Peter Bogdanovich was a 31-year-old stage actor, film essayist, and critic with two small films ‒ Targets (1968) (also known as Before I Die) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) ‒ to his directorial credit. One day while waiting in a cashier’s line in a drugstore, he happened to look at the rack of paperbacks and his eye fell on an interesting title, The Last Picture Show. The back of the book said it was about “kids growing up in Texas” and Bogdanovich decided that it did not interest him and put it back. A few weeks later, actor Sal Mineo handed Bogdanovich a copy of the book.
“I always wanted to be in this,” he said, “but I’m a little too old now” and recommended that Bogdanovich make it into a film. At the time, Bogdanovich was married to Polly Platt and he asked her to read it. Her response was, “I don’t know how you make it into a picture, but it’s a good book.”Bogdanovich, McMurtry and some sources suggest an uncredited Polly Platt went through the book and wrote a script that tells the story chronologically.
There are few perfect movies and this is one
Here is a movie that perfectly captures a time and place. The time is the year between November, 1951 and November, 1952 and the place is Anarene, Texas, a small town in north central Texas. The screenplay was written by Larry McMurtry, in collaboration with director Bogdanovich, based on McMurtry’s novel of the same name.
Anarene is just south of Archer City, McMurtry’s home town where the movie was filmed. McMurtry knows whereof he speaks, the movie has the feeling of total authenticity.
The story centers around two best friends, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), as they pass from being high school seniors into adult life. Given their backgrounds, coming from broken homes and living in boarding houses, there is little idea that they will go to college. The movie details how the two handle this pivotal and bewildering time from being on the high school football team one year to being on their own without much of a safety net the next.
In a wider context the movie is about larger transitions: from youth to adulthood for the young people, from a frustrated and bored middle age to an even less promising future for the older folks, and from a town with some social cohesiveness to a town dealing with the isolating effects of a bankrupt economy and the advent of television. The rather bleak prospects that Sonny and Duane face parallel the prospects of the town. You are made to think about transitions in your own life.
The movie is populated with many finely drawn characters, all acted with supreme skill. There is not a false note struck in the entire movie. By the end we know the characters so well that they seem real. Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar, and I don’t understand why Timothy Bottoms was not nominated as well, since his performance is of equal quality. Bottoms plays Sonny with such genuine good-natured charm and honest sincerity that it is hard to believe he is acting. And Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman both won well-deserved Oscars. Kudos all round to the entire cast.
The movie is beautifully filmed in black and white befitting the stark settings and story, and the time period. It is filmed as if it were made in the period portrayed.
If you have ever lived in a small town or if you grew up in the American heartland in the 1950s, this movie will evoke overwhelming nostalgia. But the story is so powerfully told that I think that for everyone it will evoke nostalgia for a time and place, even for that which they may never have known.
The town, as well as the movie, is held together by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) who owns the movie theater, the café, and the pool hall. In fact he owns just about everything there is to do in Anarene, except for watching the hapless Anarene High football team … and sex. It is no wonder then that sex, in its many faceted varieties, plays a big role in this town, and in this movie.
There are so many wonderful and memorable scenes that it would simply require a small volume to recount them. One scene that grabbed me was when Sam and Sonny are at a lake outside of town, ostensibly fishing, and Sam reminiscences about old times, about when he came to the lake twenty years earlier with a lover. Sam makes the comment, “You wouldn’t believe how this land has changed.”
The camera pans the surroundings and it is hard to see how this area could have changed much in the last thousand years, but Sam is clearly attuned to the subtle changes, since memories were impressed on him in a time of strong emotion. We all have clear memories from when and where we have been happy, even if it is a small lake in a desolate flat land. And Sam’s specific comment can be taken to apply more generally to the basic theme of the movie. This incredible scene ends with Sam’s saying, “Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous,” and anyone who is not close to tears at that point will never truly appreciate the beauty of this movie.
Seemingly this movie should be depressing, but the effect is more of a melancholic look into the lives of ordinary people who are just trying to play the hands they have been dealt in life.
It wasn’t until the movie was over and I was reading the credits that I realized how cleverly the music had been woven into the film. All of the music is from the time period and is a part of the action and not background music. It is played on home radios, car radios, truck radios, 45 rpm players, jukeboxes, and at a community Christmas dance. The Hank Williams song, heard on the radio in Sonny’s old truck in the opening scene, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?” sets the tone for the music as well as the movie. There are great songs taken from over a dozen country and western classics from the era. Ruth (Cloris Leachman) is listening to Johnny Standley’s quirky, “It’s in the Book,” (a unique and strangely satirical offering to be popular at any time, let alone reach the pop charts and sell a million records in 1952) during the final scene between her and Sonny.
