| The opening and closing shots of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show are formally the same--slow pans across the dusty, deserted streets of a dying Texas town in the early 1950s--albeit reversed in terms of direction, with the opening shot beginning and the final shot ending on the town’s lone, single-screen movie theater. The fundamental difference between the two shots, and the key to the film’s meaning, is that, in the opening scene, the movie theater is still in business; when the film closes, so has the picture show, and so has a distinct era in American history.|
Framed between these two shots, Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, interweave the stories of several of the town’s inhabitants, painting a sharp--sometimes critical, sometimes poignant--portrait of the banality of small town life in the middle of nowhere. The fictional Anarene, Texas, is a panhandle oil town on its last legs. McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City was used for filming (although the name was taken from an actual town just to the south that had dried up and disappeared in the mid-1950s), and the film benefits enormously from the sense of time and place it provides. Nothing much happens there, and the movie theater is just about the only escape for its inhabitants. Thus, the theater is not just a source of entertainment, but a symbol of the breadth of life outside the town’s narrow boundaries that few of the characters will actually experience. The only other escapes in town are ultimately destructive: adultery, drinking, gambling. When the movies die and give way to television, the end is inevitable.
Like so many small towns in the ’50s, Anarene is a place of repression; the inability to communicate is passed down from generation to generation. The family values espoused on TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best are turned on their heads, and it is no coincidence that the first movie seen playing in the movie theater is Father of the Bride (1950), whose happy family is pure fiction in Anarene (the theater’s final screening is of Red River, a grandiose western that also plays ironically against the portrait of life in Anarene).
As a coming-of-age story, The Last Picture Show contrasts its young characters--high school seniors Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd)--with their parental role models and shows how the parents’ failures are being visited upon their children (how can you come of age when most of the adults around you are still children?). Jacy’s mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), is a rich, miserable housewife who drinks all night and openly cheats with a crass oil worker named Abilene (Clu Gulager). She doesn’t like Jacy dating Duane because he is poor, and her advice to her virginal daughter is to sleep with him because, as she puts it, “if you slept with him a couple of times you’d find out there isn’t anything very magic about him.” Thus, it is little wonder that Jacy develops into a manipulative tease who uses her charm and beauty to work penniless, lovestruck Duane against the rich, but goofy Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid). Sonny and Duane, on the other hand, have no parents to speak of. They both live at the local boarding house, and although we see Sonny’s father once, he is a pathetic man who can’t carry a conversation with his son past, “How’re you doing?”
The only adult role model in town is also the unlikeliest: Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), a grizzled, aging ex-cowboy who owns the local pool hall, diner, and movie theater. Sam stands with a sense of dignity and pride the other locals don’t seem to possess; he is somehow above the rootless existence in Anarene. Although far from perfect, he acts as a surrogate father to the local teenagers, and also to Billy (Sam Bottoms), a genial, mentally retarded boy who no one else wants to claim. Sam is the essence of decency and wisdom without being patronizing; he is a man who stands on his own morals and values and passes a small bit of them on to others like Sonny and Duane, who so desperately need it.
One of the strengths of the The Last Picture Show, as both a film and a book, is its open and human treatment of sexuality. In Anarene, as in all small American towns where there is little else to do, sex is turned into a form of escape, whether that be the affair between Lois and Abilene, or a nude swimming party attended by Jacy and Lester, or Sonny’s affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the sad, repressed wife of the local high school coach. All are attempted remedies to the ill of general boredom, and none of them fully work because they are temporary respites, not true salves for the soul. Bogdanovich treats sex, including the sexual awakening of the teenagers, with honesty and just the right touch of humor; he sees both the potential magic and the ultimate clumsiness of it all.
For its time, The Last Picture Show was a shocking film, not only for its frank treatment of sex and nudity, but also for Bogdanovich’s decision to film it in black and white. By the time it was made in 1971, color had become a mainstay, and a major American film hadn’t been made in black and white for more than six years. Bogdanovich chose to shoot the film in this manner not only because it made the dusty, West Texas plains and small town locations seem all the more desolate, but because it immediately conveyed the time and place of 1951; in fact, at times The Last Picture Show looks as if it could have come from the ’50s. Shooting in black and white also allowed cinematographer Robert L. Surtees (who had already won Oscars for both color and black and white cinematography) to use camera techniques like deep focus that just weren’t possible with color film.
Given its strong critical reception and popularity at the box office, the film not surprisingly became a launching pad for a number of careers, including Cybill Shepherd, who was a model at the time and had never acted in her life (her lack of experience shows at times, although the subsequent stiffness actually plays into her character, a kind of vacant cipher who is everything to everyone else but nothing to herself). Ben Johnson, a 20-year veteran of westerns on both the big screen and on television, and Cloris Leachman, who was then best known for her role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, both deservedly won Oscars for their poignant, heartfelt performances, and Jeff Bridges quickly went from being a bit player to one of America’s premiere actors.
Director Peter Bogdanovich, a 31-year-old former film critic and scholar with only one feature to his credit (1968’s Targets, a low-budget thriller produced by Roger Corman), demonstrates an expert’s precision, and The Last Picture Show remains his masterpiece, a film he has been unable to equal. He understood the importance of time and place, which is why he insisted on shooting entirely on location and why he avoided overlaying a musical score and instead relied on the barren moans of the panhandle winds and twangy radio broadcasts of Bob Wills and Hank Williams. He also recognized the important role of silence, not just as a means of emphasizing desolation and open spaces, but also to underscore the disconnect among characters. The fact that his personal life was wracked with turmoil and drama during the production, including the unexpected death of his father and the end of his marriage to production designer Polly Platt when he began an affair with Cybill Shepherd, likely played a role in his feel for the material. Some things never change.
As a student and personal acquaintance of such old-school Hollywood luminaries as Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, Bogdanovich brought an encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema to the set, and the film’s uniqueness stems largely from his successful marriage of classical Hollywood techniques with the raw subject matter and location shooting that was so central to the New Hollywood. The Last Picture Show is, in essence, a film that straddles the old and the new, and it will be remembered for its sometimes painful honesty. It doesn’t shy away from the inherent awkwardness of life, but instead embraces it with an elegiac sensitivity that sidesteps Peyton Place-style melodrama and turns small-town anomie and the dead ends of life into stark cinematic poetry.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.
© 1998 - 2023 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.