A Homey, Intimate Look At the Screen’s True Artists

Who the Hell’s In It: Portraits and Conversations, by Peter Bogdanovich. Knopf, 528 pages, $35.

As Mack Sennett should have said, let’s cut to the chase: “Audrey Hepburn was a beacon of tasteful glamour, of sensitivity and of the integrity and innocence of youth: a symbol of unalloyed kindness, morality and goodness on a screen ever more darkened by the baser forms of life …. Hepburn became the last true innocent of the American screen.”

“[Dietrich] sang twenty songs and each was like a one-act play, a different story with a different character telling it, each phrased uniquely and done with the most extraordinary command. No one has ever teased and controlled an audience better.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s In It is an early Christmas present for movie lovers, a double Dutch chocolate cornucopia of delight, best ingested in small doses to prolong the pleasure.

It’s a sequel of sorts to his 1997 book Who the Devil Made It, which revolved around directors. Who the Hell’s In It concerns itself with actors both legendary and underappreciated.

Here are portraits of Brando, Grant, Gish, Karloff, Sinatra, Wayne, Cagney, Gazzara, Fonda, Clift, Poitier and Monroe, both as Mr. Bogdanovich knew them in life and as he observed them on the screen. Mixed in with the great stars are relatively unexplored people like Anthony Perkins and Sal Mineo, who are nowadays usually treated with sleazy anecdotes about gender identification rather than insight into their talent.

The portraits are always sympathetic, often intimate and somehow homey. Mr. Bogdanovich strips away the disfiguring celebrity and catches these people as they were with their friends—not gods on Olympus, but professionals coping with sound checks, advancing age, career difficulties, even dietary needs.

“When I came to America,” Marlene Dietrich told him, “they told me the food was awful—and it was true. Whenever you hear someone in America say that they had a great meal, it turns out they had a steak. So I learned. Mr. Sternberg loved good food, and you know …. So I would go to the studio every day and do what he told me, and then I’d come home and cook for him.”

Mr. Bogdanovich is at all times alert to nuance, to the soft surprise; catching up to James and Gloria Stewart on the day she was apparently diagnosed with fatal cancer, he tunes in to the aura of bitchiness in the air, the weariness this authentically ill person had with what she took to be her husband’s petty hypochondria.

When he surveys the traffic flow at the acting trade’s crowded intersection of Personality Drive and Talent Road, Mr. Bogdanovich knows precisely who has the right of way. “Marlene did everything extremely well, made it all look so easy that many people eventually took her for granted. Many still do: separating her always from the ‘serious’ actors of the time, as opposed to ‘personalities.’ But personality actors were those star-players whose actual personae were uniquely appropriate to the closely analytic eye of a camera: the character and actor merge into one—a seminal difference about this new performing-art form.”

Like anybody with the soul of an artist, Mr. Bogdanovich is enthusiastic about people who do things he can’t (Truffaut on Hitchcock, etc.). For me, the book’s two most fascinating pieces involve John Cassavetes and Stella Adler.

Adler was somewhere between a Jewish Auntie Mame and a classic mentor; Cassavetes was simply a very good friend—he asked Mr. Bogdanovich to come over and direct a scene for Love Streams because, he said, it had him flummoxed. It didn’t, of course; he was just trying to get his pal out of the house after the murder of Dorothy Stratten.

Mr. Bogdanovich’s appreciation for Cassavetes is interesting, because his films are antithetical not only to Mr. Bogdanovich’s, but also to the work of the directors Mr. Bogdanovich most admires—Ford, Welles and so on. Cassavetes’ films are exclusively about actors, with the camera relegated to observing behavior. Lack of visual style is the style.

Cassavetes was not attempting to replicate the conventional rhythms of movies, but of life itself; his films have that subtle tire-spinning quality that constitutes a large part of every life. Mr. Bogdanovich’s appreciation of Cassavetes reminds you that Mr. Bogdanovich started as an actor and remains a very good one.

Are there flaws in this book? Sure, but nothing serious. Mr. Bogdanovich doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about his fragmentary acquaintance with Charlie Chaplin, who was descending into senility at the time, nor does he seem to have much appreciation of his accomplishments as an artist beyond boilerplate praise. He lets the reliably insufferable Jerry (“I derive pleasure from giving happiness to people”) Lewis maunder on endlessly, but then Mr. Bogdanovich is obviously a big fan and doesn’t pretend to objectivity.

What we have here is a serial celebrator, throwing bouquets to people who don’t get many—Otto Preminger, for instance. Mr. Bogdanovich calls Exodus “one of the last masterpieces from the movies’ golden age” and says that Anatomy of a Murder is “one of the great American films.” Really? Anatomy of a Murder is good, but it’s only about what it’s about—there are no spreading ripples of resonance, which a movie has to have if it’s to be a work of art. Which, now that I think of it, the best of Mr. Bogdanovich’s work (Targets, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack) also have.

There’s one error: Mr. Bogdanovich says that Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) was, along with Welles’ Othello (1952), the first American feature to be financed by its director, which would undoubtedly be a big shock to King Vidor, who self-financed Our Daily Bread (1934).

On balance, it might be a good idea for Mr. Bogdanovich to write about people and films he doesn’t like once in a while, if only to add an astringent touch to the prevailing sweetness. On the other hand, his emotional generosity is part of what makes this rich book such a pure pleasure in these mean-spirited times.

Who the Hell’s In It is truly a document of faith in the power of artists—not the Ben Afflecks and Sandra Bullocks of the world, but the people who can drag the lightning down from the sky and still maintain their humanity.

Taken together, Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s In It constitute Peter Bogdanovich’s devotionals to the people who never failed him, in the art he’s never stopped loving.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published by Simon & Schuster in May, 2005. He reviews books regularly for The Observer.

A Homey, Intimate Look At the Screen’s True Artists