Sunday, November 18, 2007
I first discovered the films of Peter Bogdanovich in my early teens with a viewing of his delightful PAPER MOON (1973) on late night television. Soon after, I saw WHAT'S UP DOC (1973) and I was hooked. This was in the mid eighties though so I could only read about his famed THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) and his infamous AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975) as they were both unavailable at the time. Perhaps it was there unavailability that hooked me so much, as I began voraciously reading as much as I could about them and Bogdanovich's fascinating life.
It would be a few years before I could finally see THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and AT LONG LAST LOVE, and I found both experiences incredibly rewarding, with THE LAST PICTURE SHOW surely being one of the best American films ever made, and AT LONG LAST LOVE among the bravest.
I first caught THEY ALL LAUGHED (1981) in that period in my mid teens between first seeing PAPER MOON, and finally getting to see AT LONG LAST LOVE. I must admit that I was a bit perplexed by THE ALL LAUGHED the first time I saw it. I thought it was interesting, but it felt jumbled. I didn't care for the country music soundtrack, and I thought it was cluttered with too many characters. THEY ALL LAUGHED seemed to me to be a lesser film than his great works, and that is the way it remained for me until I caught it again in my mid twenties.
My second viewing of THEY ALL LAUGHED ten years after the first time I saw it was a revelation. The film floored me emotionally, and it struck me as one of the great Valentine's cards to a woman and city that I had ever seen. There is a real heart and sweetness to THEY ALL LAUGHED that is missing from most modern American films. It finally has more in common with the great American romantic comedies from the forties that Bogdanovich loves so much than anything else that was being made at the time. It isn't just retro film though as THEY ALL LAUGHED is very much a film made in 1980, and it is as perfect a snapshot of New York City in that period as could have possibly been taken.
THEY ALL LAUGHED started out as an outline that Howard Sackler had delivered to Peter Bogdanovich in the late seventies. The two couldn't find a middle ground on it, and Bogdanovich decided to craft the screenplay for the film by himself. Taking elements from a far ranging field of screwball comedies to noir styled detective films, Bogdanovich's screenplay is one of his great achievements, and one of the most personal things that he would ever deliver.
Still nursing from a string of flops, and his much-publicized break up with Cybill Shepherd, Bogdanovich was clearly trying to heal some wounds with THEY ALL LAUGHED. Attempting to bury much of the cynicsm that had infected both NICKELODEAN and SAINT JACK, Bogdanovich had the idea to craft a role for one of the screen's great positive icons, Audrey Hepburn, and pull out of the creative and personal rut he had found himself in by 1979.
After securing the usually elusive Hepburn, SAINT JACK'S Ben Gazzara came on board as well and the wheels quickly began turning for THEY ALL LAUGHED as the seventies gave way to the eighties. Bogdanovich had originally envisioned himself in the role of the shy and slightly bumbling detective Charles Rutledge, but a chance viewing of a young actor on a popular show called THREE'S COMPANY changed his mind, and the role was offered to comedic hurricane John Ritter instead. Others featured in the large ensemble cast were talented Colleen Camp as a tough talking county music singer, and a lovely young model named Patti Hansen as Sam the Cab Driver. After bringing in several family members to help fill out his large cast, Bogdanovich set out to find someone who could play the important role of Rutledge’s dream girl Dolores Martin.
Bogdanovich had first met 18-year-old Dorothy Stratten while he was editing SAINT JACK. Immediately struck by her charm and heartbreakingly good looks, he got it in his mind that he would like to film her one day. After several meetings, and two auditions, Bogdanovich decided to give the relatively inexperienced Playmate the major role of Dolores in his picture. It would turn out to be the coup of the picture, as she brought just the right amount of youthful warmth the part needed, and she had an undeniably strong chemistry with co-star Ritter. With the cast in place, Bogdanovich and crew traveled to shoot their film almost entirely on the streets of New York in the early spring of 1980.
Working with a relatively low budget, and stealing many of the films key shots, as they didn't have permits, THEY ALL LAUGHED is the last truly great New York film of the seventies. There had been many leading up to it from directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, but Bogdanovich brought a different touch to it than those great icons. His New York is much like his small Texas town in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. It seems closed in, intimate, and on the cusp of a major change.
Much to the producer's chagrin, Bogdanovich began changing the script as they were shooting, much of the time to conform to his large casts needs. Camp's part became bigger, as did Stratten’s and the whole project had an almost guerilla feel to it. Bogdanovich also began bringing in more and more personal touches to the film, and its dialogue. Andrew Yules’ excellent biography PICTURE SHOW: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PETER BOGDANOVICH makes it perfectly clear that the blossoming relationship between Ritter and Stratten's character on the screen was a stand in for the romance between the director and lovely Stratten that was happening simultaneously. There were also reports of a romance between Gazzara (struggling with depression from a recent divorce) and Hepburn, something else Bogdanovich would incorporate in this, his most personal film. It all could have become a disastrously self serving project, but everything that happened behind the scenes of THEY ALL LAUGHED would help make it the very special film it turned out to be.
The behind the scenes history of THEY ALL LAUGHED would make a great film in itself, and it is unfortunate the otherwise fine current special edition DVD of it didn't include a full documentary with the remaining cast members.
Despite all of the financial and production problems that plagued the film, Bogdanovich and crew did finally wrap production in the early summer of 1980, and the artistically reinvigorated director took his newest masterpiece into the editing stage...and twenty year Dorothy Stratten returned to Los Angeles...
