Thursday Editor’s Pick: They All Laughed (1981)

by on July 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs July 7 at 7:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

* Director Peter Bogdanovich in conversation with Noah Baumbach; reception to follow in BAMcafé

** Cinema Club Members Only


As the reappraisal continues of the supposed post-mid 70s career slump of director Peter Bogdanovich, They All Laughed has gained a bevy of fans and attention, mostly due to hip fans Wes Anderson (who interviewed Bogdanovich for the 2006 DVD release) and Noah Baumbach (interviewing Peter B. this Thursday at BAM). Poignancy abounds, due to the palpable heartbreak of its formerly involved stars Ben Gazzara & Audrey Hepburn, and the brutal murder of its leading lady (and Bogdanovich girlfriend) Dorothy Stratten before release. This bittersweet roundelay is an essential New York movie, and the most personal endeavor of Bogdanovich’s career –  he is sure to have much to share.  To get in on this not-to-be-missed event, join the BAM Cinema Club: more info here.


Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

There’s as much eye-am-a-camera spying in They All Laughed as in the most obsessive works of Hitchcock and De Palma, but while those directors dissect the medium’s inherent voyeurism, Peter Bogdanovich prefers to use cinema’s eager peepers to connect viewers to the evanescent yearning of romantic movies. Set in an airier, less hermetic Manhattan than the one heralded (and embalmed) by Woody Allen, the film is a delicately staged roundelay of intertwined pursuit that, through its private-eye plot and point-of-view editing, encourages audience involvement with the characters’ longing. Members of New York’s Odyssey Detective Agency, the men are ineffectual sleuths smitten with the married women whose supposed infidelity they were hired to document: John (Ben Gazzara) falls for Angela (Audrey Hepburn) and Charles (John Ritter) falls for Dolores (Dorothy Stratten) while fellow shamus Arthur (co-writer Blaine Novak) rollerblades through the story with affairs of his own. As in Bogdanovich’s much-maligned musical At Long Last Love, there’s a sense in which flesh-and-blood people strain to match the silver-screen characters of their memories, just as the director himself aims to fill the shoes of auteurs from classical Hollywood; here, however, such tensions are resolved by incorporating their shortcomings into the film’s accepting mood of tender, bittersweet humanity, with Bogdanovich fondly channeling rather than deconstructing cinema’s past. Supposedly created as a showcase for Stratten (whose tragic death cast a pall over the film’s release), the picture instead offers a splendid ensemble, from Gazarra’s world-weary suavity and Ritter’s slapstick acuity to Hepburn’s autumnal grace and, above all, Colleen Camp’s marvelous blend of abrasion and snap. Indeed, the actress embodies the garrulous yet vulnerable charm of They All Laughed, which, for all the Hawksian ping-pong of the dialogue, is closer to the melodic élan of a Jacques Demy film, as wistful and fragile as a sand castle.



Sheila O’Malley beautifully introduces a must-read analysis of Bogdanovich’s editing and shooting devices, over at The Sheila Variations:

Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed is a gem, a minor miracle of a movie that is so delicate, so perfectly put together, and yet somehow so fragile that if you remove one element, one take even, the entire thing would unravel. It’s a whodunit, I suppose, with various characters running around New York following each other and spying on one another, but Bogdanovich seems to think that that is the secondary plot of They All Laughed, the first being just putting all of these crazy people into the same movie and seeing what would happen.


There were other elements, too: these were all Bogdanovich’s friends. He wrote the movie for each one, specifically, utilizing many of their real-life qualities and quirks. So-and-so has a bad back and was doing crazy back exercises, okay, then let’s put that in the movie. These strange details give the film a haunting (I mean that literally – the movie walks around beside me) energy, combined with the title, which is supposedly joyful but clearly in the past (“laughed”). They All Laughed has a manic screwball vibe (no one is sane, everyone is on the make, and everyone is falling in love willy-nilly), but the keen of nostalgia is at times unbearable. There’s a magic to creating that specific blend of qualities. It requires you to be very very honest. I think that’s part of the key. Honesty. Truth.


