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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Nickelodeon': New version of Peter Bogdanovich's valentine to Old Hollywood

April 13, 2009 |  7:00 am

Largely unseen since its release in 1976, Peter Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon" makes its first-ever appearance on DVD next week, arriving in a Sony double-feature DVD package with the director's much-lionized "The Last Picture Show," the classic 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel that earned eight Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. (Bogdanovich was up for best director, but lost to Billy Friedkin, who won for "The French Connection.") "Nickelodeon" was a flop. In fact, coming on the heels of "At Long Last Love," an even more spectacular failure, it marked the beginning of the end of Bogdanovich's reign as one of the celebrated young raging bulls of 1970s Hollywood.

Nickelodeon_ver2 Still, "Nickelodeon" is worth seeing as a curiosity piece, since much of its narrative derives from stories that Bogdanovich -- a film journalist before he turned to directing -- culled from interviews with such pioneering silent film directors as Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh and Leo McCarey, who went on to make big Hollywood hits in the 1930s and 1940s. The DVD release also allows us to see the film as Bogdanovich originally intended -- in a black-and-white director's cut that includes five minutes of footage cut from the original version of the film. 

It must have been a promising commercial idea at the time -- a film that would recapture the brazen comic energy of silent-movie Hollywood, with a cast that included such stars (of the time) as Burt Reynolds, Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Stella Stevens and the very young John Ritter. But the reviews were lousy and the movie's box-office performance was even worse.

What went wrong? As in most chapters from Hollywood history, it depends on who you ask. I spoke to Bogdanovich the other day, who offered one version of the story, a version that is oh-so-very different from the one that the film's producer, Irwin Winkler, recalled in a separate interview.

Who should we believe? And what do their answers reveal about the myth that has grown up around the excesses of '70s filmmakers? Keep reading:

The Bogdanovich version: The director says that Columbia Pictures chief David Begelman refused to let him make the movie he wanted to make. "I had to make too many terrible compromises," Bogdanovich told me. "I wanted to do it in black-and-white, but Begelman refused. I wanted Ryan O'Neal's part to be played by John Ritter, I wanted Burt Reynolds' part to be played by Jeff Bridges and I wanted Jane Hitchcock's part to be played by Cybill Shepherd. I had to give in to Begelman, so by the time I started shooting, the movie was already compromised. There were just too many things I regretted having to do that hurt the film."

Bogdanovich still doesn't understand why Begelman refused to let the film be shot in black-and-white, especially since it was made not long after a number of filmmakers had enjoyed b&w hits, notably Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," Bob Fosse's "Lenny" and Bogdanovich's own "The Last Picture Show."

"The whole idea was to capture the era, since obviously the original films were shot in black and white," he says. "My cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, carefully lit everything to accommodate black-and-white, which is why the lighting looks so good. We used a lot of the techniques of the silent era, irising in and out of scenes. There are no opticals at all in the film. But all the studio wanted was another broad comedy like [his 1972 hit] 'What's Up, Doc?' "

The Winkler version: Best known as a producer of "Rocky" (which came out the same year as "Nickelodeon,") "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas," Winkler was already a veteran producer by the time he found himself with a hot script in hand by W.D. (Rick) Richter, who went on to write films for Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand ("All Night Long") and Robert Redford ("Brubaker"). "It was a great script called 'Stardust Memories,' " Winkler told me. "We sold it right away to Begelman, who went after Bogdanovich to direct it because Peter was the hot guy of the moment."

Bogdanovich was so hot that when a meeting was set up, the director didn't come to the studio, the studio chief had to come to him. As Winkler recalls: "He made David come to his office and wait until the receptionist said, 'Mr. Bogdanovich will see you now.' As soon as we came inside, we were very haughtily told that he thought the script was a piece of [garbage]. I'd been around long enough to know that I should take that as a bad sign. I remember coming out of the meeting, saying, 'David, why should we make the movie with someone who hates our script?' And all David said was, 'Hey, he's a genius.' "

Winkler says Bogdanovich proceeded to entirely rewrite the script. "What he filmed had nothing to do with the original script. I know it meant a lot to Peter to have all of the authentic stories about the silent period in the film, but Rick's script, authentic or not, was terrific. It was just a great drama. By the time Peter was done with it, it was authentic, but it wasn't dramatic anymore. Peter hadn't really experienced any failure yet -- we hired him before 'At Long Last Love' had come out -- so he was easily the most arrogant person I'd ever met in the business, before or since. When we shot the picture, he actually directed some of the scenes on horseback. When I asked him why he was on horseback, he said, "Because that's the way John Ford did it.' "

After Bogdanovich had finished editing the picture, Winkler and his producing partner, Robert Chartoff, went to the director's Bel-Air mansion to see his cut of the film. "It was atrocious. I guess we must have made our feelings known, because I remember Bogdanovich's mother, who was apparently living at the mansion at the time, coming in and saying, 'Don't listen to these people. They're the same kind of men who ruined your father.' I have no idea to this day what she meant," say Winkler. "But for Peter to blame the movie's failure on the casting and not being in black-and-white is a really terrible excuse for a guy who simply screwed up a really terrific script."

So what really went wrong with "Nickelodeon?" When it comes to Hollywood history, there are always at least two sides to every story. You'll have to decide for yourself which one to believe -- at least until someone comes forward a whole new version of events.

Here's a scene from "Nickelodeon" that captures a little of the flavor of the picture. The sequence where Ryan O'Neal gets back on schedule by tossing away five pages from the script is taken from a John Ford anecdote about doing the same thing on one of his early films: