of as being Ford-influenced are The Last Picture Show & Paper Moon. So let’s examine those two examples.
The story of The Last Picture Show takes place in 1955 in a postage-stamp-sized town in Texas called Anarene. And it follows a few of its citizens, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the town’s patriarch. Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), the trophy wife of the local oil baron. Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the lonely wife of the high school football coach. Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the waitress of the town’s favorite diner.
But the movie and the book focus on two football-playing high school seniors, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) & Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) as they chase, court and fight over Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in Anarene and daughter of the richest man in the county (Lois is her mother).
A description of the plot wouldn’t amount to much more than a TV Guide synopsis of an episode of Peyton Place.
Duane and Jacy go on a double date with Sonny and Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart).
Sonny starts an affair with the football coach’s wife, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman).
Duane takes Jacy to Wichita Falls for their big “date.”
Sonny and Duane spend the night together before Duane ships off to Korea. They see the “last picture show.”
In fact, Peyton Place was a jumping-off point for novelist Larry McMurtry to write the book in the first place. Except instead of the Ivy-covered walls, manicured green lawns and the huge oak trees of Peyton Place, you have the dusty, windy, practically deserted Texas town of Anarene, with its limited people living their limited lives. McMurtry writes the book from a more anthropological perspective than most other how I grew up to write the book books. Especially a Texas anthropological perspective. As opposed to Bogdanovich’s film, McMurtry’s novel has a decided lack of compassion when it comes to the characters in Anarene. It’s almost as if McMurtry is saying, I grew up with these people, I know them and I know they’re idiots. When Peter’s film was released in 1971, it was greeted as an instant classic. Not least of which is because it looked like a classic. A problem with shooting period movies in color is the motion pictures most vivid visual component could turn out to be the ugly colors of the costumes. A problem Bogdanovich avoided by shooting the film in widescreen black and white (it’s actually closer to black and grey).
Three years after Bogdanovich would shoot a small town in Texas in the fifties, in American Graffiti George Lucas would shoot a small town in California in the early sixties. While Lucas’ film takes place in 1962, part of the point of the film is the town’s so small it’s still stuck in the fifties. So the college that Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are supposed to fly off to the next morning represents more than just a normal rite of passage for the two young men. The college represents the growing consciousness of the sixties that exists beyond the Brigadoon-ish town that they’re escaping.
Lucas invokes the candy-colored pop ephemera of the fifties. The green hues of the fluorescent bulbs that light the liquor stores, hamburger stands and pinball arcades that the characters loiter around. The bright colors of the jukeboxes, diner neon signs and the candy apple red and canary yellow of the hot rods that cruise up and down the main drag. Lucas poignantly parades all this in front of us with the added knowledge that all this glorious chrome and paint and pomade is about to go out of style and be replaced by space-age sixties chic.
Bogdanovich, on the other hand, went the other way. Ben Hur cinematographer Robert Surtees’ silky photography had the effect of draining every modern aspect out of the movie. Peter’s picture was the first studio film in a few years to shoot in black and white, not for financial reasons, but artistic ones.
While after Bogdanovich, a few other filmmakers shot studio pictures in black and white, but with the exception of Bob Fosse’s Lenny and Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, it was almost always done to better approximate the genre the film took place in. Mel Brooks shoots Young Frankenstein in black and white to invoke the Universal monster movies of the thirties. Carl Reiner shoots Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in black and white to match-up with the forties film noir clips they use. Even Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull uses its black and white photography to invoke New York street classics of the thirties, forties and fifties, as well as the classic boxing pictures like Body and Soul, The Champion and The Set-Up (and to make it not look like Rocky).
