A Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich
Q: While this is a book about actors, do you see it as a companion volume to your book Who the Devil Made It about directors?
A: It was very much intended as a companion volume to Who the Devil Made It which was interviews with directors. But this is a more personal book and there’s very little Q&A in it. The other book had prose introductions–short profiles about each director–but this book is largely profiles of actors. So it’s a much more personal book and much more a book with my own voice in it.
Q: The actors who make up these 25 chapters are rather an eclectic group–how did you come to include those that you did?
A: I included everybody who I thought made an impact on me and about whom I could tell an interesting story or stories; about whom I had opinions, and about whom I thought the audience would be interested. It was a personal choice. I also decided to leave out mostly anybody from my own generation, contemporaries--that was not the kind of book I wanted to do. This is a book about the great movie stars. And I was fortunate enough to know a number of them. Certain exceptions, like River Phoenix, who had a tragically short life, I include because I thought it would be appropriate in this book. The choices were personal, the book is personal.
Q: In your own career, why did you move from being more of an actor to more of a director?
A: As I said in the book, I think what I hated about acting is the auditioning process which I found to be not fair and not particularly accurate in terms of judging talent. Some actors who are very good at auditioning aren’t very good at acting and some actors who are really good actors aren’t very good at auditioning. It’s a different thing. And I think that’s what did it. Plus, I had the sort of naïve idea that if I was directing it was like playing all the parts. It’s not really true because acting requires different muscles and I’m sorry I didn’t do more of it. But the main reason was the auditioning process, I didn’t enjoy that at all.
Q: How important to you were your days at Esquire magazine in the ‘60s, when, as a journalist, you were assigned a lot of large profiles of actors?
A: Those years in the ‘60s with Esquire, when Esquire was at its peak, were very important, not only in terms of giving me access to a great many stars but also in terms of writing and exposure and having a place from which to speak. It was a very important time for me and it was an important time for the magazine, as it really was the beginning of what they called the “new journalism” which relied a great deal on observation, detail, and events. I learned a lot about that kind of writing by doing it. It was a great place to be at that time.
Q: It was amazing to learn from your book that after the initial hype was over, talking pictures never packed the houses to the extent of their silent predecessors. What was it about the silent art form that had such an effect on people? In saying so very little, were Chaplin and Keaton and Gish–even Clara Bow–actually saying more?
A: The difference between silent pictures and sound pictures is immense and silent stars had a greater impact than talking stars because they didn’t speak–there was no language barrier–therefore Douglas Fairbanks was just as important in Czechoslovakia as he was in Texas. They understood him equally. The same thing with Charlie Chaplin; he was as popular to a tribe in Africa as he was to a bunch of school kids in Iowa. So it’s the lack of sound, the lack of language actually, that made it universal. Therefore everybody in the whole world could go to the same movie. Once the novelty of sound wore off-–it took about a year and a half–attendance figures dropped and continued to drop. Movies never really achieved the extraordinary popularity they had in the ‘20s. Again, I think it was the universality, the hallmark of silent pictures, the fact that there was no language barrier.
Q: The departure of the old studio system seems an inevitable step in the history of film. What brought that system down? And what was lost when the studios stopped tending to the careers of their actors?
A: The old studio system, which really ended around 1962 (basically the end of contract talent), had its own flaws of course–nothing’s perfect–but it contributed to the enormous number of stars that flourished in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and even into the ‘50s. Never before did you have so many talented writers, directors, producers, all working to enhance and to maximize the gifts of various actors. What people were looking for in those days was very different than today. They were looking for what I think I described in the book as beauty with peculiarities. In the silent era that was true and in the talking era more so. But that whole system and what it produced doesn’t exist anymore.
Q: Your chapter on Stella Adler, whom you studied with, is fascinating for what it says about the art of the craft–and how much she differed from the Strasberg “method” acting and instead spoke of a “heightened reality” in acting. Can you describe her style and why she was such an amazing teacher for everyone from Marlon Brando to Benicio del Toro?
A: The book goes into great detail about Stella’s technique and others like Strasberg. She started out as the only American actor to work with the real Stanislavski, she saw him toward the end of his life in Paris. And she brought back her notes from that experience and it changed acting in America. She was extraordinarily forceful, a very theatrical teacher, and a great personality. She was an amazing woman and had an enormous impact on me and everybody else who worked with her. I go into quite a bit of detail in the chapter as to how she worked and what she was like. She was inspiring and terrifying and funny and an inspiration to everybody.
Q: In choosing such an eclectic group to write about, you pay particular attention to each actor’s individual achievement, recognizing each actor’s unique abilities. But the question remains: What makes a good actor?
A: There are any number of different kinds of good actors but believability is one thing. I think movie acting and theater acting are different and movie-acting required, especially in the old studio system days, a kind of fixed personality that variations could be played on from picture to picture, but a certain personality was recognizable from picture to picture. This distinguishes people like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant. With the fall of the studio system that’s gone and movie-acting now has a lot to do with versatility. Since the advent of Brando the emphasis has been on versatility; the actors don’t want to be typed. But movie-acting still has to do with believability, authenticity, reality and a sense of truth.
