Q&A: PETER BOGDANOVICH
Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue
Director Peter Bogdanovich in his New York apartment, August 2005
Photograph by DAVID BLACK
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
A HITCHCOCKO-HAWKSIAN'S GUIDE TO HOLLYWOOD
Before directing films like Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), New York native Peter Bogdanovich was a journalist, interviewing Hollywood legends throughout the Sixties and Seventies for publications like Esquire, under editor Harold Hayes. (Several interviews are compiled in two books: Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell's In It.) Here, Bogdanovich discusses his appreciation of director Howard Hawks, and the influence of Hawks's films on the auteur theory.
Stop Smiling: In the Sixties, when you were documenting the thoughts and opinions of the golden-age directors, how did you observe their take on American cinema at the time, when younger, more inexperienced directors were suddenly empowered by the auteur theory?
Peter Bogdanovich: I don't think they liked the way it was going. Anyone from the golden age of Hollywood wouldn't have liked the way it ended up, because it was fragmented and thrown apart and drifted into dirty movies.
SS: Would the auteur theory rankle them?
PB: No, a lot of them liked that, because they were included in it. People like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor. Orson Welles didn't think too much of what was happening. He felt that the films people were making were imitations of films they liked when they were young, which was true and not true. When you're in the middle of an epic change, it's hard to tell that you're in it. Filmmakers of my era didn't sit around and say, “Well, we're the new Hollywood.” Nobody really thought of that, it just sort of happened. I had my feet firmly planted in both eras. I was talking to the older guys, and making my own films, and continued to talk to the old guys and watch the old films. I kept that going for a while. I'm still involved.
SS: How did the rediscovery of Howard Hawks by French journalists affect the auteur theory?
PB: It really started in France in the Forties and Fifties and it burgeoned. There are interviews with Howard in Cahiers Du Cinéma in the Fifies. He was already a successful American director. He didn't need all that attention in order to work. Critically, he wasn't known in this country. The consistency of his work, despite the multiplicity of genres that he dealt with, was very illuminating, so Hawks became a rallying point for la politique des auteurs. And Hitchcock, as well. All of the writers who wrote about them — François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer — were all called the Hitchcocko-Hawksians. I was exposed to Cahiers Du Cinéma through conversations with Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer. Eugene did most of the talking during those sessions — he was very much the dominant figure at the time, in terms of talking. So I got copies of the magazine and read through the interviews as best I could with my rotten French. Then I looked at the movies, and they say it all. Interestingly enough, I looked back and I realized that when I was 10 years old, two of my favorite films were Red River and I Was a Male War Bride, but I had no idea that the same director made them. Then I started putting it together. It wasn't until after I saw Rio Bravo in 1959 that I started to get into what Hawks was doing. His personality was like his films. He was the perfect example of an American director who expressed his personality through multiple genres, like any creative artist does, though it was hidden behind the fabric of this factory system.One reason that Hitchcock got a lot of press and had an easy recognition was because he kept making films within the same kind of genre — suspense. Howard made all different kinds of movies. But between 1939 and 1951 — that 11- or 12-year span — he made 11 hits in a row. A lot of them got good reviews, but American critics never connected the dots about Howard — it was up to the French. Hawks was the central figure in the reappraisal of American films in the studio era. Despite the fact that these directors worked under a system that supposedly was restrictive or omnipotent in some way, they were able to express their personalities with considerable freedom and eloquence. With Hawks and Hitchcock, they all fell into place. Orson Welles is obvious. Hitchcock, in a way, is obvious. But George Cukor or Howard Hawks or many others were not so obvious.
SS: What is the difference between the auteur theory being a political and artistic movement?
PB: Because the critics took an extremely strong point of view, they were trying to break down the French establishment by saying that the French establishment filmmakers, like the American establishment filmmakers, were devoid of personality. There were well-made films, but they didn't have any personality behind them. They wanted to destroy that work and replace it with films that expressed the personality of the person who made them. They succeeded in bringing down the old French system, just as the auteur theory was eventually adopted by all critics in America. This gave rise to that brief era of the director, which came at the end of the Sixties and moved into the early Seventies. The auteurist kind of writing continues to this day.
— Interview by James Hughes
The complete interview with Peter Bogdanovich appears in Issue 23: The Auteur Issue