Peter Bogdanovich has written an interesting pair of books for movie buffs, Who the Hell’s In It and Who the Devil Made It. They’re combinations of essay and interview, the first about Hollywood actors and the second about directors. Bogdanovich, over the years, has worked in all sorts of capacities within the theatrical industry. As a director, for instance, he’s responsible for the sublime film The Last Picture Show as well as the excellent Paper Moon. As an actor, he most recently did some nice work as Dr. Melfi’s shrink on The Sopranos.
In the ‘actor’ book he talks sometimes in a not even very roundabout way about a funny thing; it’s not always necessary to be a very good actor in order to become a star of the silver screen. What the movie-going public wants to see, much of the time, is personalities. Under the old studio contract system this worked out very well, as the studios would tailor the roles for their stars. Unfortunately, for this reader anyway, this also means that many of the actors covered have very little to say about the art of character development. Instead, we hear a lot of war stories and stuff about their personal lives.
Another quibble I have with the book is almost touched on in one of the interviews. The actor tells Bogdanovich that he is like so-and-so; he does interviews with his friends. Because they’re his friends, he pulls his punches. A certain actor, for example, died on his way home from a party because the road was too twisty, not because he was drunk. And whenever we think that we might be close to focusing on the fact that many of the subjects of the interviews are emotional cripples or downright jerks, the camera pulls away again.
The ‘director’ book is much more interesting. I’m less than halfway through it, so may have more to say about it, but for now I gotta mention something about Howard Hawks. Has anyone else ever noticed how the plots in his movies are usually pretty thin? Have you also noticed how much fun they are to watch?
He talks about how during the making of To Have and Have Not the writer on the set kept getting upset because none of the scenes essential to plot development were getting filmed. Hawks asks him why they would bother with those scenes when they were having so much fun with the relationship between Bogart and Bacall.
For Hawks, the plot didn’t matter. When he talks about ‘story,’ what interests him are the relationships among the characters. He tells a story about Hatari! that almost broke my heart. Hatari! is about wild animal catchers in Africa. An amusing enough film, it had to be completely rewritten when the studio refused to pony up the money for another star to play opposite John Wayne. Originally, Wayne and another male lead were supposed to be partners in the animal-catching business but serial rivals in the woman-chasing one. Now that would have been a funny movie.