#509) The Last Picture Show (1971)

#509) The Last Picture Show (1971)

OR “Texan Graffiti”

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Written by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry. Based on the novel by McMurtry.

Class of 1998

The Plot: “The Last Picture Show” is a coming of age story about high-school seniors Sonny and Duane (Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges) in 1951 Anarene, Texas. The boys spend most of their days playing pool, going to the local movie house, and trying to lose their virginity. Duane is dating Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), despite the objections of her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), and Sonny is having an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the repressed wife of Sonny’s gym coach (Bill Thurman). Watching all of this unfold is pool house/movie theater proprietor Sam “The Lion” (Ben Johnson), who reflects on how much Anarene has changed in his lifetime. Depressed yet?

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights Robert Surtees’ black and white cinematography, and the cast of stars-to-be, especially the “subtly moving performances” of Leachman and Johnson.

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “The Last Picture Show” prior to this viewing, and I have to admit the film is…fine. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, but while I enjoyed “Picture Show”, it didn’t grab me the way its status as a classic suggested it would. The film is several great performances by a cast on the brink of stardom, mixed with two hours of bleak existence for everyone. But hey, if that’s what Bogdanovich et al were going for, mission accomplished. Despite my less-than-stellar viewing experience, “The Last Picture Show” has held firm for 50 years thanks to its cast and aesthetic, and is deserving of its NFR standing.

Shout Outs: The titular last picture show is Howard Hawks’ “Red River”. And keep an eye out for the movie posters of “White Heat” and “Winchester ’73“.

Everybody Gets One: Peter Bogdanovich was a movie buff from an early age, seeing literally hundreds of movies a year, and eventually becoming a film programmer at New York’s MoMA. Inspired by critics-turned-directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Bogdanovich moved to Los Angeles to pursue directing. After a few early films with Roger Corman, Bogdanovich spied a copy of Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” in a drug store…and put it back after losing interest. Coincidentally, Bogdanovich’s friend Sal Mineo gave him a copy of the book a few weeks later, telling him he just had to make the movie.

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Last Picture Show” was well received by critics, and tied for most Oscar nominations of the year (8) with “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The French Connection“. “French” ended up taking home the big prizes, but “Last Picture” won the two supporting prizes for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

Other notes 

  • Special mention goes to Polly Platt: Peter Bogdanovich’s then-wife and collaborator. Credited as the film’s production and costume designer, Platt has been called by many involved with “Last Picture Show” the glue that held the film together. The podcast “You Must Remember This” devotes an entire season to the unsung influence Polly Platt had on everything from “Last Picture Show” to “The Simpsons”.
  • The roster of talent assembled for this movie is incredible, but what’s even more impressive is how no one upstages anyone, nor are there any distracting signs of future stardom. No traces of Cybill Shepherd’s run as a ’70s sex symbol or Jeff Bridges’ future as The Dude; just a bunch of well-cast young actors doing exactly what their roles call for.
  • During filming in Archer City, Texas, Sam Bottoms came to visit his brother Timothy, and Bogdanovich cast him on the spot as Billy, the developmentally disabled boy. This may explain why to this day I still can’t tell you which one is Timothy and which one is Sam.
  • Eileen Brennan doesn’t get a lot to do as diner waitress Genevieve, but it’s a nice 180 from her later, more comedic work.
  • It’s no secret that Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd began a romantic relationship during production of “Last Picture Show”. From Jacy’s first introduction in a glossy close-up, you know that Jacy/Cybill is getting the star treatment.
  • The student that Coach Popper slaps on the behind is played by Frank Marshall, the film’s assistant production manager and future producer of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Back to the Future“.
  • At first I cried foul at the idea of Ellen Burstyn playing Cybill Shepherd’s mom, but it turns out Burstyn has 18 years on Shepherd, so it’s appropriate for the characters. Also, as previously mentioned on this blog, I have a thing for Ellen Burstyn, so her performance here is flawless as far as I’m concerned.
  • It’s around the pool party scene (and its bevy of full-frontal nudity) that I realized how, as the kids say nowadays, “thirsty” everyone in this town is. Sex and sexuality is the undercurrent of practically every scene in this movie, and the sex that does eventually take place is awkward and uncomfortable. I feel like the only satisfying ending would be if Rodney Dangerfield shouted “Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!
  • Ben Johnson was hesitant to play Sam the Lion because of the script’s wordiness, but Johnson’s longtime friend John Ford convinced him to take the role. Any trepidation Johnson had over the script is nowhere to be found in his monologue at the fish tank, where Sam the Lion recounts bringing a young lady to the tank 20 years earlier. No flashy theatrics, just a straightforward performance from Johnson as the camera zooms in. It’s definitely a highlight.
  • Things get a lot drearier in the film’s second act, including the unexpected deaths of a few characters, and a brief subplot in which one of the townspeople is accused of pedophilia. I know they’re going for dreary, but they are piling it on. After this, maybe I’ll watch an Ingmar Bergman movie to cheer myself up…
  • I have no interest in slut-shaming Jacy as she sleeps with the various male characters, but I will shame the men (both on and off-camera) who keep objectifying her.
  • Cloris Leachman is so well-known for her pitch-perfect comic acting, it’s easy to forget about her pitch-perfect dramatic acting. Ruth Popper doesn’t get a lot of screentime, but Cloris says so much about the character without speaking a word. When Ruth finally vents her frustrations at Sonny, it doesn’t feel like Oscar-bait theatrics, but rather a justified burst of emotion. I’d give Cloris an Oscar too after that scene.
  • “Last Picture Show” can trace some of its influence to Bogdanovich’s mentor Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane“. In addition to the black-and-white cinematography, both movies have nearly identical openings (static title shot in silence, no credits) and closings (credits with footage of the cast and curiously upbeat music). Unsurprisingly, reviews of “Picture Show” made the same kind of wunderkind comparisons to Bogdanovich that had been made of Welles 30 years earlier.

Legacy 

  • While Peter Bogdanovich would follow up “Last Picture Show” with “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon”, his next few films were poorly received (he even publicly apologized for “At Long Last Love”), and his directing career stalled. Luckily, Bogdanovich is still around, and an active advocate for classic films.
  • Once again, “The Last Picture Show” is responsible for some of the biggest movie and TV stars of the last 50 years, including Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid, and Ellen Burstyn.
  • In 1987, Larry McMurtry wrote “Texasville”, a sequel that chronicles the lives of the main characters 30 years after “The Last Picture Show”. In 1990, the novel became a movie that reunited Bogdanovich and most of the original cast. The film received decent reviews, but permanently resides in the shadow of its predecessor. And at no point does anyone explain when exactly Anarene, Texas switched from black and white to color.

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