Moving Pictures
Apr 06, 2021, 06:29AM

Treasure and Death

Melancholy fantasies of what once was and what can never be in Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed (1981).

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“Keep it right here, Sam.”

“Sam who?”

“Oh, that’s your name.”

“My name’s Deborah.”

“That’s why I called you Sam.”

“Makes sense.”

“I’ll take a tangerine, you give me a butt.”

“What are you, a cop?”

“What, do I look like a cop?”

“Could be, my brother was a cop, so?”

“So, your brother was a cop. Take a drive up here, will you, Sam?”

“Okay, boss.”

“Who’s your friend with the beard? You in the mafia or something?”

“You smoke too much.”

“Doing a lot better. Used to be three packs. Your friend with the beard is weird. I don’t finish a pack now.”

“Too much.”

“I know.”

“Goddamn things are killing people.”

“I gotta stop.”

“Yeah, I stopped.”

“Your friend, you don’t smoke, don’t like music…”


“You weird like your friend with the beard?”

“Me? Oh no, Sam, me, I’m a charmer. Get off up here.”

“I’d like to.”

“Oh, Sam!

Me? Working? Never. I’ll tell you my dream of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1981 dream, They All Laughed.

Out of the Powell Building down Franklin Street just a few blocks to 33 Thomas St., the beautiful brutalist building I grew up under that, apparently, is also called TITANPOINTE, a major hub of the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations. That building will be here until the entire island sinks into the sea. But from a stroller, they stood guard over us, always looking out and under. The Twin Towers were there, the biggest and most immediate landmarks in the city, gleaming silver in the sun streaming in through our window in the second apartment at Hudson and Duane.

They were always there and always will be. That was Rodney Crowell, and now real quick here’s another newcomer doing very well, and I hear she’s a New Yorker, Christy Miller, “Kentucky Nights”... 

Chantal Akerman, when asked why she filmed so many movies in cities, said, “it was the lines—they made it so easy.” New York City is one of the most photographed places on the planet, and Akerman’s own News From Home is a beautiful document of the city, not because of its long takes or its fidelity to the filth of mid-1970s Lower Manhattan, but because it so successfully conveys the vast and enveloping loneliness of living in the city.

You are surrounded by impossibly tall buildings made of granite and glass that guard its islands’ inhabitants. They are immovable, like the grand adobe formations of Monument Valley, or the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In the final shot of News From Home, an uninterrupted 11 minutes on the ferry from Battery Park to Staten Island, Akerman’s camera pulls back from these dense, dark structures, pulsing with human lives unseen. These buildings are beyond imposing—they are the “earth” of the city. The Twin Towers appear, and eventually disappear into the overcast sky, still guarding the island, silver sentinels. The ferry pulls farther and farther away, until the Towers are buried in the clouds, and the movie ends, running out on several frames of unexposed film.

Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed, shot just four years later in the summer of 1980, has no clouds nor rain nor garbage nor misery nor death.

It ends with the following title card over a shot of the East River: “We thank the people of Manhattan, on whose island this picture was filmed.” The river is a crystalline blue, completely unreal—They All Laughed is super-saturated: warm, expansive, and always inviting.

This is a fantasy of New York, where everything is shiny and everyone is in love and all of the lights are red and the taxis are bright, bright yellow and the sky and the rivers are sparkling blue. This is a New York that exists only in the unconscious minds of blissful dreaming natives, where the geography is ingrained—in They All Laughed, everything is as it should be and yet something is off, different, hard to make out. The way the soundtrack is mixed gives as much emphasis to passing cars, pedestrians, and construction crews as the dialogue spoken by its stars. Lines dip in and out, either obscured by jackhammers or music. Bach rubs up against country songs, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. Christy, where’d you find those shoes? They’re very unattractive.

Bill Weber—a man I corresponded with every day for years and never met—made me want to see this movie: “Tried to watch the first 20 minutes of They All Laughed. I didn’t.”

They All Laughed stars Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, and Dorothy Stratten. It co-stars Colleen Camp, Patti Hansen, George Morfogen, Blaine Novak, Sean Ferrer, and Linda MacEwen. It was shot by Robby Müller (Paris, Texas; Repo Man; To Live and Die in L.A.—all in 1984-5), and produced by George Morfogen and Blaine Novak. Peter Bogdanovich wrote and directed the movie, in his words, “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.” At the time, he was separated from Cybill Shepherd and madly in love with Stratten, only 20 and just recently named Playboy Playmate of the Year. This is the movie he made for her.

