Peter Bogdanovich can't get enough of himself
Who the Hell's in It: Portraits and Conversationsby Peter Bogdanovich
Knopf, 544 pp., $35 Around the release of Peter Bogdanovich's most recent film, The Cat's Meow, The New Yorker ran just about the saddest profile of a living film director I've ever read. Taken with the chapters about him in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and the raw-nerve, personal material that erupts unbidden throughout his new book of star portraits and conversations, Who the Hell's in It, the life story and psychology that emerge possess the stuff of great fiction. The mixture of pathos and preposterousness, genuine talent and high aspiration at the mercy of ardent cinephilia, grotesquely bad luck, and heartbreaking self-delusion form a character that Nathanael West might have written, had he deigned to consider a poor wretch nearer the top of the Hollywood food chain.
If it seems unfair or ad hominem to approach his new book, a follow-up to his indispensable volume of director interviews, Who the Devil Made It, from a standpoint of authorial biography, it's practically unavoidable in that Bogdanovich can't stay away from the subject of himself. Inflected with a retrospective personal sadness, Who the Hell's in It is shot through with Bogdanovich's customary nostalgia for Hollywood's classic studio era and more intensely haunted than usual by death and decay. There's an obligatorily out-of-place meditation on the meaning of entertainment post-9/11; even the youngest star profiled, River Phoenix, has gone to the great beyond; and keeping tempo is the near inevitability of chapters arriving at "the last time we met ..." and/or plangent protestations of how there will not and cannot be another. But additionally, there's an uneasy "enough about them let's talk about me" quality to the biography's unstoppable tangents into autobiography.
While some portraits remain extremely illuminating in spite of this (his prismatic essays on star power in the Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart chapters; his acute, personal sketch of the acting guru's acting guru Stella Adler; and particularly his laugh-and-gasp vaudeville on Jerry Lewis), the eternal return to his own need for validation through contact with celebrities makes for a queasily unwitting case study of a pathological starfucker. As he's something of a star himself, it's certainly his privilege to rub shoulders and make friends with and receive compliments from other stars, but the litany of affirmations here starts to feel desperate even before the end of his lengthy introduction.
Those looking for the kind of practical observation and primary-source history beyond anecdote that make his director interviews essential reading (Who the Devil Made It, as well as book-length conversations with Orson Welles and John Ford) are bound to be disappointed with this book, which wallows in the personal while missing the nuts and bolts of how actors and stars do what they do. While Bogdanovich's real achievements as a filmmaker and scholar should not be underestimated or ignored, this book's chief fascination lies in revealing an often squirmy, sometimes genuinely touching melancholy in the unfolding tragedy of the world's greatest autograph hound.
As part of the Texas Book Festival, Bogdanovich will introduce two of his films (Targets, 7pm; Saint Jack, 9:45pm) at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown, Saturday, Oct. 30.