They All Laughed

They All Laughed is a 1981 American romantic comedy film directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Colleen Camp, Patti Hansen, and Dorothy Stratten. The film was based on a screenplay by Bogdanovich and Blaine Novak. It takes its name from the George and Ira Gershwin song of the same name.

They All Laughed
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Bogdanovich
Produced by
Written by
  • Peter Bogdanovich
  • Blaine Novak
CinematographyRobby Müller
Edited by
  • William C. Carruth
  • Scott Vickrey
Moon Pictures
Time-Life Films
Distributed byMoon Pictures
Release date
  • September 2, 1981 (1981-09-02) (Venice Film Festival)
  • November 20, 1981 (1981-11-20) (New York City)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8.6 million[1]

The film is set in New York City, largely filmed outdoors on the streets, and tells the story of three private detectives investigating two beautiful women for infidelity. The detectives eventually wind up romantically pursuing the women, who turn the tables on them. The film is also a candid look at love and sex in New York City in the early 1980s.


Detective John Russo attempts to cheat on his girlfriend, country singer Christy Miller, with a blonde taxi driver named Deborah Wilson (whom he calls Sam), with the connivance of his colleague Arthur Brodsky. Russo has met Deborah en route from a meeting at which he was assigned to follow Angela Niotes, wife of a European tycoon.

Detective Charles Rutledge falls in love with Dolores Martin, whose husband has also hired him to spy on her. Charles is cautioned against this infatuation by his buddy Arthur. Feeling slighted by Russo's infidelity, Christy throws herself at Charles, but she ultimately falls in love with Dolores's extramarital paramour, Jose.

Russo's pursuit of Angela leads him to fall in love with her. He is grief-stricken when her husband and she return to Europe, but the two women have arranged that Deborah will take her place and nurse his broken heart. Dolores does fall for Charles and they plan to marry when her divorce is final, the only happy ending.



"The genesis of They All Laughed was that Benny [Gazzara] and I talked a lot about romances and affairs and the battle of the sexes", said Bogdanovich later.[2] "[I wanted] to try to make a personal picture, but not a personal picture like an indie prod. I wanted to hide it, like the old filmmakers in the studio system did. Hide it behind a genre. The genre was private detectives".[2]

The film was financed by a filmmaking division of Time Inc.[3]

"I didn't do any research about detectives", said Bogdanovich. "I never even went into a detective's office, but that didn't matter to me. That's not what it was about, that was just the disguise I hung my hat on."[4]

"Audrey Hepburn's story in the movie is Audrey Hepburn's story in life", said the director. "She was living with a man, her second husband, he was cheating on her, and she basically stayed with him because of the child."[2]

The film was shot on location in New York City during the spring and summer of 1980. Bogdanovich would often write scenes and give them to the actors just before they were shot, to give the film a feeling of freshness.[4]

Country music is prominently featured. According to Bogdanovich, in the first version of the script, the character of Christy was going to be a jazz singer, singing jazz standards, but then:

There was a short, very short, very brief, vogue of country music in New York. About 30 seconds. And so I changed it. I like country music. I fell in love with it on Last Picture Show. In fact, I wrote a couple of country songs. The phrase “One Day Since Yesterday” was something Dorothy said to me in a card. I liked the phrase.[2]


Many hints are given at a relationship between the plot and real life in this picture, which has caused some commentors to question the discipline of the filmmakers, but may, in time, actually contribute to the film's interest. Hepburn's son plays the part of Jose, though the part of her son in the film is played by Glenn Scarpelli. According to Bogdanovich, Hepburn and Gazzara had had an affair prior to the filming, though evidently this had fizzled by the time filming began, and Gazzara's ongoing divorce made further contact inadvisable. (Commentors have not agreed as to whether Gazzara and Hepburn have good onscreen chemistry in They All Laughed). Bogdanovich's real-life daughters portray John Russo's daughters, who along with Arthur (pretending to be Russo's son in a crucial scene), are enlisted to win Angela Niotes's trust. More implicitly, Arthur, who acts primarily as a facilitator to the others' romances, is portrayed by one of the film's screenwriters, Blaine Novak. Charles, who pursues Dorothy Stratten's character, wears director Peter Bogdanovich's trademark oversized plastic-framed eyeglasses, perhaps a reference to Bogdanovich's initial guilt and subsequent acceptance of his love for Stratten.

