‘Daisy Miller,’ Once Dismissed as Embarrassing Vanity Project, Is the Equal to ‘Last Picture Show’

Reader, you have been lied to! Film history is littered with unfairly maligned classics, whether critics were too eager to review the making of rather than the finished product, or they suffered from underwhelming ad campaigns or general disinterest. Let’s revise our takes on some of these films from wrongheaded to the correct opinion.

In 1972, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, and William Friedkin were three of the hottest directors in Hollywood thanks to finding the sweet spot between art and box office with “The Last Picture Show,” “The Godfather,” and “The French Connection,” respectively. With their newfound clout, the young auteurs formed The Directors Company, a partnership based at Paramount, where they were given complete creative freedom to make anything they wanted as long as they worked within modest budgets. The first movie the deal yielded, “Paper Moon,” was a hit, Bogdanovich’s third in a row after “Picture Show” and “What’s Up, Doc?”; then came Coppola’s “The Conversation,” a great movie that turned out to have very limited popular appeal, and a month later Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller” came out to mixed reviews and zero box office. Before Friedkin even made a movie under the deal, The Directors Company was dead.

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Bogdanovich’s post-“Paper Moon” oeuvre has undergone overdue reappraisal in recent years thanks to filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson championing “They All Laughed” and Criterion releasing the director’s 1990 masterpiece “Texasville” in his preferred cut, but it’s been hard to shake the conventional wisdom as codified in Peter Biskind’s entertaining (in terms of gossip) but moronic (in terms of critical insight) tome “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: that after those three early 1970s triumphs Bogdanovich stalled out both creatively and commercially and never really recovered. Biskind and others have made the argument that “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?,” and “Paper Moon” were practically co-directed by Bogdanovich’s first wife, Polly Platt, the production designer on all three films, and that once she stopped working with Bogdanovich the quality of his work took a steep decline.

One doesn’t have to downplay Platt’s undeniably important contributions to Bogdanovich’s early films (including his debut feature, “Targets”) to acknowledge that this thesis is patently absurd; all it takes is a close look at the movie that allegedly marked the beginning of Bogdanovich’s decline, “Daisy Miller.” A period piece based on Henry James’ novella about the unfulfilled romance between two Americans in Europe in the late 1800s, it’s Bogdanovich’s fifth nearly perfect film in a row and every bit the equal of the more widely beloved works that preceded it. That its reputation has always been somewhat tainted (in spite of a handful of positive reviews upon release) has less to do with its actual quality than with the press and public’s perception of Bogdanovich’s personal life at the time — as well as with the need for Biskind and other lazy journalists to shoehorn the director’s complicated trajectory into a simplistic, easily digestible narrative.

When Bogdanovich cast Cybill Shepherd in the title role as a precocious tourist, they were a famous couple; the director had fallen for his leading lady while shooting “The Last Picture Show,” breaking up his marriage to Platt, and the photogenic couple became fixtures on magazine covers and the talk show circuit — steadily turning public opinion against them as they came off as just a bit too arrogant, pretty, and happy for their own good. Platt kept working with Bogdanovich after their divorce but drew the line at “Daisy Miller”; one of the conditions of her accepting the jobs on “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon” was that she’d never have to be around Shepherd, a dictate Bogdanovich obeyed. Initially, Bogdanovich planned to act in “Daisy Miller” opposite Shepherd and have Orson Welles direct the film, but Welles’ demurral saved him from attracting even more bad press than “Daisy Miller” eventually received. Instead, Bogdanovich cast Barry Brown as Shepherd’s love interest and directed the movie himself, creating one of the most beautiful — both aesthetically and philosophically — American films of its era.

DAISY MILLER, Cybill Shepherd, Director Peter Bogdanovich, 1974.
Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of ‘Daisy Miller’Courtesy Everett Collection

Amazingly, literary adaptations of the sort “Daisy Miller” represented were relatively rare in the early 1970s; 25 years later, they would become a staple of the Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics-dominated era of art-house filmmaking, but Bogdanovich was working in relative isolation when he made this tragedy of manners. A tragedy, it should be noted, that’s very, very funny; in fact, for most of its running time “Daisy Miller” is essentially a character-driven romantic comedy along the lines of Bogdanovich’s hero Ernst Lubitsch. What’s miraculous about the film is the way its emotional impact sneaks up on you, as Bogdanovich slowly reveals the real subject of the film: the obliviousness of men when it comes to women and how the small mistakes caused by that obliviousness can lead to tragic developments that are as impossible to predict as they are to reverse.

