When I was much younger and starting to actively get interested in film, there were a few key books that helped ignite that interest and validate it. First, there was a copy of the Pauline Kael book “For Keeps,” a sampler from her other published books of film criticism, that I must have read cover to cover a good four or five times. Her book taught me to dig deeper into a movie, and to be able to articulate why I love something even when no one else does.
The Danny Peary “Cult Movies” books also were important to me because they suggested that the world of film outside of the mainstream might actually be more interesting or rewarding. Peary’s descriptions of these films have stayed with me so vividly that even this last year, when I finally checked one more title off the list, it was his book that was forefront in my mind as I sat down to watch.
There was another book that made an equally large impression on me, but for different reasons. In 1978, Harry Medved, Randy Dreyfuss, and Michael Medved wrote “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time (And How They Got That Way),” and what I didn’t know at the time was that Harry Medved was 17 when he wrote it, while Dreyfuss was 19. Makes sense, because the book is written with an insistent attitude that seemed very persuasive to nine-year-old me, but that I have found more grating each time I’ve gone back to it over the years.
One of the titles that they eviscerated in the book was still fairly recent at the time, 1975’s “At Long Last Love,” the Peter Bogdanovich flop starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. And reading their description of it, it sounded like a nightmare, an ego-fest that crapped all over the music of Cole Porter. Because I hadn’t seen most of the films on the list, I had nothing to compare the descriptions to, and sure enough, it sunk in that these were “awful movies” so that when I did encounter them, sometimes decades later, that was the impression I had walking in. Sure enough, many of the films in that book are indeed terrible, like Dennis Hopper’s drug-soaked and incoherent “The Last Movie” or the laughably bizarre “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.” But they had also included films like “Last Year At Marienbad” on the list, and I think it’s safe to say that there are many film lovers who would disagree with that assessment. “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” made their list, and even if you’re not crazy about the movie, it’s such a clear expression of the voice of Sam Peckinpah that I don’t know how you can argue it’s a “bad” movie. I learned over time that I needed to set aside the bias that book created in me when approaching films, because it was obvious that my tastes and theirs were not always on the same wavelength.
Last week, I got an e-mail from a friend asking if I wanted to attend a screening on the Fox lot of Peter Bogdanovich’s original cut of “At Long Last Love.” And the answer in a case like should always be yes. If you get a chance to go see a film you’ve never seen before with a director like Bogdanovich in attendance, you go. I have huge affection for his work in general, and specific films in particular, so I was wide open to whatever this was, even if it didn’t work. I just wanted to finally see it, and if my first opportunity was to see his original version instead of the release cut that was so savagely reviewed when it opened, then even better.
Before the screening, Bogdanovich came out to tell the story of which cut we were about to see, and I’ll paraphrase because it’s a very strange and sort of wonderful accident. A few years back, someone sent him an e-mail with some YouTube link, asking him about the footage in the clips. He went to look at it, and it was all material from “At Long Last Love,” and much of it was stuff that wasn’t in the release cut of the film. Bogdanovich was surprised to say the least, and he asked the guy who posted the footage where it came from. It was something the guy had taped off of Starz channel, a cut that had been running on pay TV at different times for over a decade by that point. Bogdanovich made this film at the height of his clout, and he had contractual final cut, but even so, the decisions made around that theatrical cut were motivated by some disastrous test screenings that may not have been particularly fair in the first place. It was a compromised cut, a movie cut in a panic, and after its failure at the box-office, the last thing anyone wanted to do was spend more money on recutting it. So then where could an alternate pay cable cut have come from, and why did it so closely resemble that first version that Bogdanovich test-screened? He spent a few years trying to track down how it happened, and finally pieced together a story involving a longtime employee of the Fox Archives who had been working at the studio in the ’70s when they were making the film. He was a big fan of Cole Porter, so as the dailies were coming in, he was watching them and thought the movie looked great. The final cut in the theater didn’t really look like that film, though, and he was so disappointed that he basically assembled his own cut based on the test screening version that he had access to at some point. Since he worked in the Archives, it was easy enough to just put that in rotation as the “official” version.
Bogdanovich revealed that the version he’s talking about is the same one that’s on Netflix Instant right now, the one that Fox Movie Channel has been playing recently. The film’s never had an official VHS or laserdisc or DVD release, so they never had a reason to send it to Bogdanovich to sign off on, which is why it’s been out there for so long without him realizing it. He asked Fox to let him do a little bit more work, totally only a few additional minutes, and then finally give it a real home video release sometime soon, and it appears that’s actually happening. The cut he showed us on Thursday night was the one that will get that final release.