Indeed, the theme of secret love surfacing is pervasive throughout. Even Russo's relationship with the taxi driver—possibly the least secretive and most above-board of all the couplings, so much so that Russo is brought to confess that he is aging and his sexual prowess is failing—takes place under a pseudonym (Russo calls Deborah "Sam" for obscure reasons). The theme of hidden desires is echoed in the soundtrack, which juxtaposes country music by Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Rodney Crowell—as well as by Camp—with visuals of the Manhattan skyline (the credits sequence follows a trek into Manhattan, notably focusing on the twin towers of the World Trade Center as Dorothy Stratten's credit appears) and songs recorded by Frank Sinatra, including the eponymous George and Ira Gerswhin song "They All Laughed".

No traditional villains are seen in the film, with the only unpleasant character momentarily depicted in extremely brief appearances as an understandably frustrated husband whose wife (Stratten) cuckolds him with their next door neighbor.


Bogdanovich says Frank Sinatra let him have the rights to several of his songs for a cheap price because Sinatra felt sorry for Bogdanovich after Stratten's murder.[2]

Before the film was released, Time shut down its filmmaking division. 20th Century Fox, which retained North American distribution rights, test-marketed the film in Providence, Rhode Island and Minneapolis, Minnesota, but was disappointed with the results and pulled the film's release.[3] Bogdanovich decided to distribute the film himself. His manager later claimed the director spent $5 million, but it made less than $1 million in ticket sales. This contributed to the director declaring bankruptcy in 1985.[5] Bogdanovich:

It was a nightmare. Dorothy was murdered and I went crazy. I decided I would buy the film back from Fox and I lost my shirt distributing it myself which was insanity. Unfortunately, nobody stopped me. So it didn’t get great distribution because you can’t self-distribute. It’s impossible. For example, we played 15 weeks at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It was a huge success. We got a great theatre in Westwood and it broke all the records, and they pulled it right out because Paramount wanted the theatre for Reds.[2]

Bogdanovich later wrote about the making of the film in the 1984 book The Killing of the Unicorn.


They All Laughed was the last theatrical film in which Hepburn played a lead role (she later starred in the television film Love Among Thieves and had a cameo role in Steven Spielberg's Always). According to an interview conducted by Wes Anderson in the DVD features for the film, director Bogdanovich claims Hepburn and Gazzara fell in love and had an affair while shooting Bloodline (1979). Though the affair was short-lived, it inspired the characters they each played in They All Laughed.

Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband and manager Paul Snider before the film's release. Stratten had begun an affair with Peter Bogdanovich during filming, and Snider hired a private detective to follow her. They separated and Stratten moved in with Bogdanovich, planning to file for divorce. When Snider was certain he had lost his wife and protegé, he murdered her and killed himself. These events were depicted in Bob Fosse's film Star 80 (1983) and the television film Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story (1981).

Along with Heaven's Gate, Cruising, and One from the Heart, They All Laughed generally is regarded as the end of the New Hollywood period, and the director-driven studio films of the 1970s. Since the very public failures of these four films, Hollywood studios never allowed directors to control the films they finance.

Cult status

In 2002 the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson praised the film.[6] The film was released to VHS on January 31, 1995; HBO Home Video released the film to DVD (as a 25th Anniversary Edition) on October 17, 2006.

"It was a very loving picture", said Bogdanovich in 2011. "It was the happiest time of my life. I look back on it now and it's been like thirty years or so – it was definitely the high point in my life."[4]


  1. MOVIES: Bogdanovich: '70s' golden boy regains his screen sheen. Lawson, Terry. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 17 Jan 1982: g18.
  2. "QA with Peter Bogdanovich: They All Laughed" Sheila OMalley 23 Sept 2012 accessed 13 April 2014
  3. "Detail view of Movies Page - THEY ALL LAUGHED (1981)". Retrieved 2016-09-22.
  4. "Peter Bogdanovich & Noah Baumbach Talk 'They All Laughed' At Brooklyn's BAMCinematek" by The Playlist Indiewire July 9, 2011 accessed 13 April 2014
  5. BOGDANOVICH'S BANKRUPT MEMORIAL: BANKRUPT MEMORIAL Crook, David. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 19 Dec 1985: i1.
  6. "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 2002". British Film Institute. 2002.
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