hey say good things come in threes. For Peter Bogdanovich, a movie critic turned filmmaker from Kingston, New York, the motto at one moment rang especially
true. After making a promising but little-seen debut with Targets (1968), a meta horror-drama starring Boris Karloff, Bogdanovich directed what has come to be looked at as a legendary trio. First came The Last Picture Show (1971), a superb black-and-white ensemble drama about small-town life widely considered his magnum opus. Following in its wake were two masterpieces that were also pointed stylistic reversals: 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?, a well-tuned and rewatchable homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and
‘40s, and 1973’s Paper Moon, a bare-bones and deadpan road dramedy. Each was a hit at the box office and with critics. Bogdanovich, barely into his 30s, was quickly a veteran-level-revered director.
Because good things come in threes, the fates of fourths, fifths, and sixths tend to be shaky. Bogdanovich, as far as the public was concerned, seemed en route to what looked like doom post-movie number three. His follow-up to Paper Moon, lavish period drama Daisy Miller (1974), was more divisive than anything he’d yet put out. In some circles, it’s considered a decade high: Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it one of the year’s best, for instance. But in others — and most others — it’s dismissed. Variety published review writing’s equivalent of a smirk. At Long Last Love (1975), a grand scale usurping of the Astaire and Rogers-style musical comedies of the 1930s, was, in contrast, near-unanimously loathed. Spearheading the poisonous word of mouth was The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who splashily dubbed it “a stillborn picture, without a whisper of a chance to recoup its six-and-a-half-million-dollar cost.” Nickelodeon (1976), another paean to the way movies used to be, was written off. This led Bogdanovich, who was also left disillusioned with nearly every aspect of the film’s production and release, to take a three-year break from moviemaking. Not quite the end to a decade you'd expect from someone so prolific and extensively hailed as era-defining. With the ensuing decades, some of the vitriol against Bogdanovich’s perceived walkbacks has lessened. But to contest the negative reception arguably remains an act of contrarianism.
aisy Miller is a fascinating failure — a noble but mostly gauche literary adaptation. (Its source material is a Henry James novel I haven’t read, which Bogdanovich thought was an unsung romantic masterwork.) It stars
Cybill Shepherd, Bogdanovich’s muse and girlfriend at the time, as the title character, a flighty heiress traveling with her equally flighty family around Europe.
Shepherd’s casting is a movie-ruining mistake. To watch the inexperienced Shepherd in Daisy Miller is like watching a newly born calf doing her best to walk in a straight line over a hill. Shepherd is thoroughly unequipped for the part, perceivably self-conscious in a part that asks for not a hint of inhibition. She isn’t a bad actress, but she’s not chameleonic as to be suitable for every role. She’s best, as far as the 1970s went for her, Catherine Deneuve-style ice maidens, as shown in The Last Picture Show and 1976’s Taxi Driver.
Miller is capricious, talkative, and dependably vexing. She doesn't ever seem to think. Yet she's charismatic to some. Overarching points in the movie are that she's too lusty toward life and naïve to know what’s best for her but that that’s part of why she is so alluring to many a young man. Yet Shepherd only convincingly does one thing the script might have noted: to speak quickly. Through her does the character become a zombie of fickleness. Shepherd is obliquely telling us that Miller is a Katharine Hepburn-style kook. But there’s much more doing than showing in her work. She brings all the right characteristics to the fore, but she doesn’t persuasively inhabit. We sit there and think Shepherd is having a difficult time playing a difficult person. She’s just as unsure what to make of Miller as the people who know Miller are.
In the movie, Miller captures the attention of Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown), a well-off expatriate. He becomes charmed by Miller once he meets her and her equally chatty little brother at a Swiss spa. Throughout the movie, Miller and Winterbourne continuously run into each other even as locales and ambitions change. As his feelings develop, though, her proclivity toward recklessness is upped. The film progressively becomes about how Miller makes a sport out of tarnishing her reputation among the upper class — namely by starting a looked-down-on relationship with the meagerly statused Italian opera singer Mr. Giovanelli (Duilio Del Prete) — while Winterbourne watches, never succeeding in his attempts to inspire Miller to think about how her actions, all put into motion by her heart and not her mind, might affect her in the long run. The film ends cruelly.
The movie has been handsomely made. Like all of Bogdanovich's period pieces, there is no tangible nostalgia toward these particular times and places. He’s more interested in their mores and how people are affected by them. But that doesn’t mean the visual presentation gets second-fiddled. John Furniss’ costume design refracts the era’s excesses in a way that looks painterly. The movie, because of his output and because of Bogdanovich’s compositional staging, often looks like a moving Seurat painting. There's a lushness to Alberto Spagnoli’s cinematography. The temperatures of outdoor settings are palpable; indoor environs sparkle and bloom, reflecting the decadence of the ensemble’s wear.
