Not Phony: Peter Bogdanovich’s THE THING CALLED LOVE

By James Kenney

Below is an expanded version of notes written for the July 20th, 2022 screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque.

“A lot of stuff was improvised and then written down and then learned. The actors and I all worked on that endlessly. I told them I wanted to get their point of view. They were in their early twenties. I wasn’t. I wanted to know their attitudes, how they would react, how they would feel. I didn’t want it to be phony.”  Peter Bogdanovich, speaking with Peter Tonguette for Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2020)

July 16, 1999 is when Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love opened in New York City, remarkable only in that the film had originally snuck out six years earlier, in August 1993, without a New York release, just the latest in a run of high-quality commercial failures that dogged Bogdanovich after Mask’s success in 1985 (Love only tallied around 430,000 dollars on initial release against an announced 14-million-dollar budget). 

I was there on the16th, for an early afternoon show that Quentin Tarantino, without an entourage, quietly attended as well.  I had already seen the film on its home video release in 1994, and no doubt so had Tarantino, an avowed Bogdanovich fan who later put the director’s then-neglected They All Laughed on his Sight and Sound 2002 “Top 10 of all Time” poll. 

Tarantino knew it wasn’t important to see “big” films projected on the big screen; it was, and is, vital to see good films this way.

The Thing Called Love is most certainly a “good film” despite its disgraceful initial release, dropped indifferently into regional Southern U.S. theaters because of its country music angle, and then buried completely due to indecision in how to market it after one of its leads, River Phoenix, died of an overdose on a Hollywood sidewalk before the premiere. The film’s primary emphasis is on the weekly auditions for a Saturday night showcase at the legendary Bluebird Café (a real place, later made famous in television’s Nashville), here run by Lucy, played by a no-nonsense K.T. Oslin. While hanging around the Bluebird, and ultimately waitressing there, New York-native Miranda Presley falls in with three other songwriting hopefuls, the self-involved James Wright (Phoenix), Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), and Linda Lue Linden (an ascending Sandra Bullock), an unconfident but warm-hearted “Southern Belle” perhaps less talented but more giving and self-aware than the others.

Unsurprisingly for a Bogdanovich film, Love focuses less on the mechanics of the music business than on the need to become part of a like-minded community of kindred spirits. Like many of his films, such as The Last Picture Show and Saint Jack, The Thing Called Love is an unrushed exploration of friendship, romance, regret, and optimism – plot is hardly the concern. He makes what I call “gang comedies” (the term borrowed from David Mamet) — films that explore the interpersonal workings of a community, so we spend less time on contrived plot developments and more time on relationships, with plenty of time for eccentric Bogdanovichian forays such as the guy who wrote a top twenty hit the previous year but now drives a cab, the motel owner who puts song lyrics on his sign and kindly lets Miranda stay despite her attempts not to pay (and who figures prominently, eccentrically and winningly in the film’s climax, despite being a minor character), the barber who says he cut Elvis’ hair, etc.

The romantic longings, dreams, and insecurities of Nashville’s aspiring artists, and their attempts to define who they are and aren’t, is what Bogdanovich is really after, and he creates a beguiling, breathing environment, suggestive rather than explicit, at once light and serious. 

Bogdanovich always cares deeply about his characters, working here with his young actors to make them real enough you’ll wish they existed; they’ll stay with you long after Love ends. I can’t believe you won’t smile as the credits roll, Bogdanovich pulling off another one of his quietly bittersweet but optimistic finales that wisely hands itself over to the brilliant Bullock for a key moment before giving the rest of the ensemble its final bows.

Bogdanovich was not the first director on the project. Brian Gibson, who instead made the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?, was originally attached, and The Thing Called Love has certain superficial similarities with “the struggling artist or athlete makes good” archetype utilized in films good and bad such as Flashdance and Rocky that Bogdanovich is clearly fighting.  Whether this fight is what a major studio, in this case Paramount, desired, is another consideration.