He set the film up for us by highlighting two choices he made when getting ready to make it. First, he decided to record all the vocal tracks live on the set, with the actors listening to playback via hidden earpieces, and second, he decided to try to shoot most of the musical numbers as single-take single-camera scenes. Both of those decisions are crazy, and must have made for amazingly complicated shooting days, but both decisions are also key to whatever “At Long Last Love” actually is.
The movie is, in my opinion, a gem, a completely charming trifle that benefits from the music of Cole Porter used with real wit, and packed with performances that are pure pleasure. Porter’s songs are filled with jokes and double-entendre and they are perfect fodder for the sort of story that Bogdanovich is telling. Burt Reynolds stars as Michael Oliver Pritchard III, heir to an enormous fortune, good for nothing other than drinking and carousing but very good at those. He is almost always shadowed by his manservant, Rodney, played with a perfect degree of reserve by John Hillerman. Cybill Shepherd plays Brooke Carter, whose mother sends her money in absentia while she romances her way across Latin America, and her full-time servant is the sardonic Elizabeth, played by Eileen Brennan. Duilio Del Prete is “Johnny Spanish,” an Italian hustler who is always one card game away from the big haul, and Madeline Kahn is Kitty O’Kelly, a Broadway star looking for love and the perfect cocktail. Put all of them in a tumbler with Porter’s tunes, shake, and watch what happens, and that’s “At Long Last Love.”
It is amazing to me that people attacked the film over the live recording when it was released, and that it has long been held that the film was a failure because it chose to record the music on the set instead of using lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks. I’ve read about how awful the performances by Reynolds and Shepherd were my whole life, and it’s funny how after a while, you accept that it must be true because so many people said it and so many people wrote about it. It’s not true, though, not at all. In fact, I can’t imagine why you’d even want to see a version of this movie done the traditional way. I might not buy an album by Reynolds, but in the context of the film? He’s great. He’s charming and funny and does a very good protracted drunk routine in the movie. Madeline Kahn is awesome as Kitty O’Kelly, which shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who is a fan of her work in “Blazing Saddles.” She can sell these songs and she’s always inventive and funny and capable of adding a flourish that makes something unexpected and memorable. Eileen Brennan and John Hillerman spend most of the movie locked in this Pepe Le Pew style chase, with her as the aggressor and him as the target, and they are hilarious. Brennan looks like a hungry coyote, licking her chops as she circles Hillerman, their musical duets a constant back and forth push and pull.
But Shepherd is the one that floored me. I think there’s some truth to Bogdanovich’s charge that people just plain wanted to hate him and Shepherd when they were together, and that it affected the way people reviewed their work together. I’m not a big fan of “Daisy Miller,” but “The Last Picture Show” is undeniable, and now that I’ve seen this, I’d say you have to be harboring a grudge to say she’s not doing good work here. She has this sort of eager theatrical energy as she charges into her musical numbers, and you can see how hard she’s working to pull it all together. But that effort, that sort of “1-2-3-and-turn-and-kick” thought process being visible, especially when you’re seeing a long uninterrupted take meaning there’s no room for anyone to screw up, only makes me like the performers more. I like that Shepherd doesn’t seem like a particularly natural dancer, but instead like someone who’s determined to get it right, someone who can laugh in the middle of a song, someone who seems to be enjoying the other performers. That’s true of Reynolds as well. There’s a song in a car where they’re all trading verses of “You’re The Top,” and Reynolds can’t resist laughing during some of the other verses. It’s loose and funny and seeing how athletic and game they all are, it’s even sexy. Shepherd certainly never looked better in a movie. The costumes that Bobbie Mannix designed for her are all silk and fur and cut just right, and it’s pretty remarkable. Bogdanovich is obviously smitten with her, and by the end of the film, I think he’s made a pretty good case for why.
I look forward to picking up an eventual Blu-ray of this, and I’m glad Fox is willing to let Bogdanovich finally put out a version of this film that may restore some of its long-dented reputation. It is such a loud and legendary bomb that I’m curious if people will give it a fair shot. I certainly found myself surprised by almost everything about it, and it is a firm reminder that just because something is the accepted wisdom about a film, it doesn’t mean you’ll agree with it when you finally see the movie. I hope you guys are open to giving this one a look, and I guarantee… if you like Porter and ’70s movie stars and Hollywood musical language, there’s a lot to like here. It’s a minor-key miracle, and it was a distinct privilege to see it the way I did.