Johnny Russo (Gazzara), Charles Rutledge (Ritter), Arthur Brodsky (Novak), Leon Leondopolous (Morfogen), and Amy Lester (MacEwen) make up the Odyssey Detective Agency (“We rarrrrely sleep”) at 120 Wall St., and they’ve been hired by the husband of Angela Niotes (Hepburn) to keep track of her—that’s all. Like so much in They All Laughed, Mr. Niotes’ motives are unspoken, and he’s never heard unobscured. All sinister motives and moves are left to be intuited through hand signals, code words, and laughable attempts to “trail” Hepburn.  To think with hands: besides their espionage, the players constantly make gestures, signs, and symbols with their hands, always filling the scene with bits of business. Communication beyond speech—simple, but for when words fail…

There are no murders or blowout arguments in They All Laughed—everyone falls in love with each other, including interlopers Ferrer, Hansen, and country star Christy Miller (Camp).

And of course Stratten’s Dolores Martin, the one true love of Bogdanovich’s stand-in Charles Rutledge (Ritter), whose last name is almost certainly a reference to John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, a surname the director used almost as often as “Quincannon.” Andrew Sarris’ assessment of Ford in The American Cinema—“a [miraculous] double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and yet also in its ultimate memory image on the horizon of history”—fits here. This double projection of a perfect, naive fantasy with a sober and stoic acknowledgment that real life exists outside the frame defines They All Laughed, but not by design. Bogdanovich shot no extra material and cut in camera, so when Stratten was murdered a few weeks after filming wrapped, her role could not be expanded and the mood of the film could not be altered. It was as it is.

Dorothy Stratten’s death is unavoidable going into They All Laughed, her final film, because it opens with the title card “THE COMPANY DEDICATES THIS PICTURE TO DOROTHY STRATTEN,” blue over black. Even if you have no idea what happened, that’s an ominous dedication for a woman clearly in the prime of her life. But all of that evaporates as soon as the movie starts, and time begins again. From the Manhattan Bridge, we see the Financial District and the Twin Towers as “Back in the Country” plays, and it makes sense. Zero irony. They All Laughed exists in a space outside of time, and if you believe in it enough, it isn’t fixed or static—love without an installment plan.

They All Laughed is full of these clashing elements: a romantic comedy with no plot, a city movie full of country songs, Beethoven running up against car horns, bluegrass, and Johnny Cash, atypical in its intent to avoid anything negative in its characters or their environment—while wearing mourning wreaths it never asked for or expected.

Deborah (Patti Hansen) is driving the cab, her chain-smoking straining her passenger’s patience and blood pressure. Leon sits in the back, pulling at his collar and cracking the window to get some air, an early anti-smoker in the summer of 1980. Hansen’s attempt at an American accent sounds like Conker from Conker’s Bad Fur Day (not a bad thing).

She drops off Leon without a word, the camera dollying in as she grabs another cigarette. You take a tangerine, I’ll take a butt. She picks up Johnny, and they have the exchange at the top.  In the background, we hear Christy Miller singing on the radio, her song “Kentucky Nights” cutting in and out as the cab drives up to 22nd St. between 1st and 2nd. Jagged halves of melodic phrases burst out of the cab as it passes and we’re left with the soft cacophony of New York. 

The entire ensemble is essential. But Colleen Camp deserves a few words for her astonishing performance as Christy Miller, the famous country singer from New York.

Camp’s stentorian delivery, mile-a-minute speech, and brilliant physical acting are some of the most joyous and brilliant elements in They All Laughed: she has the sublime combination of brash confidence and total obliviousness of Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Lucille Ball in Stage Door. She acts with her entire body. Walking around with Charles and Harold (her dog) in 1980 New York, a country star only occasionally asked for autographs, able to mind her own business in Manhattan—something John Lennon would only be able to pull off for another few months. Death looms around They All Laughed, but more about its treasures.

We first meet Christy Miller at City Limits in Midtown (now Music Box, another chain). She’s on stage—Camp is actually singing live in these scenes, filmed with multiple cameras—and she sees Johnny walk in. Her rendition of “Kentucky Nights” becomes more and more insistent and over the top, and when it’s done she rushes off stage and screams at him, “You’re a SHIT!

She reads him the riot act in her dressing room: “I for one am SICK and TIRED, honey, SICK AND TIRED. I’m not gonna be another one of your lays, passes, trembling at the thought of you, willing to put up with any kind of maltreatment just for the GLORIOUS opportunity of spending a GLORIOUS night with you, once in a week, once in a blue moon, no sir, not by a long shot, honey—UH-UH! No way!

They kiss.

    “Unfortunately, honey, you’re some kisser. And you’re very mean to me.”

    “Very mean. What you need is a nice guy: watches every set, has drinks waiting for you in the dressing room, rubs your feet at night, sprays your throat, tells you how terrific you are, makes eggs in the morning.”

    “You made eggs—once.”

    “Yeah, I burned them.”

    “I thought they were delicious.”

