Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show stands up today as one of the most haunting, elegiac works about change in America ever made, a sombre and touching film that examines transition on a number of levels. Most obviously its trio of main characters are negotiating that brief coming-of-age period between high school seniority and the start of adulthood, with one eye on the future and one eye on losing their virginity as quickly as possible, while their elders – supposedly at points in their lives when they are supposed to have settled down – are disgruntled about the state of their marriages or wistful and regretful about the past, and in some cases are choosing to do something about it. The small town in which the story takes place – Archer City doubling for Bogdanovich’s ‘Anarene’, which was called ‘Thalia’ in co-writer Larry McMurtry’s 1966 source novel – is also changing; a packed Christmas dance and a half-filled cinema show that there’s life here, but local businesses are stagnating and the streets never appear much busier than they do during the near-deserted opening, with wide angle location shots highlighting the sparseness of buildings and people in this Texan town. Though Anarene isn’t dead, exactly, there’s more than a mere hint that it’s dying. There are oilfields nearby but job prospects lie elsewhere and there’s an exodus of youth: by the end of the film two of the teenagers mentioned above – Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, making her debut) – have moved on to pastures new while the third, Timothy Bottoms’ Sonny, wants to leave but ends up staying for a number of reasons: dashed spur-of-the-moment wedding plans, a re-kindled relationship with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the high school football coach’s wife, plus the fact he has taken over one of the few businesses in Anarene (passed on to Sonny by Sam The Lion, played by the western veteran Ben Johnson).
The director’s decision to film in black and white – supposedly following a suggestion made by Orson Welles – is also suggestive of an era long left behind; the story covers a year from the winter of 1951 to the winter of 1952, but former actor and critic Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show during the peak of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement that straddled the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though his film is rightly considered a seminal work from that period the monochrome and 1950’s soundtrack seem out of kilter when considered next to colourful touchstones like Five Easy Pieces or Easy Rider, movies that took pride in being about ‘the here and now’ rather than the past. The black and white adds considerably to the film’s bleak mood (it’s as if colour itself was still years away from being invented) and helps here to establish its sense of time and place; it also ensured that Bogdanovich’s film stood apart visually from the work of his contemporaries, with cinematography by the legendary Robert Surtees simultaneously helping to bring this fifties town to life and helping to show its decline.
That said, it is easily identifiable as a film from the early 1970s, not least because of its carefree approach to censorship (although I should add that I was watching the director’s cut, made during the more tolerant 1990s, which included among its extra footage a pair of sex scenes). Also it’s a slow, sprawling, melancholic and personal work that seemingly uses its characters to celebrate the craft of acting at every available opportunity. Given his ubiquity at that time it’s a surprise that Jack Nicholson isn’t in The Last Picture Show, but clearly he was too old to play Duane or Sonny, and too young for any of the other substantial male parts. Financed by the maverick BBS production company – of which Nicholson was an unofficial fourth partner – Bogdanovich was given plenty of freedom while making his adaptation, which went against the Hollywood grain in a number of ways and which looked on paper to be the kind of film that would struggle to find an audience. Though the BBS offices had a drug-fuelled, carefree air, the key figures – Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner – may well have been privately worried about releasing a black and white film in 1971, and apparently there were concerns about the director’s casting and his assurances that he was ‘editing in-camera’, but this was nothing when compared to the kind of stringent requirements a big studio at that time would have placed on Bogdanovich. It took first-time producer Stephen J. Friedman two years to secure financial backing, but thankfully BBS were the right company at the right time, and the film was a commercial and critical success.
Bogdanovich, an obsessive cinephile from an early age, celebrates the work of his Old Hollywood heroes: the name Anarene was chosen because of its similarity to Abilene, the town in Howard Hawks’ Red River, which is also the ‘last picture’ shown before Sam The Lion’s cinema is closed down. Other directors and films are referenced through the medium of the faltering picture house; John Ford’s Wagon Master is advertised, while other forthcoming features include Winchester ’73, Sands Of Iwo Jima and White Heat, all films about macho characters and all clearly as much of an influence on the young male characters of The Last Picture Show as they were on its director in real life. There’s a sense that the young people of Anarene are naïve and learning slowly about the rest of America from the pictures they get to watch, although obviously the story takes place during years where household ownership of TV sets across the US was increasing at a rapid pace; half of all American households contained a TV set by 1955, hence the cinema closure in this film. Bogdanovich once stated ‘I saw the story as a Texas version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of the automobile. This was about the end of a way of life caused by the coming of television.’
