Throughout the New Hollywood of the late 1960s into the 1970s, two filmmaking desires of auteur directors (usually male) sometimes combined: to realise very ambitious vanity projects in which highly detailed sound and/or design would serve as the expression of a personal vision (not that these directors admitted their own vanity in the matter) and to deconstruct studio-era classic genres. Sometimes, it worked: Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) employs Warren Beatty, a vain actor (to the point that Carly Simon’s hit is said to be about him), in a role all about mule-headed ambition and itself made with ambition (the town that’s built up in the narrative was also built up by the film which was deliberately shot in sequence to capture this personal-vision world-making). All this works in the service of an undoing of Western mythologies, especially the frontier or pioneer spirit as driven by lofty goals other than naked capitalist ambition.

But sometimes the ambition didn’t seem to work – at least with the popular audience, if not the critical establishment. For instance, to stay for a last moment with the case of Altman, his 1979 attempt to rethink science fiction with Quintet pretty much pleased no one but didn’t even seem to attempt to make its refusal of genre convention a useable point toward the rethinking of the pleasures of cinema. (It is a film of coldness, both literally and figuratively.)

It’s perhaps revealing in this respect that one key venue where male auteur directors of the New Hollywood period often missed audience success was the musical: Martin Scorsese with New York, New York (1977) or Francis Ford Coppola with One from the Heart (1981) or, to come to the matter at hand, Peter Bogdanovich with At Long Last Love (1975). The musical is about a pleasure of performance – singing bodies, dancing bodies, often in a real time that puts those bodies on display and on the line – and to deconstruct the genre by refusing that pleasure is to venture into risky territory indeed. The case of a key counterexample, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), is instructive: yes, the subject matter (the coming of Nazism and its destructiveness) is despairing, but it still is all about great singing and dancing – and maybe it takes on greater resonance for its own dance (pun intended) between dire content and dazzling show. By pure coincidence, just this morning as I was thinking about the late 1960s/1970s musical in preparation for writing up these comments on At Long Last Love (1975), an email entry came in from Screen Slate, a daily short analysis of a recommended film showing on the New York art film scene, that talked about Cabaret in just this way in somewhat contrast to an earlier Fosse film, Sweet Charity (1968), that seemed right at the cusp of the transition from older Hollywood to the New one: the “musical form itself”, the piece argued, “demanded a suspension of disbelief that had suddenly become all but unconscionable [as the 1960s went deeper and deeper into critique.] (Just a few years later, Cabaret would present an ingenious workaround, with the song-and-dance numbers as part of the diegesis, staged as performances.)”1

Cabaret, in other words, allows the musical to grow up and yet deliver still on playfulness. It even, of course, makes that play an issue: what are the risks, what are the consequences, of escapism in an age that demands a different sort of response? 

At Long Last Love, in contrast, refuses from the start to engage even with pleasures that it might subsequently deconstruct. True, the credits have a quiet musical instrumentality to them (voiceless tinkly renditions of Cole Porter songs as music-box figurines dance around and change partners) but quickly we move from that sonorous lightness into deliberate shrillness: the first post-credit shot, lasting about four minutes, covers the rancorous breakup of a romance, a wallowing in inebriated pity, deliberately awkward singing and deliberately clumsy dancing, and resignation and even despair. The stakes – not only of the narrative but of the film within which that narrative transpires – are set out: can one undo the musical through actors that intentionally have no talents in the performative practices we associate with the genre? (A few years earlier, the 1969 film Paint Your Wagon engaged a similar gambit by making its musical leads Lee Marvin, Jean Seberg, and Clint Eastwood and assaying no attempt to get good singing from them.) 