Bogdanovich shoots black and white on The Last Picture Show to invoke the period, realism and loneliness of the story. But on the other hand, it’s shimmery monochromatic grey on black photography and classic framing suggests, like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s films do, the trappings of a film genre of another time. But in this case, it’s not an obvious genre like horror films or private detective movies. The look of the The Last Picture Show suggests a prestige Hollywood picture of the fifties (From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun, Home from the Hill). The exact kind of film you can imagine Sonny & Duane watching at the town’s lone movie theatre. And due to both Bogdanovich and McMurtry’s old soul quality, the movie actually feels like a fifties film. Yet the material, while never being explicit, deals with its subject of sexual repression and sexual exploration in an upfront, straightforward manner that would have been impossible for a Hollywood movie in the fifties. So while The Last Picture Show looked like a classic fifties Hollywood movie, it didn’t sound like one. When they talk about sex, it’s not camouflaged in euphemisms.
In an Otto Preminger film of the fifties, when Jeff Bridges takes Cybill Shepherd to a motel to have sex for the first time, they wouldn’t have announced what they’re going to do (I’m positive much to Otto’s chagrin). But while the characters wouldn’t just come out and state that they’re going to have sex, Preminger would imply it. And the adults in the audience would know (he hoped) what Preminger intended without it having to be spelled out. Almost everything involving Cybill Shepherd’s character Jacy would have to be camouflaged. But that was fifties Hollywood filmmaking. All the best sellers and the big theatrical dramas of the day got the sex drained out of them when they inevitably received their big Hollywood screen adaptation (From Here to Eternity).
So in its own way The Last Picture Show demonstrated both the freedom of New Hollywood, but also the promise of what post-war Hollywood could have been all along if only Hollywood hadn’t decided to be so stubbornly immature.
But getting back to John Ford, where’s the influence? Did Ford deal with the fifties as a cultural era? Did Ford deal with coming-of-age in a time of sexual repression?
Both thematically with its study of simmering fifties-era sexual repression and visually with its luscious black and white photography and classic CinemaScope framing, if The Last Picture Show is influenced by any classic director it would be George Stevens. The reverence that the Communities of John Ford pictures have towards ritual is not championed by Bogdanovich (or novelist Larry McMurtry) but subverted.
Both Bogdanovich and McMurtry even poke fun at the Texas characters’ obsession with high school football.
Now Bogdanovich did have an undeniable creative stroke that was absolutely influenced by John Ford, and that was the casting of Ben Johnson in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam the Lion. His face, his voice, his white straw cowboy hat and his moral authority all invoke John Ford’s western mythos (interestingly, Bogdanovich first considered Gower Gulch cowboy matinee idol Tex Ritter for the part).
The other big influence that John Ford had on The Last Picture Show was when Johnson initially turned down the role, supposedly due to the film’s bad language (Peter claims it wasn’t so much that the dialogue was salty, it was there was too much of it. Johnson hated memorizing lines). It was the one-eyed old man himself who talked the laconic bronco buster into finally accepting the part (“Jesus Christ Johnson, you wanna’ be Duke’s sidekick for the rest of your life?”).
After Bogdanovich established Ben Johnson as not only an Academy Award-winning actor, but the living embodiment of the John Ford western mythos, both Spielberg and Milius followed suit by casting Johnson as Texas-twanged lawmen in The Sugarland Express and Dillinger. Not till Spielberg would shoot Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones would an actor in one of his pictures get the star treatment that Johnson gets in Sugarland Express. Milius wants to invoke Ford via Johnson so much in Dillinger that he casts the fifty-nine-year-old cowboy actor to play F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis, despite the fact that Purvis was twenty-nine when he executed America’s Public Enemy Number One (while it’s probably true Johnson hated memorizing dialogue, few actors have done as well reciting Milius’ flowery macho poetry as Ben Johnson).
However, Ben Johnson’s best performance of the decade wasn’t in The Last Picture Show or The Sugarland Express or Dillinger, but in James Frawley’s hysterical hippie western Kid Blue. As Sheriff Mean John Simpson, Johnson, with the help of Bud Shrake’s highly quotable dialogue, completely subverts his folksy cowboy persona.
Turning the tall laconic cowboy, the arbiter of moral authority, into a racist, hippie-hating, skull-busting southern cop transplanted into the old west (“When I say stop, you plant roots”).
