Last Picture Show, The (1971): Revisiting Bogdanovich’s Masterpiece

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece has just come out in a new restored DVD version, part of a collection of all the films that the BBS company produced in the 1970s, including “Easy Rider” and “King of Marvin Gardens.”

Back in 1971, when the movie came out, few people could anticipate the critical and commercial success of a black-and-white small-town melodrama like Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.”  Based on Larry McMurtry’s book, the film was adapted to the big-screen by the then unknown Bogdanovich (a former film critic) and McMurtry.

The narrative begins with an impressive long shot of Anarene, Texas, in a cold morning in 1951.  It’s dawn, and except for the old white Nash, which belongs to the night watchman, the Square is deserted. The wind blows the curling dust down the empty Main Street, and the camera pans across the Royal Theater (the picture show), a laundromat, a dinky beauty parlor, and a grocery store.

Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), the film’s hero and moral conscience, is seen struggling with the choke of his black Chevrolet pickup, but to no avail.

Most of the tale’s action takes place either in the pool hall or in the town’s cafe. Shabby, the pool hall has a counter, a small candy case, and a green Dr. Pepper machine. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the pool hall’s owner, is an aging cowboy. Rundown on the outside, the cafe has a sign that does not hang straight and much of its paint is peeling off.  But the interior is clean and cozy, with bright linoleum, red-leathered booths, several stools, and a shiny jukebox, which is constantly playing.

Another prevalent site is the local Picture Show, which, due to the increasing popularity of television, is losing its customers by the day. Since Sonny has missed the newsreel and the movie has already begun, Miss Mosey charges him only 30 cents. Sonny is in the movie-house. He is there not so much to see the film, “The Father of the Bride,” starring Liz Taylor, but to meet Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart), his girlfriend of one year.

Many of the story’s youngsters are products of  one-parent families characterize.  Sam the Lion is a widower, living with Billy, his only son who is mute and retarded. “You and Duane,” says Genevieve, “both in boardinghouse, him with a mother, you with a father.”  It “don’t seem right” to her, but then, on a second thought, she admits, “I’m no one to talk.  I never got on with Mama–still don’t.” Bitter and frustrated, Genevieve is one of many residents for whom the town offers no future—or present, for that matter.

The town’s students are not particularly bright, lacking intellectual horizons and open-mindedness. When the English teacher wonders if they are interested in John Keats, Joe Bob remarks that, “it’s silly of all the poets to want to be somethin’ besides what the Lord made ’em,’ because it’s criticizing the Lord.”

The town’s class structure is sharp and very visible. Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest and richest girl, is driving a convertible.  In Jacy’s bedroom, there is a big picture of herself as a “Football Queen,” and there are stuffed animals on her bed. Jacy reads a movie magazine, the kind of escapist reading that girls her age find fascinating.

The relationship between Jacy and her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) is in the tradition of “Peyton Place,” except that here it’s more cynical. In that 1957 film, Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) was a likable and honest girl, whereas Jacy is mean and bitchy. And if Allison’s mom Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) was sexually repressed, Lois is beyond that, a bitter forty-year old woman, who feels her happy days are over.

There is another reversal of small-town convention. Unlike Allison MacKenzie, Jacy does not want to leave town; she just wants to go to Wichita Falls. But her mother does not give in. “Everything’s flat and empty here,” Lois says, “and there’s nothing to do.” Finally, mom warns: “Jus’ remember, beautiful, everything gets old if you do it often enough.” Disenchanted with her own marriage, she advises her daughter: “if you want to find out about monotony real quick, marry Duane.” Lois’s view of marriage is shared by others. “Bein’ married, always so miserable” Sonny asks Sam. “Oh, not necessarily,” Sam replies, “Just about eighty percent of the time.”

In contrast to the Farrows, the Poppers live in a shabby, rundown house. The kitchen of Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) is small and messy; the breakfast dishes have not been washed nor has the table been cleared in days. A plain, drab woman, Ruth is Lois’s age but she looks much older. Like Lois, however, she is trapped in a bad marriage and lacks self-worth.

Ruth is the type of woman who, as she says, “wasn’t brought up to leave a husband, or maybe I was just scared to.”  She had married Herman because she was young and thought “hairy-chested football coaches were about it.”

The film shows the ambivalent attitude that most residents feel toward their town. “I’m sick of this town,” says Duane to Sonny, “why don’t we jus’ take off an’ go someplace.” Sonny concurs, “I guess the town can get along without us till Monday.” “If I was young enough to bounce that far I’d go with you,” says Sam.

Duane later leaves town, but he does not go to a Big City, just to Odessa, another town, where “the roughnecks say you can get a job any time.” Sam is the town’s moral center; when he dies (of stroke), a whole lifestyle disappears with him. “He had his own way of doin’ things,” says Andy. “It’s a wonder somebody don’t steal the town,” says Duane, when the cafe is closed after his death.

