The Last Picture Show (1971)
May 11, 2018 6:58 PM - Subscribe

In 1951, a group of high schoolers come of age in a bleak, isolated, atrophied West Texas town that is slowly dying, both culturally and economically.

The Guardian: Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece from 1971, co-written with the original novel's author Larry McMurtry, is set in a small, dusty, windblown town in Texas at the time of the Korean war, with shades of John Updike's Tarbox and Peyton Place. (The last picture in question, which is to say the final feature to be shown in the town's dying movie theatre, is Howard Hawks's Red River.) Timothy Bottoms and a heartbreakingly young-looking Jeff Bridges play Sonny and Duane, two boys destined to fall out over their interest in the stunningly beautiful, exquisitely manipulative Jacy, played by Cybill Shepherd. This movie is baked hard in the high summer heat of eroticism and sexual tension. Sonny's affair with a melancholy older woman Ruth (Cloris Leachman) is compelling. It begins with the awkward teen agreeing to drive her to the clinic for an illness that is never specified and appears later to vanish, perhaps cured by this glorious adventure. The nude swimming-party scene is inspired: shy Jacy strips off on the diving board, stumbles in, and smilingly shows to a handsome naked boy that the watch her boyfriend has given her has stopped. Bodganovich deserves a special laurel for that quietly superb sequence. The cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Ben Johnson, take their leave in quaint "curtain-call" style final credits that, for some reason, made me want to sob. The soundtrack from Hank Williams and others is a joy. Unmissable.

New Yorker: It’s plain and uncondescending in its re-creation of what it means to be a high-school athlete, of what a country dance hall is like, of the necking in cars and movie houses, and of the desolation that follows high-school graduation. Concerned with adolescent experience seen in terms of flatlands anomie—loneliness, ignorance about sex, confusion about one’s aims in life—the movie has a basic decency of feeling, with people relating to one another, sometimes on very simple levels, and becoming miserable when they can’t relate. Robert Surtees’s stylized cinematography is in black-and-white, and the frequent silhouetting—so that we seem to be looking at a map of life as it was—helps to clarify the subject matter.

Slant: Opening with Robert Surtees’s camera panning along the largely deserted main street of this one-stoplight town, as the wind howls and dead leaves swirl in dizzying vortices, the claustrophobia of the town’s dead-end existence is rendered more desolate still by the monochrome cinematography. Early scenes run withdrawn high school football player Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) through the gauntlet of Anarene’s disapproval over the team’s recent trouncing. “Ever heard of tackling?” more than one resident asks in disbelief, including otherwise paternal Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the town’s café, pool hall, and picture show. When Sonny objects, “Could’ve been worse,” Sam replies, “You could say that about most everything, I guess.”

Unremitting failure can lead to disaffection, a disregard for the so-called verities of school spirit or civic pride, as in Sonny’s case, exemplified to perfection in the moment late in the film when he dejectedly mouths the words to the school anthem. These scenes firmly establish the town’s conservative core values, as well as the film’s presiding tone of tragicomic melancholy. Nothing expresses the self-styled Republic of Texas’s aggrandized sense of importance and cultural isolation quite so succinctly as an early smash cut, used to supremely comic effect, that links an urbane teacher (John Hillerman), lecturing his bored-stiff class on Keats’s ode to Truth and Beauty, with chaw-chomping Coach Popper (Bill Thurman) goading the basketball team with the demand, “Get a move on, you pissants!”

Roger Ebert: There is simply no way in this town to touch life and glow. The last ones who knew the secret were Sam the Lion and maybe Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the waitress at Sam's diner. Sonny and Duane, we suspect, will grow up to drink too much, work too hard and marry desperate women -- unless Duane is killed first in Korea. There is certainly no future for gentle Billy (Sam Bottoms), who always smiles but has no reason to.

The film is above all an evocation of mood. It is about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression, as Ruth knows when she seduces Sonny, the boy half her age. And then he, too, falls briefly under the spell of Jacy, leading to the powerful scene where he returns to Ruth and she hurls the coffeepot against the wall and spills out her soul. (Leachman did that scene in one take, first time, no rehearsal.)

Senses of Cinema: Bogdanovich strove to establish a vivid sense of time and place for the film. He and McMurtry drove through scores of towns, scouting locations until they settled on Archer City, Texas – the very town that was the original basis for McMurtry’s ‘Thalia’ in the novel. Bogdanovich changed its name to Anarene for the film, as a nod to Abilene in Red River. Because the film was shot in the town McMurtry fictionalized, it was not uncommon for the cast and crew to run into the actual townspeople who were models for various characters in the film. Bogdanovich altered the time scheme of the novel, which was set at a general, unspecified time during the 1950s, restricting the action to one year, and also chose the songs on the soundtrack carefully to reflect this narrow time period. In terms of the visual strategy of the film, Orson Welles advised Bogdanovich that in order to get the kind of deep-focus compositions he wanted for the film, he would have to abandon color and film in black-and-white, which he wisely did.