Patrick McKay for Stylus Magazine:

Essentially plotless, the film tells the meandering story of two private detectives (Cassavetes veteran Ben Gazzara and a pre-“Three’s Company” John Ritter) hired to follow two women suspected of cheating (Stratten, in her first starring role, and Audrey Hepburn, in her last ), who end up falling in love with them in the process. Throw in a joint-smoking, roller-skating fellow detective, a Linda-Ronstadt-esque country music singer, and a street-smart ex-supermodel cabbie, and you begin to understand the various quirks and digressions of this unique, improvisatory film. Shot entirely on location, it captures a New York rarely seen in movies. Bogdanovich avoided well-known locations, instead finding landmarks known only to New Yorkers—brownstone apartment buildings, marble courthouses, hip shoe stores, white sidewalks, busy street-corners. Propelled by a soundtrack that mixes country hits by Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash with pop standards (including the Gershwin-penned title tune) by Sinatra and Louie Armstrong, the film at times feels like a musical, with its long dialogue-free sequences of characters following each other, bumping into each other, watching each other through windows, falling in love.


They All Laughed is less a comedy than an extended love letter—there’s a rambling, awkward tone to the film, and in places it’s so unabashedly personal that certain viewers may flinch from the self-exposure. Ritter’s character is openly a Bogdanovich surrogate—he even wears the director’s trademark horn-rimmed glasses, and he helps Stratten escape an overbearing, jealous husband. The romance between Hepburn and Gazzara is rooted in their real-life affair, and the regret felt by Hepburn’s character references her own status as an aging star. And though the humor in the film is squarely in the neo-screwball style of What’s Up Doc—lightning-quick dialogue, pratfalls, double-takes, blink-and-you-missed it innuendo—They All Laughed, with its sudden shifts in tone and lack of conventional narrative, moves that style into the realm of the European art film. This is less a work of fiction than a scrapbook of emotions and moods, a kind of memoir-as-cinema; Annie Hall, only more vulnerable, and without the condescension.



Lawrence Levy for Stop Smiling:

Bogdanovich, who was already several flops past his early Seventies career peak, keeps the mood light and the characters in almost constant motion. His screenplay (Novak’s improvised lines earned him a co-credit) is filled with pickup lines delivered so sweetly as to make everyone a romantic. Nothing’s sleazy in this freewheeling town, and sharing a joint on the sidewalk is as innocent as a nighttime stroll. Novak’s Lothario moves and Brooklyn accent are a great comedic counterpoint to Ritter’s prissy slapstick. Camp’s rat-a-tat delivery, straight out of His Girl Friday, is mannered, but it’s funny. Hansen is relaxed and saucy, and Hepburn, in her last starring role, is as graceful as ever. Gazzara has an easy charm — even his character’s kids know him as someone with “a lot of girlfriends” — but there’s a sadness in his eyes that’s all too real. (Supposedly he and Hepburn broke off an affair before shooting began.)… Bogdanovich says it’s his favorite of all the films he’s directed, and you can see why: It’s a movie made with love.


Peter Tonguette gives some backgroundfor Senses of Cinema:

They All Laughed is a film bursting with goodwill, with a spirit of inclusiveness and a generosity which shades even the immensely sad parting of Gazzara and Hepburn which concludes the film. In his book length tribute to Stratten, 1984′s “The Killing of the Unicorn,” Bogdanovich summarised the aim of his picture with great eloquence: “If They All Laughed was going to be the way I wanted it to be, its characters would behave with politeness and good humour, there would be grace in their sadness, and stoicism in their dealings with love.” It was a film packed with family, with friends, even with coworkers. Blaine Novak was a distributor who Bogdanovich knew and liked; he wrote him into the picture. Bogdanovich’s two young daughters, Antonia and Alexandra, were cast as Gazzara’s daughters. His secretary at the time, Linda MacEwen, appears as a secretary and sometime-girlfriend of the head of the detective agency, Leon Leondopolis (George Morfogen, another longtime friend of Bogdanovich’s and also a co-producer on They All Laughed). (MacEwen’s real name was Linda Ewen, but Bogdanovich said that that was hard to pronounce and to change it to MacEwen for the film.) Sean Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn’s son, began working on the film as Bogdanovich’s assistant, but eventually wound up on screen as a friend of Stratten’s character.


