Last Picture Show, The (1971): Impact of TV on Small-Town Life

Few people could anticipate the critical and/or commercial success of The Last Picture Show, based on Larry McMurtry’s book, adapted to the big-screen by director Peter Bogdanovich 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, struggles with the choke of his black Chevrolet pickup, but to no avail.

Most of the 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.

In this cafe, people are more honest with themselves and others, allowing themselves to let steam off. For example, Sonny complains to the tough waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), “Ain’t nobody to go with in this town.” Genevieve’s role is crucial: She connects among the various characters, and also provides commentary on their actions. It is Genevieve who observes that Anarene is so small it’s impossible to sneeze without all the inhabitants offering a handkerchief.

Another prevalent sight is the local Picture Show that, 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 moviehouse not so much to see the film, Father of the Bride, but to meet Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart), his girlfriend of one year.

Hugging and kissing, Charlene reminds him that it’s their anniversary: “We been going steady a year tonight.” “Seems like a lot longer,” says Sonny. Disappointed that he did not bring a present, she says: “You can give me a dollar, that’s what it cost me and Marlene (her sister) for the show.” They then move to his car, where she lifts her sweater, and he unhooks her bra.

But Sonny is bored; they have done it too many times and, now he wants to do “something different.” Charlene is furious, “You cheapskate! You never even given me a present an’ now you want to go right ahead and get me pregnant.” Outraged, Sonny says, “My God, it was just my hand!” “Mommy told me how that old stuff goes–we’ll have plenty a time for that when we get married.” Charlene thinks that Sonny “ain’t good-looking enough,” and his lack of ducktail, an allusion to the style of Van Johnson, a popular movie star at that time, is also a minus.

One-parent families characterize many of the youngsters. 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. When Sonny suggests that Genevieve quit her job and make her husband go to work, she says: “Honey, we got four thousand dollars worth of doctor bills to pay–‘ll probably be making cheeseburgers for your grandkids.”

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.”

At the gym, Herman the coach is determined to make his lazy students “real men.” “Run, you little piss-ants,” he says, “Tough it out! You gotta be men, like the rest of us–if y’all didn’t jack off so much maybe some of you could stay in shape.” Herman is a macho sexist. Asking Sonny to take his wife to a doctor, he notes, “you know women, always something wrong with ’em.”

The town’s class structure is 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. Allison MacKenzie was a likable and honest girl, whereas Jacy is mean and bitchy. Allison’s mom Constance MacKenzie was sexually repressed, but Lois is beyond that, a bitter forty-year old woman, who feels her happy days are over. “I’d just hate to see you marry Duane,” says Lois, “You wouldn’t be rich anymore, and in about two months he’d quit flattering you.” “You married Daddy when he was poor,” says the defiant Jacy, “and he got rich, didn’t he” Quick to answer, Lois says, “I ‘scared’ your Daddy into getting rich.”

What was left unsaid or implied in previous films becomes overt in this movie. “You’re rich and you’re miserable,” says Jacy to her mother, “I sure don’t want to be like you.” Viewers know, however, that she will turn out to be just like her mother. A practical woman, Lois suggests Jacy go to the doctor to “arrange something so you won’t have to worry about babies. But it is Jacy who is hypocritical. “It’s a sin, isn’t it” she says, “Unless you’re married.” Lois wants to demystify the magic of sex. “Don’t be mealy-mouthed,” she says, “if you slept with Duane a few times you’d see there isn’t anything magic about him, and then we can send you to a good school.”

There is another reversal of conventions. 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,” she says, “and there’s nothing to do.” Finally, she 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 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.

Getting back from the doctor, Ruth asks Sonny to come in, “if you can stand me for a few more minutes,” admitting that she is “scared to be alone.” At the Christmas dance, when she complains to her husband that she doesn’t feel well, he retorts, “Hell, you never feel well.” Scare is a word Ruth uses repeatedly. Upon consummating her relationship with the much younger Sonny, she apologizes for crying. “I was just scared,” says Ruth, “I could never do this.” She reached a point in her life, where “I can’t do anything without crying about it.”

