Last year, when I assembled a list of movies well worth streaming despite their low Rotten Tomatoes scores, I would have included Peter Bogdanovich’s musical “At Long Last Love,” from 1975, but it wasn’t (and still isn’t) available on any service. Now, however, it’s back—on the big screen, as part of a Bogdanovich retrospective at the Quad Cinema. It is a blazingly original masterwork—and its originality, of a distinctive sort, is part of the reason for its blinkered rejection at the time of its release (including in The New Yorker, by Pauline Kael).
“At Long Last Love” is Bogdanovich’s “Ishtar” or “Heaven’s Gate,” repudiated by critics as literal as lawyers for its extravagant display of style at a moment in cinematic history when style was often mistakenly taken to be a gaudy mask for the absence of substance. Bogdanovich crafted a modernistic refraction of the classic Hollywood musical, extending its range of techniques and themes in meticulous and bold ways that were derided as misguided nostalgia.
The film is a romantic comedy, set in 1935, in a glossy re-creation of New York City rendered in various shades of white and black, cold and solid chrome and glass, and huge and reckless mirrors that get dragged into the action. The intersecting romances involve an heiress, Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd), a.k.a. Brookski, whose money has dried up, and who meets, at a racetrack, an Italian gambler called Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete), who’s a victim of fickle fortune. There’s also an heir named Michael Oliver Pritchard, a.k.a. Mopsie (Burt Reynolds, whose money is entirely intact, and a chanteuse named Kathy Krumm, a.k.a. Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn), whom he bumps into, literally, on his way home at sunrise. The couples intersect at Kitty’s show, where Kitty and Brooke rekindle a childhood friendship, and the two couples—along with Mike’s punctilious butler, Rodney (John Hillerman), a.k.a. Rod (“That is the diminutive”), and Brooke’s bumptious maid, Beth (Eileen Brennan), go out for a night, and a day, and a night on the town, in the course of which yet-newer passions and partnerships are formed.
The music is by Cole Porter—a songload by the truckload, with the lyrics taking much of the place and time usually devoted to dialogue. Almost the entire film is composed of production numbers, whether for one actor alone, duets or trios or quartets staged among astonished crowds, or even an exhilarating sextet version of “Friendship” unleashed in the close quarters of Mopsie’s Rolls-Royce. What’s more, the performances—following on the manner of musicals in the earliest days of talking pictures—are delivered by the actors live on-set, not dubbed or lip-synched, captured in long and intricate takes of elaborate choreography and a widely, wildly roving camera that simultaneously emphasizes the artifice of the staging and the virtually documentary recording of the actors’ theatrical artistry.
Which is to say that “At Long Last Love” is a lavish feast of performance; for that matter, like many great movies, it defines a mode of performance. Shepherd, one of the great (and grossly underrated) comedic performers of the era, seemingly defines the notion of movie charisma in terms of a wink, a glance, a move, a step, an inflection that seems like the total and personal reinvention of the utterly familiar. Kahn, a true trouper, plays one with a hearty and lived-in flair—and so does the singer-songwriter Del Prete, who takes the unctuousness out of the stereotype of the slick Continental, and Brennan, who takes the vulgarity out of the archetype of the fast-talking, hard-nosed maid (and replaces it with modern erotic frankness). There’s also the reminiscent performance by Mildred Natwick, as Mike’s mother, Mabel; in John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” she memorably played a sharp-witted eminence, and does so here as well. And Reynolds—he’s gleefully game. His singing is approximate, often closer to patter, and his dancing is a half-beat from the elephantine, and he’s well aware throughout that his “A” is for effort—he seems to be watching himself keep up, and to do so with a sense of wonder that’s both in keeping with Mike’s jovial character and that bursts infectiously through the screen.
The movie is filled with the performers’ sheer joy in creation; when Brooke and Mike take a dip in his pool, the characters’ antics and laughter seem like Shepherd and Reynolds, unplanned and mutually surprising, on a playdate. Reynolds, crooning into the morning light while standing on the running board of his whizzing car, seems to be having the time of his life. Bogdanovich comes up with stage business to inspire them, as with Mike’s calamitous post-hangover shave (done in a set of mirrors echoing to infinity) and Brooke’s cucumber facial (as well as Beth’s hung-over effort to prepare it). He also comes up with a comprehensive method of embracing their onscreen presence, relying not only on insistently extended takes but also a soundtrack of thuds and thwacks and footsteps that mixes the sweet comedy of the accidentally recorded into the melodic and literary swirl of Porter’s world.
Using live performances of the songs—more than a dozen, familiar and less so—as a variety of dialogue, Bogdanovich trims and sculpts their substance to yield a wide range of emotions in high style, from giddiness and exhilaration to disillusionments, regrets, and dangerous longings. There’s a pang of impending menace to a rendition à quatre of “A Picture of Me Without You,” and Shepherd’s performance of “I Get a Kick Out of You” as a melancholy waltz uninflected by its familiar jazzy swagger is as much a musical revelation as an emotional one. The ending, of a profound, worldly bittersweetness (centered on the women’s decisive romantic and erotic authority) that rises on a dance floor and is amplified orchestrally in colossal mirrors, tips its hat toward that of another film maudit, Charlie Chaplin’s last, “A Countess from Hong Kong,” in which turbulent romantic passion is gracefully contained in a taut ballroom dance.
One of the great cinematic divides among filmmakers whose inclinations are classical distinguishes the Hitchcockian from the Hawksian. Hitchcock’s realm is that of the creative energy of male lust; Hawks’s is the creative energy of female desire. Hitchcock was afraid of the power of women; Hawks celebrated it. Hitchcock was excited by dress-up games while seeing them as adornments of an inner naked self, a confessional self. For Hawks, there’s no underlying essence: identity is inseparable from persona, essence is inseparable from action—and from appearance, which is why his films reflect the existential paradox that their tough-minded ethos is inseparable from exquisite style.
Bogdanovich—who, as a critic in the early nineteen-sixties, was one of the crucial advocates of both filmmakers’ work as cornerstones of modern art—is one of the great Hawksians. (His 1972 comedy, “What’s Up, Doc?,” was an explicit revision of Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby.”) In “At Long Last Love” Bogdanovich points, in the freely expressive and newly uninhibited mid-seventies, toward the liberations of artifice, costume, makeup, social roles, and social role-playing, to the acknowledgment of a cosplay society in which identity is inseparable from performance and artifice is understood as an integral aspect of human nature. (That’s one reason that Bogdanovich is a crucial cinematic reference in films by such contemporaries as Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola.) Bogdanovich displays no nostalgia for the nineteen-thirties or for classic-era Hollywood movies, but shows how pop archetypes can be revived and revised for the purpose of aesthetic delight, emotional amplification, and psychological insight. His film is a high-toned (and high-budget) model and forerunner of remix culture.