Sam owns the town’s three cultural centers (the pool hall, the cafe, and the picture show). An ex-farmer, he continued to live as a cowboy, committed to the Old West’s code of ethics. Sam is the last vestige of the cowboy-gentleman, a homespun philosopher in the mold of Will Rogers, only more handsome.

Unlike other films of its kind, “The Last Picture Show” draws no explicit comparisons between the small town and the Big City. Still, Lester Marlow, who invites Jacy to a midnight swimming party in the nude, lives in Wichita Falls, and he is a little more sophisticated than the youngsters of Anarene.

Jacy and Duane also go to the Wichita Falls Motel to consummate their relationship, but, under pressure, Duane, the handsome macho boy, cannot perform. “I might have known you couldn’t do it,” says the merciless Jacy, “Now I’ll never get not to be a virgin.”

The alternative to living in Anarene is going to the Army. It is 1951 and the Korean War is on, though the war is not a big issue. “You wanna go over to Korea and get yourself killed,” says Genevieve. She thinks he is “a lot better off stayin’ with Ruth Popper.” Shocked, Sonny asks, “Does everybody know about that?”

In fact, almost everybody does: Their illicit affair has become public knowledge. “Hadn’t you heard about them” Lois asks Jacy, “Been goin’ on about six months.”

In the film’s last scene, Sonny visits Ruth. No longer romantically involved, they sit in the kitchen, holding hands with a sad expression on their faces. This image dissolves and is superimposed on a tracking shot of the deserted town.

“The Last Picture Show” ends just as it began, only more depressingly, a result of what the viewers have learned about the town. Main Street is empty, and so is the Square; only the stark telephone poles are there. The wind blows, raising the dust, and the picture show is closed.

In adapting McMurtry’s book to the screen, Bogdanovich changed the two movies screened at the picture show. In the book, it’s “The Kid from Texas,” an Audie Murphy vehicle, which Duane watches the night before going to Korea. In the movie, it is Howard Hawks’s epic Western, “Red River.” The charismatic figure of John Wayne, who was then at the height of his popularity, dwarfs the lives of Sonny and Duane even more. Since the movie was made in 1948, it’s not clear whether “Red River” is playing in Anarene for the first time, or whether it’s a rerun.

The second movie used by Bogdanovich is Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated serio comedy “The Father of the Bride” (1950), instead of “Storm Warning” (also 1950), a melodrama about an oversexed Ku Klux Klan killer in the South, starring Doris Day and Ronald Reagan.

Charlene probably fantasizes about what it’s like being Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride, while carrying on with Sonny, making the contrast between the world’s most beautiful woman and Charlene all the more ironic and bitter.

In similar vein to many small-town works situated around the 1900s in order to explore the impact of technological change (the automobile) on the town’s life, Bogdanovich strategically located his narrative in 1951, when television was spreading in America, on the verge of becoming the most dominant and popular form of entertainment.

As an innovation, TV was more important than the invention of the automobile, because it brought “the outside reality” into the living rooms of the average American, thus changing leisure activities from a collective to a more privatized experience.

Due to TV, Americans went less to the movies and the collective aspect of movie-going, sitting in the dark surrounded by large and anonymous crowds, was lost.  But TV also exposed an extremely diverse population to the same” contents, thus serving as a homogenizing experience, at least superficially. The result was that small communities began to lose their distinctive lifestyles and became increasingly more and more similar.

“The Last Picture Show” shows the gradual decay and death of community life—what the German sociologist Toennis called Gemmeinshaft), thus lamenting the loss of intimacy and the declining integration of individuals into a more communal life. The film presents a gloomy portrait of small-town life during the early advent of television.

As noted, few people could anticipate the critical and commercial success of The Last Picture Show, which was Bogdanovich’s only second film—a true revelation.

The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and won acting accolades for two of its distinguished performers: Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, both in the supporting categories. Ellen Burstyn was singled out by the New York Film Critics Circle with a supporting citation, and also nominated for an Oscar.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Screenplay (Adapted): Larry McMurtry, Peter Bogdanovich

Supporting Actor: Ben Johnson

Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges

Supporting Actress: Ellen Burstyn

Supporting Actress: Cloris Leachman

Cinematography: Robert Surtees

Oscar Awards: 2

Supporting Actor: Ben Johnson

Supporting Actress: Cloris Leachman

Oscar Context:

The big winner in 1971 was the urban crime thriller “The French Connection,” which won Best Picture, Director for William Friedkin and other awards.

Cast

Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms)

Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges)

Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd)

Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson)

Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman)

Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn)

Billy (Sam Bottoms)

Charlene  Duggs (Sharon Taggart)

Credits

Black-and-white

Running time: 118 Minutes