Bogdanovich employs a powerful conflation in The Last Picture Show: the bittersweet nostalgia for the passing of an era is blended with a realism and honesty that views the early 1950s very differently from the way films of that period did. The film is book-ended by two movie screenings at the Royal cinema theater: Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and Red River. The former, starring a glamorous Elizabeth Taylor, perfectly symbolizes the confectionary quality of the studio product of its day, quite out of touch with American realities, the very realities that Bogdanovich set out to capture so mournfully and vividly in his film.

Despite its austere black-and-white texture and its visual spareness, The Last Picture Show is clearly a 1970s film about the 1950s. The prosperity and stable social complacencies of 1950s America are nowhere in view. Even the pride of work and professionalism – an integral part of the Hawksian universe – are absent in the film. Sonny and Duane are professionally adrift, the former accidentally falls into inheriting a broken-down pool hall and the latter leaves for Korea with the grim last words “See you in a year or two-if I don’t get shot.” Genevieve runs the ramshackle café but struggles to pay her husband’s medical bills. Though she longs to be free of working at the café, she ruefully admits to Sonny that she will “probably be making cheeseburgers for your grandchildren”. Lois’ husband is modestly wealthy from the oil business, but their marriage is a complete failure. She fidgets restlessly on the sofa as her husband falls asleep in front of the television, then makes a call to her lover Abilene who is uninterested, and busy with his oil-drilling. Ruth continues to stay with her husband even though it is clear that their marriage is entirely loveless, citing that she “wasn’t brought up to leave her husband”. Documenting the lives of these characters, Bogdanovich demonstrates great generosity toward them. He does not judge his characters’ actions but merely presents them to us, allowing a complex portrait of the community to emerge.


AO Scott Critic's Pick

Filming Locations

The Last Picture Show: An Oral History
posted by MoonOrb (5 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic movie, one of my all-time favorites.

When I finally got around to reading the book (and rewatching the movie afterward) I was surprised to find out that Bogdanovich quietly included a lot of the characters' inner thoughts, in ways that are pretty much imperceptible if you don't know what to look for.

For example the first time Ruth and Sonny have sex, Ruth is clearly a little uncomfortable about something, and she's visibly relieved when it's over. One might think she's having doubts/reservations about crossing this line for the first time. But in the book she's simply afraid the neighbors will hear the bedsprings squeaking. She hadn't thought to worry about that before they started, and she feels silly about saying anything during the sex, so she's glad when it's over and she quietly resolves to use a blanket on the floor the next time. And if you watch the movie knowing this, it's perfectly clear, that's exactly what she's thinking.

Bogdanovich doesn't try to convey this through movie trickery--he doesn't make the bedspring noise improbably loud, he doesn't cut back and forth between Ruth's nervous face and the squeaking springs, nothing like that. He could have added some dialog to get this across--but that would be out of character, Ruth would be far too embarrassed to mention the springs to Sonny. So instead it's just quietly there, if you know to look for it. A very interesting choice.

The same thing happens in the final scene, there's a long pause where Ruth is just looking at Sonny and thinking. In the book there's a whole inner monologue as she considers things she might say and decides against them. And if you watch Cloris Leachman closely you can see she's going through exactly that monologue.
posted by equalpants at 8:49 PM on May 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Gotta say, Bogdanovich really seems to be a sleaze though.
posted by equalpants at 9:03 PM on May 11, 2018

Wonderful movie and an amazing cast. Bogdanovich never really equaled himself in this. Do yourself a favor and skip the '80s sequel, Texasville, even though it has almost the same cast doesn't even come close to the magic of Last Picture.
posted by octothorpe at 11:42 AM on May 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is one of my favourite movies. I've never visited that part of Texas - but I have a feeling that not too much may have changed. And everywhere has its dying towns with kids who are still growing up in them.

I was surprised to find out that Bogdanovich quietly included a lot of the characters' inner thoughts, in ways that are pretty much imperceptible if you don't know what to look for.

I believe that Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry collaborated on the script. But it is a brave director who can conclude that the most realistic way of depicting a moment of inner thought in a character, is with silence on screen.
posted by rongorongo at 12:49 AM on May 13, 2018

Also - from "The Last Picture show - an oral history" linked above - Ellen Burstyn who played Lois Farrow:
"I have a scene where I’m sitting in my house and my husband is asleep in front of the TV and I’m thumbing through a magazine bored and then I hear the car of the man I’m having an affair with drive up and I get excited and run to the door and it’s my daughter, Cybill. I’m disappointed then I realize, “Oh my god, she’s been with him and she’s just lost her virginity!” I said to Peter, “I have eight different beats in this one shot and no lines.” And he smiled like an imp and said, “I know.” And I said, “Well, how am I supposed to do that?” And he said, “Erase everything else from your mind, and just think the thoughts of the character and the camera will read your mind.” That was the best piece of acting training I ever got. It’s exactly what you do on film"
posted by rongorongo at 2:18 AM on May 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

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