But Daisy Miller is sabotaged by Shepherd. The feature is supposed to be a bitter-tasting dramedy — an acutely sad story both because the eponymous character meets tragic consequences because she isn’t of her times (though she isn’t astute enough, I don’t think, to be ahead of them) and because the love Winterbourne feels for her goes unprofessed. But Shepherd is so ungainly that to become emotionally attached to the movie is a reaction that never arrives.
hepherd is also ungainly in At Long Last Love — here too she plays the lead — but the klutziness, in this case, is becoming. At Long Last Love is a glittering tribute to the musicals and comedies of the 1930s. Sated with
white, chrome, and black, it looks as though everything has been made out of silk, cream, and newly polished metal. Through Bogdanovich’s liberal use of Cole Porter songs, which comprise the soundtrack, and the ways the sets and costumes teeter on the edge of the satire, there's a sense that what we’re watching is a game of particularly spirited dress-up. The spiritedness is infectious, and as such do performances like Shepherd’s work. The incongruity makes us question what it might look like to inhabit character parts so fettered to a specific era, and what works and doesn’t about them when played by people who either don’t know what to make of them or are perhaps too gung-ho to try them out. At Long Last Love tends to be looked at as self-indulgence on a grand scale — a hollow homage. But to me it's a world-class masquerade ball — a joyous, imaginatively made throwback whose lopsidedness feeds the charm.
Shepherd inhabits a part that would have probably been played by Ginger Rogers if it was 1935 — the year At Long Last Love is set in. In the film, she's Brooke Carter, an heiress running out of money. Most everyone she meets in the movie — many of them people with whom she’ll eventually become co-leads — she meets by chance. There is Michael Pritchard (Burt Reynolds), a handsome but apathetic playboy; the alcoholic, effervescent theater star Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn); and the suave Italian gambling addict Johnny Spanish (Del Prete). They are frequently accompanied by Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan), Carter’s horny personal assistant, and Rodney (John Hillerman), Michael’s prudish chauffeur.
Bogdanovich, who also wrote the screenplay, ingeniously introduces these characters and how they run into each other. Rodney nearly hits O’Kelly, who’s departing her ritzy apartment building, with his car after Pritchard bone-headedly decides he’d like to hang off outside the vehicle as if it were a fire truck and he was a fireman. Pritchard and O’Kelly find out they get along famously once they start patching things up, and possibly wrongheadedly begin flirting. Carter and Spanish meet at a racetrack, where the former is unwisely betting on a losing horse named Cotton Ball. They start a relationship. They run into Pritchard and Rodney while watching one of O’Kelly’s performances (she does an exquisitely robust bit involving cavemen that feels like a cross between a Marlene Dietrich number and Jane Russell’s gym scene in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). That interaction proves itself a positive if initially graceless one. Soon everybody is backstage, where it’s revealed that O’Kelly and Carter were close enough to best friends in grade school.
A nights-on-the-town narrative ensues. Partner-switching becomes as common as champagne-sipping. A lot of the time, the movie is ebullience and not much else, overcrowded with song-and-dance sequences and a proliferation of moments that prioritize the recreative photography. But At Long Last Love makes for such a carefully luxuriant and sensual experience, and is so vigorously performed, that I didn’t care if on Bogdanovich’s mind was more aesthetic reinvigoration than anything by way of emotion generating. Unlike another movie-musical homage that came out around the same time, 1981’s tremendous Pennies from Heaven, At Long Last Love doesn’t prod at the melancholic underpinnings of classic-era movies. It’s happier basking in the abundant visual pleasures the musicals of almost a century ago could offer, practically beckoning in the absurdities. We can tell not just because the narrative extols the virtues of pleasure-seeking to an almost laughable degree but also because of how hard many of the actors work to live up to the (in the rearview mirror) over-the-top archetypes. Shepherd does her best to enliven the goofy heiress type (think of Katharine Hepburn in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby) but incidentally brings a dizziness that reminds us of the prototype's follies. Reynolds sometimes threatens to collapse under the weight of the lazy but likable cad, yet any signs of strain are strangely refreshing. It isn’t often that we watch a movie that asks us to think a little more deeply about what and who the glitziest of golden-era movies asked us to put up with.
Not all the performers uphold this kind of appealing dissonance. Brennan and Kahn — regularly rousing actresses even when burdened by parts that don’t allow them to stretch out — are in their element. The script is like catnip. There’s a sense that they watched and adored the actresses they’re emulating growing up. Brennan, teasing and deadpan-funny, embodies someone who knows what she wants but is also admirably pragmatic. We imagine someone like Charlotte Greenwood or Joan Blondell in the role. Kahn, characteristically bewitching, is great as a blustery star with an addictive personality; it’s her, in the movie’s song-and-dance sequences, who seems best suited to the material.
Sometimes At Long Last Love’s reputation as self-indulgent feels warranted. It stresses visual and musical delight so aggressively that there proves to be no real persuasive reasons it needs to move north of a two-hour running time, which it merrily does. The songs, terrific as they are, pop up with an unnecessary assembly-line regularity. (I do like that Bogdanovich has his actors sing everything live, though: the choice additionally harkens back to classic-era pep while also fostering the romantic idea that bursting out into song during a moment of elation can be a wonderfully cathartic thing.)
But At Long Last Love isn’t a fiasco. Comparable movies like Pennies from Heaven, which at the time was also unsuccessful, have increasingly found audiences who have taken to their unusual methods of homage: there's something enticing about how cerebrally they sing the praises of older Hollywood lore. They don't merely mimic. At Long Last Love is overdue for a reappraisal. Daisy Miller and Nickelodeon might have earned their pans, but the venom hurled at the 1975 movie feels overdramatic, and for the most part unwarranted.
Daisy Miller: C
At Long Last Love: B+
Reexamining two movies that temporarily derailed Peter Bogdanovich's career
Daisy Miller & At Long Last Love, Reviewed September 24, 2019
Cybill Shepherd in 1974's Daisy Miller.