Guest post by Jack Miller.
“I wanted to make a personal picture, but not a personal picture like an indie prod. I wanted to hide it, like the old filmmakers in the studio system did. Hide it behind a genre. The genre was private detectives.” — Bogdanovich
“It gives me an ocean of mixed-up emotion — I’ll have to work it out in a song.” — John Prine
The early 1980s have retroactively come to be regarded by auteurists as a decidedly transitional period for the American studio system. The exciting stylistic transgressions of the New Hollywood movement, which had materialized in the late 1960s with the appearance of films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and which blossomed into fruition throughout the ‘70s with the unprecedented studio financing of genuinely idiosyncratic work like Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), was experiencing its last gasps of life around this time as production companies began backing more sterilized, streamlined commercial fare. Although Peter Bogdanovich came of age as a filmmaker with other ‘movie brat’ directors like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma during this earlier, countercultural period, as a cinephile he’s always remained a staunch classicist, having made a name for himself by conducting book-length interviews with Golden Age masters such as Howard Hawks and the notoriously cantankerous John Ford.
It was around this time of turbulent and rapid change in the American cinema that Bogdanovich was experiencing a series of revelatory crises in his own personal life. His last three films had all been abject commercial failures, and he had become engaged in an extramarital affair with rising star and Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, a married woman twenty years his junior. Additionally, his close friend and collaborator Ben Gazzara had recently halted another high-profile extramarital romance with the actress Audrey Hepburn. In 1980, Bogdanovich began work on a script which aimed to convey the complex emotional territory that had arisen within these sordid relationships between close friends and lovers. This kind of auto-critical act of laying bare one’s own entangled relationships and personal failings within a narrative film had been done before in the ‘70s by the premier independent auteur John Cassavetes, who was wont to have his own close friends Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk play out their real life interpersonal conflicts in works like A Woman Under the Influence (1974).
But whereas Cassavetes conveyed the pain and pleasures of love’s delirium through the gritty lens of radical neorealism in his privately financed, low-budget productions, Bogdanovich sought to do something else entirely; he disguised his own autobiographical movie underneath the superficial exterior of a playful and silly genre outing, a madcap caper about private eyes following (and being followed by) a group of beautiful and charming New York women. The tone resembled the comic sweetness of Hollywood classics like W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) more closely than it did the fraught emotional tonality of Cassavetes and the New Hollywood ilk, but the painful implications running beneath the surface were just as dire. The result was his 1981 romantic masterpiece, They All Laughed.
The narrative of Bogdanovich’s film, in keeping with the screwball comedies of old that he was self-consciously engaging in a kind of dialogue with, is expertly paced and, albeit deliberately wacky, essentially an easy one to follow. Two private detectives, John (Gazzara) and Charles (John Ritter, essentially a stand-in for Bogdanovich both in terms of appearance and mannerism), are hired by suspicious husbands to follow and spy on, respectively, Angela (Hepburn) and Dolores (Stratten), and after playing out a series of convoluted and comically-rendered games of cat-and-mouse across some crowded and lively New York City locales, fall in love with each of them in the process. It has been noted by the commentator Jerry Johnson (who recorded an excellent podcast episode about the film that I can recommend) that the emotional resonance of Gazzara and Hepburn’s love affair in the film is profoundly deepened by the fact that the two actors had already put an end to their real life affair by the time filming on They All Laughed commenced. He aptly noted that their performances carry the strange feeling of two lovers who are wistfully “looking back on” an expired romance.
I agree with this assertion; many details in the film which appear gleeful and spontaneous within the context of the narrative proceedings actually seem to smolder with a darker and more poignant undercurrent of loss and melancholy. These subterranean, depressive rhythms in the film can be observed more pervasively after one learns about the subsequent homicide of Dorothy Stratten by her abusive husband, which occurred almost immediately after the shooting of the film had completed. Though the film is among the most exuberant and plainly charming that I know, it also functions as a kind of mournful elegy, for the American Cinema of bygone days, for Gazzara and Hepburn’s relationship, and above all for Stratten’s own life cut tragically short. In this way, They All Laughed functions paradoxically as a romantic comedy par excellence and a painful confessional on the part of Bogdanovich.
Still, I persist in my belief that They All Laughed would remain a great film with or without subsequent knowledge of the added resonance present in these important contextual details. Bogdanovich’s tonal and formal mastery as a filmmaker here is astonishing. He likes to film several of the principal players all at once in medium shot, framed by window panes or the bustle of city streets, and he then manages to capture all of their graceful, highly stylized performative gestures within the space of single rapturous composition as meticulously as if he were shooting an arty Bresson movie. The film deserves to be regarded as one of the great New York movies. Bogdanovich appears to be almost as reverent of the city as he is of Stratten here, shooting its street lights and quick motions with a kind of lush gauziness that lends the film a beautiful and delicate visual texture. The filmmaker refrains from inserting clichéd jazz standards onto the soundtrack to accompany his shots of its urban centers; instead, the film is chock-full of some of the best country-&-western songs ever written. Somehow, this early ‘80s NYC movie manages to evoke the spirit of country music more potently for me than Altman’s Nashville (1975) does.
Additionally, all of the principal actors here perform with a remarkable degree of intensity; the supporting player Colleen Camp in particular plays a country singer who seems to have stumbled into this movie straight out of the psychological amorality of Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, and her performance is extraordinary partially because she gives so much unbridled energy to such an overtly lighthearted and silly character. The gestural expressiveness of the acting style complements the director’s classical and graceful formal flourishes perfectly. It’s this sublime dissonance between the film’s dense vision of New York as a kind of lush and transitory playground for lovers against the emotional distanciation provided by the more melancholic undercurrents that makes They All Laughed one of the most pleasurable and deeply moving emotional experiences in American cinema.
A note for Bloomington readers: They All Laughed has yet to be given a Blu-Ray release, but the 2006 DVD release of the film is available at our indispensable local video store, Plan 9 Film Emporium.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.