Bogdanovich: “I had this idea that I wanted to do something about the romantic life: the difficulties of romance, men and women at that time in history, at that moment. And I wanted to make it in the form of a comedy that was sort of bittersweet. I wanted to use things that happened to us, to all of us, to Benny and me and whoever I knew who had been through similar kinds of ordeals in terms of romance and love.”


“I wanted to use that and make it very personal, but I decided I didn’t want it to be what didn’t exist then, but I didn’t want it to be one of those ‘artistic’ films, one of those independent films. I wanted it to be a picture for everybody that was basically a romantic comedy with a bittersweet touch. In other words, make a very personal story but within what used to be known as ‘the rules of the game’. By that I mean, you disguise your personal intentions by putting it within a genre. So basically we made it kind of a detective picture.”



Bogdanovich’s discussion of the film with director Wes Anderson:


The un-surnamed Trevor for Journey by Frame:

It seems appropriate to add that They All Laughed is virtually a perfect film, for its perfection is not merely an assertion of its value but a characteristic of the film itself. Bogdanovich, the consummate student of Hollywood’s golden age, can appear at first to display a tendency for a kind of backwards-looking, hermetic perfection. According to this theory, Bogdanovich’s updating of classic genre forms is a process of putting these living things behind glass, sealing them with a layer of coating that preserves them but also renders them inert. It’s a tempting argument to make, but I reject it. Bogdanovich here is never engaging in this kind of cinematic taxidermy, although he draws from his rich knowledge of Hollywood’s past and seems to ignore more recent formal developments. The empty stylistics and nostalgic classicism that some might attribute to Bogdanovich could seem to be no more incorrect than with regards to They All Laughed. This supposed process of looking back could be wistful and bittersweet, yes, but on the whole, it would feel rather safe, a contained and neutralized sadness. The emptiness we attribute to this style of filmmaking would seem to derive from its ignoring of deeper conflicts, for how deep can conflicts be if they can just as easily be resolved in ways handed down from the past, through aesthetic and narrative forms that have already been developed and codified? On the surface, They All Laughed resolves most of its conflicts quite happily, and for those that it cannot resolves, the potency of life’s (and love’s) bittersweet blows is something of a consolation prize (the intensity of experience substituted for the satisfaction of wish-fulfillment). But the surface of They All Laughed is one thing and its meaning is another. This is not is an accurate and realistic depiction of life in its actuality. Life is not like this, but the point is: wouldn’t it be grand, though, if it were?


What They All Laughed ultimately expresses about this world, and our world, is the necessity not just for an actual community or actual romantic partners (although these too are part of this ideal world) but for the possibility that people can be met and communities can be formed with ease. If we take for granted that these things are possible, we might, in fact, be too eager to rationalize away the challenges that frequently and repeatedly thwart our achieving these goals. In an interview with Bogdanovich about the film, the director Wes Anderson expresses his love for the film and how it depicts a place, a version of New York City, where walking down the street could instantly bring you in contact with interesting (and attractive) people with whom you could develop connections spontaneously and without difficulty. It is for this reason that, for example, an analysis of eyeline matching in the film is such a germane exercise; in this film, the character, by their very encounters and through mere looking, seem to entangle each other in a web of sociality. This is a fantasy, and it’s not far off from the fantasy depicted in many pornographic films, where people find themselves falling into sexual encounters as if by accident in a world tilted towards sexual pleasure in the same way that They All Laughed tends towards social pleasures. It also recalls the pleasure we take from television sitcoms, where we trust that there is always an endless supply of entertaining characters and situations to sustain our enjoyment and ward off our loneliness. But while They All Laughed is a fantasy, it is one borne of deeply traumatic pain; what could be more alienating and damaging to the vision expressed in the film than what Bogdanovich experienced in his affair with Stratten? This gives the film a substance and a kind of ethical muscle not found in other fantasies: we are called to acknowledge the goodness, the rightness of the world depicted in They All Laughed. And as with so many of cinema’s best fantasies, the disparity between our own world and the world depicted in the film feels, in the end, more as our own failure than the failure of a dream that should, with justice, never die.


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