Peter Bogdanovich’s new documentary about Buster Keaton, The Great Buster, is a match made in movie heaven. I can’t think of two men more devoted to making motion pictures — huge successes in their day — more acquainted with the merciless climate of Hollywood, or more aware that they were as instrumental in their own downfall as in their glory.
‘Buster said he made the great mistake of his life in 1928,’ says Bogdanovich. ‘He had done these masterpieces in the 1920s — Steamboat Bill Jr, Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, The General — and done them the way he wanted with his own production unit… It couldn’t get any better. But then [he was] told to sign with MGM. And Buster was never the same again. The studio interfered in his pictures. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge collapsed. He drank himself stupid. It happens — he fucked up. I’ve done the same myself. He was a master at silent comedy, using physical space, doing his own stunts, composing comedy as if it was music. But maybe sound would have finished him, too.’
In his documentary we see an 80-year-old Bogdanovich surveying the images of Buster Keaton from nearly 100 years ago. He watches Keaton in The General trying to guide a locomotive through the mayhem of the Civil War, keeping a straight face in every ordeal. There is an affinity between Keaton’s beautiful but stricken face and Bogdanovich — austere, cool, always with his knotted cravat, but drained of illusion.
Bogdanovich’s father was a painter who had come from Serbia; his mother was Viennese. The couple arrived in New York three months before Peter was born in July 1939. The kid was brilliant, but a touch arrogant, and he wanted to be an actor. He admits that longing never went away, so he has acted out his life.