What ever happened to Peter Bogdanovich? Once known as the next big thing in Hollywood, after raves for The Last Picture Show, huge box office success for What’s Up, Doc? and an Oscar for little Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, the film buff, film historian, film director and longtime friend of Orson Welles began a downward slide that, while broken up every now and then by a good review, landed him in the purgatory of TV movies, directing such epics as To Sir With Love 2 and Naked City: A Killer Christmas.
But Bogdanovich returns to feature films in fine style with The Cat’s Meow, the purportedly true story of drugs, booze, general debauchery and murder on a weekend yachting trip in 1924 that involved media magnate William Randolph Hearst, actor/director Charlie Chaplin, actress Marion Davies and producer/ director Thomas Ince.
“I had decided I didn’t want to do any more television films for a while,” Bogdanovich says from behind his trademark gigantic glasses, and these days sporting an ascot beneath his chin. “I wanted to go back and do a feature for theaters. You learn how to move swiftly in television, and I felt I’d learned enough about moving swiftly. I had a couple of projects I was preparing, then The Cat’s Meow just came out of the blue. And the people offering it to me had no idea that I had heard the story 30 years before from Orson Welles. I was very interested in doing it so I thought I’ll just throw it into the pile and whichever one of these things comes together first is the one I’ll do first. And this one came together immediately.”
In the story, Hearst (played brilliantly by Edward Herrmann) calls together a group of friends and acquaintances to treat them to a multi-day party on his boat, the Oneida. One of the guests did not come back alive, or maybe came back alive but died shortly thereafter. None of the people involved in the event ever spoke about it, and it remains shrouded in mystery. But Bogdanovich, working from a script by Steven Peros, thinks this version is most likely true.
“It does have pretty good credentials,” he says. “Orson heard it from Marion Davies’ nephew. So I can’t say it’s from the horse’s mouth, but it’s from the horse’s family. We all tried very hard to get to the truth. Now, nobody will ever know for sure what happened, but this is as close as we can get to what we think happened. We could be wrong, but I think it’s believable.”
Bogdanovich gets great performances out of his actors—besides Herrmann, there are terrific turns by Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Eddie Izzard as Chaplin—because he started off as a stage actor, doing stock when he was 15, then studying with the renowned Stella Adler when he was 16.
“I started directing when I was 20,” Bogdanovich says. “I did an Off Broadway production of The Big Knife by Clifford Odets. We ran about 65 performances and got good reviews.”
But a love of film, inspired by his first viewing of Citizen Kane, led him, like so many other future directors, to the stable of quickie film king Roger Corman, where he was given his first opportunity to direct when he finished up shooting The Wild Angels. Corman took a chance on the eager Bogdanovich after deciding he’d already done enough work on it himself. For the record, Bogdanovich had already rewritten the script, scouted locations and drawn up a shooting plan for his boss. That led to Bogdanovich’s first solo outing, Targets, and a whole career opening up for him.
“It was a big responsibility,” he says, about directing his first film. “But I didn’t look at it that way. It just seemed like it was what I was supposed to do. I never felt strange on a movie set. It all seemed rather comfortable. The biggest kick was seeing them write my name on the slate.”
These days it seems that fans—and even those who don’t know Bogdanovich as a director—are getting a kick out of his recurring appearances as Dr. Kupferberg on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” He explains that the show’s producer/writer/director David Chase didn’t have to do much to get him to take the part.
“I had worked for him before, on ‘Northern Exposure,’” he says. “I played myself in an episode about Orson Welles. I remember he complimented me on that job. He said I ought to do more acting because I had a lot of—[a pause and a chuckle]—‘presence.’ Seven years later he called me up and said he was doing ‘The Sopranos.’ He said he had a psychiatrist in the series played by Lorraine Bracco, and she has so much trouble with this Tony Soprano business, that she has to go to a psychiatrist and he was thinking that I could play that. I said that I’d love to. I went down and met with David and the writers for about 45 minutes, then they called me a few hours later and said they’d like me to do it. I was in the second and third, and now I’ll be in the fourth season. So it’s back to my first career.”