The opening shot of At Long Last Love also includes a fleeting moment of disdain for anyone else in the world beyond the stars in the film: flaunting her pointed self-centeredness (which is this case is almost self-loathing), the jilted woman sends her drink glass down from the 90th floor, with no regard for any consequences, to shatter in the streets below whether injuring anyone or not. In fact, a sense that the ordinary people who serve as background to the amorous adventures and misadventures of the six leads are little more than fodder for collateral damage as spoiled, privileged people go about their hijinks runs through At Long Last Love. To take just some examples, a hotel bellboy is denied his tip, a blue-collar worker down a manhole gets a book thrown onto his head by the Cybil Shepherd character who has just tossed it away, an African American elevator operator is condescended to, a car almost crashes when some of the leads swerve in their limousine toward it out of drunken stupor, and so on. Where Cabaret was all about an ignored background that became more and more the foreground of everyday life (the Nazism that overwhelms romance), At Long Last Love rigorously separates a foreground of slapstick or screwball play (it is like Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? [1972] in its assumption that everyone but the leads and a few side characters doing shtick can easily get trampled on) from a larger social world that is sidelined or pushed from the frame. 

Cabaret, as I say, makes this tension central to its narrative and ideological project. At Long Last Love is much more caught up in a special place of privilege (the haunts of the idle rich) that it hints isn’t everything but is enough for the privileged people within (by the narrative’s end, protagonists who were poor get sudden suffusions of cash to put them into an upper bracket). Here, the return in the end credits to the windup figurines of the opening is instructive. We see the two primary couples dancing away (the third couple is only a little bit down in the social hierarchy, a British butler and the heroine’s former roommate elevated in station by her romance) and dissolve into the figurines. The four mechanical pieces turn around and around in their dance but then separate as if to switch partners across the amorously correct pairings. But before new couplings thereby are effected, the image freezes and the credits roll. The film hints at permutation and instability in the formation of romantic groupings but also refuses to fix in on any single set of options.

Freeze frames were typical as an ending for many films of the late ’60s and 1970s. They could signal fatality or failure without showing it (the two former friends going at each other across racial lines in Blue Collar [Paul Schrader, 1978]). They could posit an open-endedness (will the wife help her ex-husband up off the ground in Shoot the Moon [Alan Parker, 1982] – or not?). And as the New Hollywood of questioning and critique gave way to blockbuster uplift, they could suggest a hopefulness that things will always be better (John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney reaching towards each other in Saturday Night Fever [John Badham, 1977]). But the freeze at the end of At Long Last Love may hint at the most extreme deconstruction of the utopian aspiration of the musical: that this coupling or that might be the right one is put into question, and the film reduces romance to the mechanical revolutions of toys at play.

A couple of years before At Long Last Love, the literary critic Stanley E. Fish wrote of what he called “self-consuming artifacts” in the world of culture. At Long Last Love might merit such a name except that Fish meant to speak of almost the opposite of what the experience of this deconstructive musical can seem to be all about: for Fish, art self-consumes when it offers life lessons that mean we have to leave the artwork behind as we become morally better people out in the world beyond art. In his words, “A self-consuming artifact signifies most successfully when it fails, when it points away from itself to something its forms cannot capture. If this is not anti-art, it is surely anti-art-for-art’s-sake because it is concerned less with the making of better poems than with the making of better persons.”2 Whether Bogdanovich has made a better musical or not by emptying his film of classical pleasures of the form, At Long Last Love points exactly at what its forms convey formally (if I can put it that way): it demarcates a play world, a world apart, and consumes itself in the process, engaging in lots of earnest effort to question whether the effort has been worth it once the credits are over.

At Long Last Love (1975 USA 118 mins)

Prod Co: Copa del Oro/Twentieth Century-Fox Prod: Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall Dir, Scr: Peter Bogdanovich Phot: László Kovács Ed: Douglas Robertson Prod Des: Gene Allen Mus: Cole Porter

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn, Duilio Del Prete, Eileen Brennan, John Hillerman, Mildred Natwick


  1. Keva York, “Sweet Charity”, Screen Slate (25 March 2023): https://mailchi.mp/screenslate/sweetcharity?e=c2dd3c4383.
  2. Sidney E. Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1972, 4.

About The Author

Dana Polan is a professor in the Martin Scorsese Department of Cinema Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. He is the author of ten books including The Sopranos, Power and Paranoia, Jane Campion, Scenes of Instructions: The Beginnings of the US Study of Film. and, most recently, Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture.

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