The film consists of a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications between Brown and Shepherd’s characters that Bogdanovich relays to the audience with astonishing subtlety. Bogdanovich shoots most of the movie in intricate long takes where the action is photographed at a slight distance and with minimal edits; there are many, many dialogue sequences between large ensembles that play unbroken for minutes at a time, a device that gives the impression that Bogdanovich is leaving it up to the audience to make up their own minds about the characters. This is true, to an extent; the movie lacks the manipulation of a more edit-heavy film, as the audience is free to look around the frame at whoever and whatever they choose. Yet Bogdanovich is constantly guiding our eye through both the intersection of the camera’s movement with that of the actors and a sophisticated use of reflective surfaces that pull our attention exactly where the director wants it. He’s in complete control of what we’re watching but gives us the illusion of freedom — an appropriate allegory for the situation in which James’ characters, imprisoned by custom and their understanding (or misunderstanding) of the social mores of their time, find themselves.

The real impact of the long takes lies not in their intrinsic value but in their contrast with the moments in the film when Bogdanovich chooses to depart from the style in favor of more conventional close-ups, though conventional is really the wrong word here because Bogdanovich’s use of them is anything but familiar. In most films, the grammar of traditional coverage strips close-ups of their meaning; they just exist to record the performances. In “Daisy Miller,” the close-ups are used so judiciously that every time Bogdanovich cuts to one, it has a jarring effect that immediately snaps the viewer to attention; we suddenly understand that something important is happening underneath the surface without the characters having to speak it, or even indicate it with their gestures or movements. The effect is almost mystical; we understand with complete clarity how Shepherd and Brown’s characters feel about each other even though they never express it, and it creates a steadily building tension between what we know and they know. In spite of the film’s calm surface, it starts to gain the intensity of a great thriller as we begin to understand just how horribly everyone is acting against their own self-interests.

DAISY MILLER, from left: Duilio Del Prete, Cybill Shepherd, 1974
‘Daisy Miller’Courtesy Everett Collection

The precision of Bogdanovich’s visual structure yields one of the most moving climaxes in his entire filmography, a scene right up there with the final scenes of “The Last Picture Show” and “Texasville,” and while the emotional effects derive from Henry James, their effectiveness is entirely a testament to the director’s supreme command of filmmaking craft. The film’s key tragic moment isn’t even played onscreen; it’s all implied, and the consequences of Brown’s ignorance are felt in a medium-long shot with the camera pulling back, not pushing in to rub the audience’s face in the tragedy the way most directors would. Yet this is a movie that, when it’s mentioned at all, is largely thought of as not only a failure but the failure that set in motion all of Bogdanovich’s other failures. Why?

At the time, part of the problem was undeniably that viewers saw the movie not as a serious literary adaptation but through the prism of Bogdanovich and Shepherd’s relationship. There was a perception that the film was a kind of vanity project, Bogdanovich just letting his girlfriend dress up in frilly dresses and overact in a period piece. The unfairness of this perspective is pretty obvious on even the most cursory viewing of the film and is barely worth commenting upon, but it’s one that stuck; by the time “Daisy Miller” rolled around, there was a collective sense that Bogdanovich and Shepherd needed to be taken down a peg or two, and the movie provided the perfect opportunity. As years passed, the perception wasn’t helped by the fact that after the box office failure of “Daisy Miller,” Bogdanovich and Shepherd doubled down on their partnership by making “At Long Last Love” together; as that film’s star Burt Reynolds noted, critics didn’t review the movie, they reviewed Bogdanovich and Shepherd’s relationship — the same problem that afflicted “Daisy Miller.”

Viewed now, “Daisy Miller” does have an added layer of resonance when Bogdanovich’s personal life is read into it, but not due to his romance with Shepherd. The real relevance is his later love affair with Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy Playmate who was brutally murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider when he learned of her relationship with Bogdanovich. Watching “Daisy Miller” and its tale of a man unaware of the repercussions of his actions and how they will lead to the loss of the woman he loves, it’s hard not to sense faint reverberations with Bogdanovich’s own story (especially since he has acknowledged the parallels himself in interviews). Several of Bogdanovich’s post-Stratten films feel haunted by the director’s loss — not just “They All Laughed,” in which Stratten starred, but also “Mask” and “Texasville” — but “Daisy Miller” has an eerie retroactive sense of brutal mortality; it’s simultaneously Bogdanovich’s gentlest film and his most devastating.

Kino Lorber will release “Daisy Miller” on Blu-ray on May 21, with new special features, including an interview with Cybill Shepherd.

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