There was a time when God Himself seemed to be on Peter Bogdanovich's side. If you look at the best scene the filmmaker, then only 31 years old, ever directed, there's a moment in a long speech delivered by Ben Johnson when the sun breaks through the clouds overhead and dapples the former John Ford stock company's leathery face with a sweeping brushstroke of light. That the scene, shot in silky black and white, largely plays out in a single take, and that its subject is a moment in the past lost to everything but an old man's memory only confirms the suggestion of divine intervention. The movie was 1971's The Last Picture Show, and it marked the last time the universe would line up so perfectly in Bogdanovich's favour.
The past has always been Bogdanovich's driving inspirational preoccupation and burden to bear, and it manifests itself, deliberately if not divinely, in She's Funny That Way, the 76-year-old writer-director's first theatrical release in 14 years.
Co-written by Bogdanovich with his ex-wife Louise Stratten – younger sister of Dorothy Stratten, the murdered Canadian-born Playboy Playmate, whose romantic relationship with the filmmaker was only one especially dark episode in a career fraught with episodes of failure, missteps and unfulfilled promise – She's Funny That Way is a throwback screwball comedy in which the past once again insists it knew better and was better. In this case, it's in the form of a frothy romantic farce – in which doors slam and rattle five-star Manhattan hotel room service trays – of the kind everybody knows they don't make any more.
But not everybody cares today, and this is what brings us to the crux of Bogdanovich's singular and enduring obstinacy, as well as a possible reason what was once one of the most promising careers in Hollywood history tended to come and go as quickly as that ray of heavenly light that played across Johnson's crinkled old cowboy mug.
For this former actor, critic and Golden Era revivalist who made his bones as a critic bleaching the half-buried careers of such underappreciated figures as Howard Hawks, John Ford, Allan Dwan and Orson Welles, the stand against convention so common to his countercultural era cohort took the form of standing up for the past. Where most of the generation of filmmakers who comprised the so-called New Hollywood of the early seventies were engaged in a scrappy and fitfully spectacular revolt against the system embodied by the old-school studios, Bogdanovich stubbornly staked his affinity with Old Hollywood. Years before George Lucas would turn retrorevivalism into an invincible industry standard with Star Wars, and Woody Allen would make a middlebrow niche career out of invoking better days behind, Bogdanovich was carrying the torch for the way we were.
The Last Picture Show was as audacious and auspicious a movie brat's manifesto as any, even in those days when gifted young brats – Dennis Hopper, Francis Coppola, William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese – were routinely busting out of the gate with flames firing their cylinders. And for a year or two the heat held. What's Up Doc?, Bogdanovich's deft 1972 evocation of the tart effervescence of Hawks's screwball summit Bringing Up Baby, was as convincing an argument for present vitality of past convention as one could hope for, and in 1973's Paper Moon Bogdanovich once again summoned a black-and-white representation of the past that felt all the more urgently contemporary for suggesting an immaculately realized, vacuum-sealed past.
But then the light seemed to pass over Bogdanovich's career as surely as it had Johnson's moment in closeup, and the past chased by the filmmaker began to seem less like a matter of reclaiming unfairly neglected modes of studio style and storytelling than getting his own lost mojo back. The years to follow would be marked by as persistently conspicuous a series of failures – Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon, They All Laughed – as those that dogged any Hollywood career save that of Bogdanovich's idol, confidante and mentor in a life peaked prematurely, Orson Welles. Today, his most compelling and enduring role is as a commentator on movie history, a man who shines light on things otherwise lost to the dark.
She's Funny That Way begins by insisting they don't make 'em like they used to, and then proceeds to beg the question of whether that's necessarily a bad thing: It feels like a movie in search of a moment where it might feel vital and relevant, and not an old man's lament for something lost to a past that never likely existed quite the same way we'd like to remember it anyway. It's a light that flickers, illuminates and then passes over.