Why is this movie so special? That’s kind of like asking why one likes a certain piece of music or a painting. Everything comes together here in one of those magic moments – the acting, the filming, the story, the music, the editing – to create a simply-told and remarkably affecting work of art.
… worthy of its place in the list of great films of the 1970s
Perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall any artist is to have their life become more compelling than their work; such is the sad case with Peter Bogdanovich whose meteoric rise to fame was matched only by a truly famous fall from favor and a bewildering journey through tabloid hell.
(Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers mined the not inconsiderable drama of the first act of his life to sporadically great comic effect in 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences. And his tragic love affair with Playboy model turned actress Dorothy Stratten is fictionalized in Bob Fosse’s astonishing, horrifying Star 80 (1983). How many directors become characters in films?)
Bogdanovich’s love affair with film is undeniable, though it has, in the past three decades, yielded far more perplexing misfires (The Cat’s Meow, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon) than unqualified successes. That said, The Last Picture Show is an extraordinary accomplishment and worthy of its place in the list of great films of the 1970s.
1971’s other important films (Friedkin’s The French Connection, Pakula’s Klute, Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange) are loud, angry, violent and contemporary – in-your-face reflections of a society in which rage and nihilism, engendered by Vietnam and the growing discontent over government corruption, is the currency of communication. The uncertainty coursing through the veins of American pop culture also begat in equal, if not equally graphic, measure a palpable sense of sorrow at the destruction of a simpler way of life (no matter how “true” that memory may be).
Like Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof and Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show is a powerful and poignant evocation of the death of a community and a way of life. Thematically rich and imbued with Bogdanovich’s remarkable knowledge and passion for film, the movie works on a dazzling number of levels; and Bogdanovich’s use of nostalgia and traditional, archetypal genre conventions both enriches the movie and compounds the heartbreaking loss at the heart of the story.
His deft handling of a cast comprised of then (largely) unknowns (Bridges, Bottoms, Shepherd) is first-rate and he draws forth superb, often sublime performances from everyone (in particular, Johnson, Burstyn and Leachman). There isn’t a false note or a misstep in the movie and there is a naturalness here that is not easily achieved or earned. The great production design (by Bogdanovich’s then wife and partner Polly Platt whose contributions to his work and her subsequent involvement in the best works of James L. Brooks should not go underestimated) and the achingly beautiful cinematography by the late Robert Surtees are vital to the success (emotionally, intellectually, thematically) of the film.
The Last Picture Show is a truly rare work of surprising depth and emotional resonance; and the heartache for a time and place forever gone and the desperate and quiet struggles of its very real, very human denizens is matched only by the sorrow found in contemplation of Bogdanovich’s Icarus-like fall from such exalted heights.
Somewhat Overlooked Character Study of the 1970s
Author: tfrizzell from United States
25 July 2000
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
“The Last Picture Show” is an excellent motion picture on all levels. The film deals with the hopelessness of a small Texas town in the mid-1950s. All the people in the town are down for one reason or another. The only thing that could bring the town together, the high school football team, is an utter disappointment to all who care.
And now the only shred of hope left in town, the old movie theater, is about to close its doors for good. Timothy Bottoms is a young man trying to decide what he wants in life. He has an attraction to classmate Cybill Shepherd, but she’s involved with his best friend Jeff Bridges (in an Oscar-nominated part). However, Shepherd is not sure that she wants to spend her life with Bridges so she gets involved with Randy Quaid, a son of a rich landowner, and his friends. Bridges has the same thoughts about Shepherd and also struggles with his place within the town’s landscape.
Bottoms becomes involved with his basketball coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman in her Oscar-winning role), hoping that she will fill the void he has. This does not work and he still has fixations on Shepherd, who somewhat gives in to him during the film. All in all, there is no real love in any of the characters and they all suffer due to this fact. Ellen Burstyn (also Oscar-nominated) plays Shepherd’s mother, a woman that Shepherd does not want to be like when she’s her age. Eileen Brennan is also on hand as the insightful waitress at the town diner. Perhaps the greatest connection within the town is the old wise cowboy who owns the theater and the diner. Ben Johnson (in a well-deserved Oscar-winning turn) shines and when he passes away it seems that the last real glimmer of hope within the town died with him.
Everything in this film is almost perfect. It shows how the lives of people in a small community can overlap and intertwine. The fact that leaving the town is not a legitimate option to any of the characters only makes the story-line more heartbreaking and realistic. People who have lived in a small town should be able to relate to this film. To me this film was very accurate because I have lived in small Texas towns that are eerily similar to the town in this movie. Larry McMurtry’s screenplay and Peter Bogdanovich’s direction keep the film engrossing and intriguing throughout. However, it is the actors that make the film the true American classic that it is. 5 out of 5 stars..