Q: There was a time, as you note, when Marlon Brando was “the hippest actor there was, the most influential, most imitated, most controversial, most respected by other actors.” Has his influence diminished and will his presence still be felt in fifty years?
A: It’s impossible to predict how long Brando’s presence will continue to be felt. But as far as actors are concerned, there’s before Brando and after Brando, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had an enormous impact on actors and therefore acting. I think his biggest contribution was the fact that he refused to be typed from picture to picture and insisted on being different. Of course, this is ironic because Brando had a personality that came through despite his various disguises. And he remained recognizable.
Q: You note that there was an essential “quality of danger” and a “repressed violence” to Ben Gazzara. Is this what so attracted audiences to him? Is this what made him such an interesting actor to watch, even if he never reached the success he should have?
A: Ben Gazzara was the first actor who exploded on Broadway a few years after Brando. He had an amazing kind of sense of repressed violence and intensity which is captured in a few of his pictures. Gazzara really came into pictures too late to benefit from the old studio system. If he had arrived in the ‘30s he would have been a much bigger star because the system would have worked to emphasize his best qualities. There was nobody to do that so he was often stuck with poor pictures. His greatest triumphs were in the theater and that was always his greatest love anyway.
Q: You tell the story of Cary Grant giving up acting because he simply couldn’t live up to the image of himself. A sadder story is the encounter you describe with Montgomery Clift in his later years. Both seem to testify to, as you quote Arthur Miller saying, “the demeaning aspect of the whole thing.” What is it about Hollywood that turns so many bright, young talents into almost tragic figures?
A: I don’t think Cary Grant was a tragic figure. With Cary Grant, the burden of remaining young and attractive in a romantic way was difficult for him and after he reached a certain age in the mid-‘60s he felt he was too old to be a romantic figure. When the public essentially rejected him in another point of view, an older matchmaker in Walk Don’t Run, he decided that was it. And he also wanted to devote his full time to his daughter.
Monty Cliff had a tragic end which was brought about largely by a terrible automobile accident which disfigured him and although he was patched together he never quite looked the same. And so his somewhat flawless poetic quality was lost and he died young. But being a movie star is not an easy burden; it’s difficult to embody all the things that a man like John Wayne or Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart embodied. It’s difficult for one mortal to be all those things. And Arthur Miller talks about an element of contempt that goes with fame and stardom, which is also true. But that’s what the book is about.
Q: Writing abut Marilyn Monroe, writer David Thomson questions “whether she was a comedienne or a voluptuous ideal laughed at by her films.” He goes on to add, “it seems . . . difficult to accept her as a tragic figure, because she was hardly able to grasp what was happening to her.” Isn’t this the essential question with Monroe?
A: I think Monroe had a sense of what was happening to her and what had happened to her. She had a tragic life prior to becoming a movie star and it’s very difficult to survive such a fractured childhood and a maligned youth as she had. She had a great sense of what was going on. As Lauren Bacall said, she knew what to do when the cameras turned on. She had an enormously low self-esteem which made her frightened in front of a camera. And yet she was extraordinary in front of it. She was, as I say in the book, one of the most tragic victims of stardom. It made her and destroyed her as well.
Q: Why Sinatra? How can he compete with the likes of Brando, Clift, Stewart, Cassavetes, and Poitier, to name a few you’ve included? Doesn’t Sinatra’s particular contribution come in a different way altogether or is he here as an “actor of songs” as you call him?
A: Frank Sinatra is one of the biggest phenomenons of the 20th century entertainment world. He did anything, besides acting and singing, he had a tremendous impact socially; his style was imitated and had a great reverberation. When he focused on it he was a very, very good actor, as is clear in Man With the Golden Arm and Some Came Running. He also was, as I said, a great actor of songs. What I mean by that is, he used to say that every song was a one-act play for one actor. And no one was better at acting a song, particularly a sad song, than Sinatra. He understood the heartbreak of lost love and conveyed it in an enormously memorable way. The book is full of icons of our popular culture and Sinatra was one of the great ones.
Q: The title of your book almost seems ironic, as if we didn’t know who these actors were. Does it point to those who have affected your life, rather than to a who’s who list of film stars?
A: Well, from the outset I intended the book to be a personal book. Acting is a personal medium; you’re using your body, your voice, your soul, to interpret and to convey emotion, and I decided to keep it very personal. There has been a lot written about a number of the actors in the book–biographies, autobiographies, articles, and encyclopedias crammed with them. What I thought was most important was the firsthand approach–my own personal experiences, conversations, encounters with these people–and that’s what I thought was the most important thing I had to contribute was my own memories of these now-legendary figures. The idea was to try to humanize them and the only way to do that was to make it a firsthand look at the various iconic figures in the book.
From the Hardcover edition.