Johnny: “I gotta run.” Christy: “Why, you got a DATE?” Arthur walks into the dressing room, killing the moment. Christy is immediately suspicious. Arthur starts speaking and she finishes his sentence: “‘We’ve got a little prahhhhblem!’” 

Charles and Arthur follow Dolores into a roller rink—full of rainbow lights and beautiful, happy people having a glorious, carefree night in the city. This city has never existed, and if you try to describe it will dissolve in your hands—no matter, because like dreams, it’s a New York more true than real—a Manhattan as it should be, with Dorothy Stratten still alive and the Twin Towers still standing. The perfect city. We only get a glimpse of this utopia through a few days in the lives of the members of the Odyssey Detective Agency, their friends, and their lovers. Yet the city never feels like it stops with them. You return to They All Laughed to find more, to spend more time in that city.

Jesse Hawthorne in Bill Teck’s One Day Since Yesterday (2014): “You want to study They All Laughed, you want to see it multiple times […] It’s hyper-cinema.”

Even in that documentary, which covers Bogdanovich’s career but focuses on the making of They All Laughed, people involved and fans of the film—including Noah Baumbach, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and superb critics like Todd McCarthy and Sheila O’Malley—all have a hard time articulating exactly what it is that makes They All Laughed so special. I do, too—every time I try to sell this movie, I come up short. You take a tangerine, I’ll take a butt.

Another bit: Charles and Arthur follow Dolores and Jose to the Algonquin Hotel, fumbling and giving each other crude hand signals and barely avoiding Dolores’ attention. As they sneak around the Algonquin like cartoon characters, Dolores goes in, and as Charles enters behind her, he exclaims, seemingly astonished, “It’s a hotel!” Later on, he becomes so flummoxed by Christy’s aggressive sexual advances that he almost loses the ability to think:

    “You’re looking very sexy today, Charles.”

    “I am? Um, well I’m running late is all…”

    “You mean you always look sexy when you’re running late? I guess I’ll have to keep you tardy…”    

Later, after Christy has coaxed him into her apartment, she offers him a cigarette (“Thought I don’t approve”), and lights it for him with a footlong flame. She plays her own album for him as she tries to give him a “touch assist” after he says he’s not feeling well. “It’ll make you feel like a cloud in pants.” They end up in bed, but they just kiss with their clothes on, and when Christy moves below the belt, Charles is adamant: “Nah, nah, nah, none of that.” Besides the reversed gender dynamics—typical of a Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch film—They All Laughed stridently avoids the lurid for the lush, always in praise of love. If you’re on a crush high when you first see it, infatuation is inevitable. In They All Laughed, love is infinite.

They All Laughed is also an exceptionally composed film, with some of the best work of Müller’s career (besides those previously mentioned, he also shot Bogdanovich’s prior film Saint Jack, along with Dead Man, Mystery Train, Barfly, 24 Hour Party People, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and most of Wim Wenders’ movies). Pay attention to how long the shots last: entire scenes play out in two or three setups, allowing the actors to actually perform, rather than pose, in wide and medium shots. Close-ups, deployed sparingly, are all the more powerful as a result. There is no better example in modern cinema of the economy of visual storytelling than They All Laughed—someone told Bogdanovich at the time that, “this movie is so new!” He thought to himself: no it’s not, it’s not new at all, it’s silent movies.

With so many other windows on the world, why this one? Why this dream? Because, Brodsky—Life is as it should be in this movie. Everyone’s alive, happy, and in love. The earth is a beautiful place and no one will ever die. Nothing will come out of the sky except the sun, the moon, the rain, and the birds. Their time will come.

    “The waterfront of New York—the end of many journeys, the beginning of many adventures.” —Opening intertitle (by Jules Furthman) of Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928)

They All Laughed begins and ends on a heliport downtown, looking out at the East River as the Niotes family land and liftoff. Johnny says goodbye, and Angela cries in close-up. They’re both wet. 

Roller-skates, hot dogs, a very large orange juice, kisses, and endless cigarettes. It is the ultimate “melancomedy”—a film in love with its sadness, precious and manageable, because without it there would be none of this ecstasy, this romance, this love. Are you Greek? Earlier, Johnny and Angela meet for one night (covered in one close-up), and as they approach the Plaza, Angela says, “That’s where I turn into a pumpkin.” The dream is almost over.

    But the day will come when all my dreams become reality…

Angela flies away, Johnny and Leon leave, and on the soundtrack Christy Miller finishes singing “One Day Since Yesterday,” a phrase that Stratten wrote on a postcard and sent to Bogdanovich after their first kiss. They had luggage. Earl Poole Ball (featured in the movie playing keys) wrote the music, and Bogdanovich wrote the lyrics: “Was it just one day since yesterday / When it all began?”

Things go so fast—but I’m sexy when I’m running late.

This piece has been excerpted from the April 2021 issue of The Servant.

Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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