Then there’s Paper Moon.
Where’s Ford in that?
Since when did Ford represent the thirties? He didn’t even represent the thirties in the thirties, Frank Capra did. Yes, of course, he did The Grapes of Wrath. But I don’t see a connection, other than sharing the same era, between The Grapes of Wrath and Paper Moon. What does a small comedy about a bible selling conman and his little girl sidekick have to do with a Hollywoodized adaptation of a John Steinbeck social drama?
Ford wasn’t known for comedies, he did a few, but he wasn’t known for them (Donovan’s Reef is his most Fordian comedy hit). Nor did the comedies Ford did share the same sense of humor as Paper Moon.
The story concerns Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a traveling bible salesman who preys on vulnerable widows to ply his trade (he convinces them the Bible was purchased by their late spouse). As he breezes through a town in Kansas, he stops off to pay his respects at the funeral of a former Paramore, only to find her nine-year-old daughter Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal, Ryan’s real-life daughter).
O’Neal’s Moses is enlisted to ferry the young child to the bus station and put her on a bus to St. Joe Missouri to live with her aunt. But that plan gets scrapped when little Addie proves a cute little tyke can aid and assist in the conning of lonely widows.
So after an initial bout of antagonism, Moses realizes he’s finally met his grifter match in Addie. Then Peter’s film becomes a chronicling of their shady adventures throughout the dust bowl of the American Midwest.
A neat trick that Bogdanovich pulls off in Paper Moon is the film manages to be very heartwarming without ever (really) being sentimental. There’s a very sentimental, heart-tugging and even sappy movie running all through Paper Moon.
But it’s a subtextual movie. The audience wants this movie to be sentimental. So whatever they want these two characters to feel for each other, the audience projects those feelings onto them. But in the actual movie, the characters are pretty stoic. And they never really break that stoicism.
Do they really love each other?
But what they really love is the give and take of their grifter partnership. They love how good they are at it. He loves his routine and she loves having a routine. She loves being treated like an adult in their nefarious activities, and he loves not having to treat her like a child. Like Bogdanovich’s two earlier films, The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon felt like an instant classic the day it was released. But while The Last Picture Show looked like a George Stevens prestige fifties film and What’s Up Doc? looked like a screwball comedy done in bold primary colors, Paper Moon doesn’t look like a movie from the thirties. Instead, it looks like Ryan O’Neal’s Moses Pray is driving his jalopy through a series of Depression-era photographs. The American depression era is more convincingly depicted in Paper Moon than it ever was in the thirties, or in any other thirties-set seventies film (The Day of the Locust, Bound for Glory, Chinatown, F.I.S.T., The Sting, Movie Movie or Pennies from Heaven).
And for all the critics (and a jealous Orson Welles) who tried to tie Paper Moon’s attributes to The Grapes of Wrath, in every instance Bogdanovich betters his elder. The beauty attached to László Kovács’ black and white photography was somehow linked to Ford. Now Ford’s photography has always been overrated in my estimation. But I think it’s pretty obvious his color films look better than his black and white films (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has all the artistry of watching a Technicolor western on black and white television). After the discovery of Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon’s biggest distinction is it’s one of the best cast movies ever made (casting by Gary Chason). No fiction movie has ever captured the faces of the people you see stare back at you from thirties photographs with both the accuracy and poignancy of the actors in Paper Moon. Not Bound for Glory, definitely not Chinatown, certainly not The Sting, and least of all Grapes of Wrath. Ford’s Hollywoodized novel adaptation is filled with great magnificent faces (Fonda, Darwell, Carradine) as well. But they are the faces of actors. Every person who opens their front door to find Ryan O’Neal’s bible salesman’s insincere smile on their front porch seems like a true humanity representative of the time. With the lawman lover of the Widow Bates (Ed Reed) “Hold on one damn minute,” delivering in one scene ending line, one of the most heartbreaking moments ever concealed inside a comedy, “If it’ll make that woman happy, I’ll buy it.” Talk about ’a piece of time.’