Ruth is the type of woman “who 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.” Petrified, she fears that if he finds out about their affair, “he’ll shoot us, for he’s always glad to have an excuse to use his deer rifle.”

The youngsters like their deaf friend Billy but every once in a while they play cruel jokes on him. “What we oughta do,” says Duane “is buy Billy a piece of ass.” “We oughtn’t let ‘im die a virgin,” observes Leroy, “Momma says idiot kids don’t live long anyway.” This irritates Sonny, who cares about Billy more than the other boys. “He ain’t no idiot kid,” he says angrily, “he just don’t talk.” Nonetheless, Duane and the others take Billy to Jimmie Sue and force him to have sex with her. Furious, Sam, a surrogate father and role model to the boys, kicks them out.

No future to look forward to and no exciting present to live in, the town’s residents spend a lot of time talking about their pasts “I’m just as sentimental as the next fella when it comes to old times,” Sam tells Sonny. He ruminates nostalgically about the time he used to own this land, and how the country has c hanged since then. The first time he saw it, there wasn’t a mesquite tree on it, or a prickly pear neither. Sam’s great love was Lois, as she later tells Sonny: “If it hadn’t been for him, I’d have missed it–whatever it is.” “I’d have been one of those Amity types that think bridge is the best thing life has to offer.” Living in her past memories, Lois feels Sam was “the only man I ever met who knew what I was worth.”

The film shows the ambivalent attitude 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.

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 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.” More important than her sexual passion or anticipation of joy is, “What’ll we tell everybody Their classmates are outside the motel, sitting in their cars waiting to hear a firsthand report about “the event.” Embarrassed by the whole experience, Jacy threatens Duane, “You better not tell one soul! Just pretend it was wonderful.”

Later on, when they go back to the motel and do it, she is disappointed, “Oh, quit prissing, I don’t think you did it right, anyway.” Jacy and her mother are sexually involved with the same man but Jacy’s sex with him is also unsatisfactory.

After Duane leaves town, Jacy dates (and marries) Sonny, which upsets Duane, despite the fact that he does not live there anymore.
“Don’t make no difference, I’ll always live here,” says Duane, indicating that no matter where one goes, spending the formative years in Anarene, the town will always continue to be the frame of reference.

Sonny doesn’t show much respect for Duane either. “The only reason Jacy went with you long as she did,” he says, “was ’cause you was in the backfield, and I was in the Goddamn line!” Enraged, Duane hits Sonny with a bottle on his eye.

The alternative to living in Anarene is going to the Army; it is l951 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” Almost everybody: 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 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.

Death is a recurrent motif in small-town movies, and this film shows a variety of deaths: Accidental, sudden, and unexpected. Sam dies suddenly (of a stroke) with no warning. His son Billy dies in a car accident; he’s run over by a truck. Duane is likely to die in combat in Korea. Along with actual death, there is also spiritual death of practically every individual and the town as a whole.

In adapting Larry McMurtry’s book to the screen, Bogdanovich (and McMurtry) 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 release, it is not clear whether Red River is playing in Anarene for the first time, or whether it’s a rerun.

The second movie used is Vincente Minnelli’s 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 may fantasize about Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride, while carrying on with Sonny, and the contrast between the world’s most beautiful woman and Charlene is ironic and bitter.

The kind of magazines people read indicates their wish to be somewhere else; Genevieve reads Ladies Home Journal. The movies they see also feed their fantasies about idealized lifestyles. The gap between the residents’ everyday lives and the culture they consume underlines even more their level of futility and frustration.

In similar vein to many small-town works, situated around the l900s, to explore the impact of technological change (the automobile) on the town’s life, Bogdanovich strategically located his narrative in l951, when television was spreading in America, on the verge of becoming the most 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 public, 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 (Toennis’s Gemmeinshaft), lamenting the loss of intimacy and the declining integration of individuals into a more communal life.
It presents a gloomy portrait of small-town life during the early advent of television.

Few people could anticipate the critical and commercial success of The Last Picture Show. 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.