“Gone is the romance that was so divine.” Thus reads the promo slogan for The Great Gatsby, so it must be true. But Peter Bogdanovich, 34, the scholarly director with three successive film hits (the latest: Paper Moon), never got the word. He left his wife and two children for his discovery and star in The Last Picture Show, model Cybill Shepherd, now 24. That was three years ago, and they are still together, unmarried but grandly playing house in a Bel Air mansion once owned by Clark Gable’s widow.
They flaunt their relationship, but in the unfettered 1970s it sometimes plays like a passé and poor man’s Bergman and Rossellini. “We don’t think about living together,” explains Cybill, “we do it. That’s better than being in parentheses, which happens when you’re married.” Then, she emotes, as if reading from a column: “Also attending were the Peter Bogdanoviches (actress Cybill Shepherd). My mother said to me, ‘I understand, I don’t mind if you live in sin.'” With that home-front support, Cybill proclaims, “We have absolutely no thoughts of being married,” and Peter condemns the very question as “a chilling thought. Does she look like Mrs. Bogdanovich?”
Currently, the couple is in a rather manic, self-promoting and self-indulgent period of their intimacy. At the Academy Awards ceremonies, Oscar presenter Shepherd coyly botched film titles to plug Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, as well as their own Last Picture Show. Right now, they are on a massive nationwide campaign to build the box office of their next two collaborations. The first, an adaptation of Henry James’s Daisy Miller, is, from advance word-of-mouth, one of Peter’s lesser works and, for Cybill, a well-played rerun of her Great-American-tease roles from Picture Show and Heartbreak Kid, but this time in 1870s’ bustle. “If Henry James wrote such a good part for Cybill,” Peter quipped, “why shouldn’t I film it?” Simultaneously, Shepherd is flogging a rather hokey Bogdanovich-produced first album, Cybill Does It…To Cole Porter.
Bogdanovich and Shepherd came together with all the plausibility of Bridget and Bernie. The son of an immigrant Serbian artist, Peter was a driven kid more stimulated by theater and film (“Citizen Kane changed everything”) than high school. So, though he never graduated, by 19 Bogdanovich had produced and directed an off-Broadway play. He hustled his way into a series of Esquire articles and Museum of Modern Art film retrospectives on his director idols. He also wrote definitive books on Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. Moving to Los Angeles in 1964, he got his directing start with Roger Corman’s bike movie The Wild Angels. In 1968, backed by Corman, he made Targets, an original and underrated horror film about a sniper. Then, at 31, came Last Picture Show.
Cybill, a stereotypically wholesome, all-American blond beauty, was meanwhile advancing from Miss Teenage Memphis to Model of the Year to 17 covers of Glamour and a flop screen test for French director Roger Vadim. Peter discovered her, or her face, in a supermarket. As he recalls, “There was this girl staring at me from the cover of Glamour. I did a double take.” She was the fresh, new look he needed for Picture Show.
Their first meeting was not too promising, as Peter remembers it. “Cybill sat on the floor and seemed totally bored. I asked her what she did, and she said that she went to college and that she liked to read. I asked her who her favorite author was and she said Dostoevsky. Then, when I asked which of his books she liked best, she said, after a long pause, ‘Well, I can’t think of anything right now.’ However, Cybill was toying with the flowers in a vase, and there was something so casually destructive about it, it seemed to imply the kind of woman who doesn’t mean to be cruel to men, but who is.”
Cybill got the part despite their differences over the nude swimming scene (Cybill gave in and did it, but rather chastely). Peter says they were “chummy” by the time the movie was three-fourths finished. (Polly Piatt, Peter’s wife of the previous 10 years and the talented production designer of the picture, gamely and professionally stayed on through that film and his next, Paper Moon, though Cybill was frequently present.) “We didn’t know what we really felt,” Cybill now recalls. She had never had a serious love before and went home to Memphis “to have some time to think. It took about three weeks.” Cybill moved to California in January 1971 and into Peter’s life for good. (He and Polly were divorced last December.)
After acquiring Kay Gable’s estate, they rattled around with no furniture for months, showing movies almost nightly in the huge empty living room. Finally, now, they are beginning to furnish the place and are building a new wing for the visits of Peter’s two girls, ages 6 and 3. One change in the house has already been completed. When they bought it the dazzling tile floors were covered with wall-to-wall carpet. It was removed. “Peter was so romantic,” Cybill remembers. “When he walked into the living room and saw the tile, he said, ‘As Valentino used to say, there’s nothing like tile for tangoing.’ ” “And Cybill tangoed,” Peter recalls. “I thought I should,” she smiled.