And for all the cinematic virtuousness of some of the other seventies movie brats, especially when compared to Bogdanovich, the single greatest long take of their cinematic collective isn’t any of DePalma’s over hill and under dale Steadicam and crane combinations, or even Scorsese’s magnificent and witty tour through the Copacabana leading up to Henny Youngman in Goodfellas (though that’s pretty spectacular, as is the crane that ends up behind the bucket of blood in Carrie).
For me, it’s the car mount single take two-shot of Ryan O’Neal’s driving Moses Pray and overall-wearing, shotgun-riding tyke Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Loggins, as they bicker, fight, break-up and then, finally, get back together (“I guess we’ll just hafta’ keep on veerin”).
Spielberg, Scorsese, Schrader and Milius all quoted Ford or reworked thematic ideas or story points more than Bogdanovich ever did (Hawks is a different story). But critics of his day used Peter’s devotion to his elders as a way to delegitimize the young man’s talent (in a way they never did to the amateurish Truffaut).
“Over twenty years after the fact, in an interview for Andrew Yule’s book on him, Picture Shows, Bogdanovich reflected:
“Truth to tell, it started because of me. Although for years I never wanted to discuss it, because I couldn’t figure out why I’d been so anxious to give away credit. When people asked me about Targets, I said it was my homage to Hitchcock, then I said The Last Picture Show was influenced by The Magnificent Ambersons. In What’s Up Doc? I called Ryan “Howard” in a tip of the hat to Hawks. I got myself in that hole simply because I felt bad working when all those old directors I knew were judged virtually unemployable. Just about everybody I met was at the end of their careers and I felt tremendously in debt to all of them. And I wanted to return the favor. It got to be so ridiculous that even a good critic like Vincent Canby said in his review of Paper Moon that it was my homage to Shirley Temple!”
Bogdanovich explained incredulously, “When people asked me why I shot The Last Picture Show in black and white and I said Orson Welles told me to, they really thought I meant that! Orson certainly encouraged the idea, but I can’t say I did it because he told me to… that whole way of looking at my stuff was confused by my genuine admiration for the older directors. And why shouldn’t I say so? They’d created the art form, and the industry, after all.”
Now maybe Bogdanovich didn’t do overt John Ford homages in the two films people insinuate he did, like he did with Hawks or DePalma did with Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to. Originally, The Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry had an idea for a big cattle drive movie, that after the success of their Last collaboration they could do together. Peter loved the material and wanted to do it with John Ford’s three biggest leading men: John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Fonda, whose career was at a low ebb all through the seventies, liked the idea. But neither Wayne nor Stewart responded to the material. And since neither man could be persuaded to come aboard, Bogdanovich put the project on the shelf.
Years later McMurtry bought back the rites to the material and turned it into the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, which was later turned into a massively successful mini-series in the eighties. It starred Robert Duvall in the James Stewart role, Tommy Lee Jones in the John Wayne role, and I suppose Robert Urich in the Henry Fonda role. Now, this is a clear case of Bogdanovich being blinded by his Ford admiration. And, frankly, one can only be grateful it fell apart, since (no doubt) Cybill Shepherd would have played the Diane Lane role. Imagine the scene in the mini-series where Duvall and Lane talking about ‘pokin’ with a Cheyenne Social Club-era Jimmy Stewart! No wonder Stewart turned it down. Bogdanovich might have been suffering from Ford dementia but, apparently, Jimmy Stewart wasn’t.
When Peter had his hands on material like Lonesome Dove, he put it on the shelf rather than cast it correctly? How about Steve McQueen in the Jones role, Warren Oates in the Duvall role and Jeff Bridges in the Urich role? Or Gene Hackman in the Jones role, James Coburn in the Duvall role and Joe Don Baker in the Urich role? Or McQueen, Coburn and David Carradine? All western icons, all age-appropriate and all better casting then Peter’s over-the-hill gang.