Bogdanovich worked intimately with his four young leads: “[They] were closely involved in the creative process. I learned a lot from these young people. I found that their generation is in some ways guardedly romantic and in other ways practical, inquiring, not easily duped, and suspicious of going in accepted ways just because their parents did,” he explained in the film’s press materials, “And I think this is a generation with a great deal of integrity – very conscious about what selling out does to someone.”

Even as a hired hand, Bogdanovich never compromised his artistic integrity on Love, battling to cast Bullock over studio objections: she later told the Los Angeles Times “Peter fought for me, even though I was nobody to fight for and he didn’t even know me.” The film is certainly a terrific showcase for Mathis, Mulroney, Bullock and indeed the tragic Phoenix, who gives an impressive performance (both as an actor and musician) as the narcissistic but decent James: as he said upon the film’s release, “[James] is very self-centered, yet he holds a certain amount of humor which I think is a saving grace…it’s as a songwriter where his vulnerability and true soul shines.”

While top country artists supplied new songs for the soundtrack (including longtime friend Rodney Crowell, whose songs Bogdanovich featured in Texasville and They All Laughed), he also had the young leads write their own songs for the film. Bullock wrote a song called “Heaven Knocked on My Door”: “It was supposed to be a metaphorically bad song, and they were paying talented songwriters all this money to do it,” she told the Times. “I told them if they wanted a bad song, they could pay me and I’d write them a terrible song.” Phoenix composed and sang “Lone Star State of Mind,” Mulroney the same with “Someone Else’s Used Guitar.”  The film’s song score was conceived to naturally emanate from sources within scenes, a stylistic trademark of Bogdanovich: “It gives the picture more reality. I like music to be counterpoint rather than always underlining what’s happening visually.”

The Thing Called Love was an assignment, yet Bogdanovich makes it his own through his sophisticated mise en scène, allowing you to fill in bits for yourself, clearly responsive to his performers and to the Nashville milieu. You can feel how much the characters in the film enjoy hanging out, singing, and writing together, and Bogdanovich’s influence is felt in the climactic song performed by Mathis, “Big Dream” (written by Alice Randall and Ralph Murphy). As he told Peter Tonguette, referring to the song’s motif of God being female, “Nobody wanted the song.  They wanted songs that were more upbeat or more flashy. I said ‘You know, when an audience first hears a song, they’re not going to love it. It takes time to get to know a song and to get familiar with a song. So it has to be something that’s a little surprising and a little revolutionary in the lyric, not so much the tune. It has to be something a little shocking or a little controversial.”

A film of delightful little moments and eccentric curlicues, about connection and community, The Thing Called Love will sneak up on you. Michael Wilmington, distressed by the film’s meager release, wrote an eloquent defense of it in 1994 for the Chicago Tribune: “The best things about The Thing Called Love are its cast, style and mood. It has a snap, pace and rhythm we don’t ordinarily see in today’s movies. The dialogue scenes have a headlong pace and crackling self-confidence reminiscent of Howard Hawks, and the three- and four-way love combats recall Ernst Lubitsch. At its best, The Thing Called Love has the inner life and brash stylization of a movie like To Have and Have Not….The Thing Called Love, which may just have been too smart for its early test audiences, is a movie without alibis.” It should also be noted that there is a director’s cut available for Love at this point; while the original film wasn’t taken away from him, the slightly longer director’s cut does reincorporate some very likeable bits, including a more memorable introduction to Bullock and extends some musical performances, but the theatrical version was not disowned by Bogdanovich or anything of that sort.

The Thing Called Love is not Peter Bogdanovich’s most personal film, but any film that has a couple of songwriters sitting in the back of a pickup truck trying to write a song based on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is clearly a Bogdanovich picture. I think back to the Book of Ecclesiastes when considering Bogdanovich’s impressive latter day work, made without the control or status he once held: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Once handed the assignment, Bogdanovich fought for what was right from the beginning (Bullock’s casting) to the end (Mathis’ climactic song). Anyone who didn’t catch up with Love in 1993 should make the effort now, as the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that while the box-office diminished for latter Bogdanovich works, his talent did not.

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