It is impossible to view THEY ALL LAUGHED without thinking about what happened to Dorothy Stratten as Bogdanovich was preparing its release. Brutally murdered by her psychopathic estranged husband on the day THEY ALL LAUGHED had its first test screening in New York, the ghost of Dorothy Stratten looms large over the production to this day. Because of this, it is hard to view the film as a straight romantic comedy. The film's already slightly off kilter edge is given a real poignancy. The fact that Stratten is indeed one of the best things about the film makes it even more haunting.
The cast and crew were devastated to hear the news of Stratten's murder, especially Ritter who had become extremely fond of her. Bogdanovich was completely destroyed, and the critical reception to his unfinished film only made matters worse. Focusing on everything but the film, the critics were for the most part unmerciful towards both Bogdanovich and his attempt to meld together forties style slapstick comedy, and a noir like detective story in modern day Manhattan. One of the last truly great personal films of the seventies was buried before the public was even able to see it. Even more that the HEAVEN'S GATE fiasco, the reception awaiting THEY ALL LAUGHED proved that the seventies were indeed very much over...
I haven't spent much time on the actual film yet, because as much as any film imaginable, the things that happened on the set affected what ended up on the screen. THEY ALL LAUGHED is a split film, one simultaneously filled with the excitement of a new relationship beginning, and one with all the sorrow of one splintering apart. It is a remarkable achievement, and while perhaps not the best film that Peter Bogdanovich ever made, it has become my favorite...and I imagine his as well.
With the crisp photography of legendary Robby Muller, and Bogdanovich's shooting at its most elegant and inventive, THEY ALL LAUGHED is a lovely film to watch. It is also a film that demands reviewing, with its continuous cross cutting between storylines, schemes, and romances. Bogdanovich's odd decision to score part of the film with modern country music, and the rest with tracks off Frank Sinatra's just released TRILOGY collection is an interesting one. As I mentioned before it rubbed me the wrong way at first, but in hindsight it is thematically perfect for a film very much about the past's place in the present...the TRILOGY songs work particularly well in the film, and apparently Sinatra personally okayed there use for the lowest price allowed.
The cast is totally compelling, with nearly everyone delivering some of their best work ever. Hepburn is radiant here, in her last starring role, and her scenes with Gazzara are among the most touching she ever filmed. Gazzara himself also delivers one of his best performances, as the, slightly bemused by his own weariness, detective who is realizing he is just about past his prime. Patti Hansen does great work as Sam the cabbie, and I still can't believe that this remains one of her only film experiences. Also Colleen Camp is a wonder to behold...ferocious, fast taking, funny and oh so sexy. She steals every scene she is in with ease...
The film belongs to John Ritter and Dorothy Stratten though. Ritter was a national treasure, and one of our last great physical comedians. He is so funny and touching in this part that it is just a joy to watch. Stratten amazingly matches him every step of the way. Instead of looking inexperienced, under Bogdanovich's direction she gives an assured and warm performance that shows clearly she could have become a huge star. Watching the scenes with Ritter and Stratten today, as both are no longer with us, in a city that has also changed drastically since is incredibly moving. THEY ALL LAUGHED is, in a way, the funniest tragic movie ever made.
Peter Bogdanovich was never the same after Dorothy Stratten's murder and the failure of THEY ALL LAUGHED. Depressed, angry and exhausted he nearly bankrupted himself when he bought the film and attempted to put it out on his own in 1982.
The film failed and Bogdanovich's career and life seemed destroyed. It would take him nearly five years to deliver another film, the much-compromised MASK (1985), but for nearly a decade after, Peter Bogdanovich seemed like he was on autopilot. There were signs in his TEXASVILLE (1990) that his creative juices were flowing again but it wouldn't be until THE CAT'S MEOW (2001) that the great director would truly make another masterful film. He is currently working on THE BROKEN CODE, I wish him all the luck in them world with it. I would like nothing more than to see this inventive and iconic director of such American classics as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON and yes THEY ALL LAUGHED deliver another masterpiece. Only time will tell...
THEY ALL LAUGHED was released on home video in the mid eighties and it slipped out of print shortly after. In the mid nineties, a hotshot young director named Quentin Tarantino named THEY ALL LAUGHED as one of his ten favorite films of all time. Later in the early part of this decade another young American filmmaker named Wes Anderson would make similar statements regarding the, then quite lost, film.
Late last year the film made its debut on DVD in a fantastic special edition featuring the final directors cut, a heartfelt commentary from Bogdanovich and a gushing Wes Anderson interviewing the legendary director. It is one of my favorite DVDs in my collection, and I must admit just buying it was quite an emotional experience. While it would have been nice to hear from some of the remaining cast members, perhaps their silence was right...as their wonderful work in this film perhaps says all that needs to be said.
THEY ALL LAUGHED is one of the great modern American films, and a tribute to a time in American filmmaking that is unfortunately nearly vanished. Much like the city that it was set in, American film has been sanitized to the point of invisibility since the release of THEY ALL LAUGHED. Viewing it today is a sharp reminder at just how powerful the most American of films can be in the right hands, with the right means, and the right intentions. To paraphrase one of my favorite songwriters, there is no question that everyone’s aim was very much true when they made THEY ALL LAUGHED. It is a masterpiece.