They All Laughed
1981/2006Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, John Ritter, Ben Gazzara
f it’s true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives,” then Peter Bogdanovich had one of the greatest first acts in America cinema. In 1973, following the one-two-three punch of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, and Paper Moon, Bogdanovich stood at the forefront of the “New Hollywood” movement. His films won Oscars, broke box-office records, and were adored by critics. Yet today, Bogdanovich is best-known for his commentary tracks on DVDs of classic films and his guest spots on “The Sopranos.” As Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese rose to prominence, Bogdanovich faded from view amid critical indifference, commercial failure, and accusations of egomania. But in recent years there have been signs of a resurgence; Bogdanovich has become an elder statesmen for a new generation of directors, and his most recent film, 2001’s The Cat’s Meow earned him his best reviews in twenty years. And now 1981’s long out-of-print They All Laughed, his critical and commercial nadir, has been re-issued in a lavish DVD set, adorned with critical kudos from the likes of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, both fans; Tarantino’s blurb on the slipcase reads simply “a masterpiece.”
They All Laughed arrives with the baggage of a troubled past. During post-production, co-star Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband when a private investigator he’d hired discovered that she’d left him for Bogdanovich. The tragedy cast a shadow over the low-budget production, and proved traumatic for the besotted director (there are rumors that he required assistance in finishing the picture). After its unsuccessful release, the director’s career never recovered and watching the film today feels a bit like revisiting the scene of a crime; there are eerie parallels between real life events and the ostensibly fictional tale on-screen.
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.
They All Laughed is not for everyone—some viewers may grow impatient with the wandering, seemingly directionless story, and in places the film feels dated, as in an extended set piece at a roller rink, complete with post-disco pop music. And the film refuses to deliver the expected rom-com happy ending—the love here is avowedly not meant to be. But for the viewer who likes his or her humor with a spoonful of sadness, this unique, delicate film is a charming experience, every frame of it shot through with nostalgia, as if Bogdanovich tried to preserve the ephemeral, giddy first rush of falling in love by pressing it between two panes of glass, before the second act could arrive, ending all that innocence forever.
They All Laughed is now available on DVD.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2006-12-07