Bogdanovich doesn’t just pay lip service to his favourite directors, many of whom had retired by the early 1970s. He also drew from his previous experience on sets watching Ford and Hawks direct; we see numerous shots of the town that show the entire main street and several buildings, and often distant figures are isolated within this landscape, a typical Ford move. At the beginning of the film one of these long shots, through Sonny’s cracked car window, reveals mute kid Billy (Sam Bottoms) as he sweeps the street. This foreshadows later events in the film, which suggests that Bogdanovich wasn’t interested in using the long shots as window dressing or scene-setting; he wanted them to help tell the story.
An hour-long documentary about the film was included with the Criterion Collection release, and tellingly Bogdanovich and others spend almost half of it discussing the casting process. Choosing the right actors was incredibly important, and the decision by BBS to back the director’s riskier calls – Shepherd was a model with no prior acting experience, for example, and the director wanted to rely on his own instincts rather than the security of a screen test – turned out to be a good one. Johnson, who played the grizzled owner of Anarene’s café as well as its cinema and pool hall, had reservations about the verbosity of the script, at one point stating he would rather ‘ride a thousand miles than say any of these goddamn words’, but Bogdanovich called on his friend Ford to convince the actor to take the part. Ford suggested to Johnson this was a chance to step away from John Wayne’s (considerable) shadow while Bogdanovich told him ‘You, in this role, are going to get an Academy Award’. He was right.
There are numerous other good casting decisions to highlight. Leachman also won an Oscar for her portrayal of the sad, neglected housewife who enters into a relationship with Sonny, while Ellen Burstyn (playing Jacy’s knowing mother Lois) and Bridges both received their first nominations. Bottoms – who was picked for the lead role partly because of his sad eyes – is also very good, as is Eileen Brennan as kind-hearted café waitress Genevieve. The only actor who looks a little uneasy is Randy Quaid, but that’s somewhat understandable given that it was his film debut too.
Bogdanovich repeatedly highlights the similarities and differences between people in subtle ways, drawing meaning from the smallest actions or interactions while doing so. A great example is the shared awkwardness of characters as they each get undressed in different scenes; Jacy is uncomfortable undressing in public at the pool party she goes to, Duane is clumsy when stripping eagerly in front of Jacy later on, while Ruth and Sonny are tentative as they take off their clothes before sleeping together for the first time (which, incidentally, is a scene that contrasts nicely with their later, warmer meetings).
The latter example there, regarding Ruth and Sonny, also serves to highlight the fact there is little distinction made between adults and teenagers in The Last Picture Show. The film uses the similarities between young and old characters to create a sense of earlier events happening again; Jacy’s attitude to men mirrors that of her mother, while you can imagine Sonny repeating Sam’s monologue about ‘the one that got away’ in the future (especially relevant as both of their lost loves are different generations from the same family). Gradually Sonny begins to take on Sam’s role in the town: during the first hour there’s a sense that protection of and care for Billy is transferring from the older man to the younger man and, as stated earlier, there is also the handing over of one of the town’s businesses. By the end Sonny appears to be facing up to a life in Anarene, perhaps destined to look back with the same level of regret as Sam.
Bogdanovich treats the idea of ‘coming-of-age’ as a loss of innocence. The three major characters lose their virginity but love doesn’t follow automatically for any of them; instead their lives become filled with a mix of frustration (Duane), boredom (Jacy) and loss (Sonny), as if life chooses to smack all three in the mouth upon graduation. Indeed sex is a cloud that hangs over the film throughout: older characters are jaded or bored by it, and there’s a distinct lack of guidance for the teenagers in the town, leading to some reprehensible acts: bestiality is discussed but not seen, and when several kids club together to pay for the underage Billy to have sex they incur the wrath of Sam. The distinct lack of optimism in the film is perhaps best summed up when minor character Joe Bob (Barc Doyle), a preacher’s son who seemingly endures an unhappy time at school, abducts a little girl, although he doesn’t abuse her.
It may appear to be bleak and infused with sadness, but The Last Picture Show has heart, and it is a standout early 1970s American film. There are dozens of memorable shots and scenes, the ensemble cast is superb, the soundtrack of old country numbers works well and, perhaps most importantly of all, Bogdanovich and McMurtry have plenty to say about America via the microcosm of their town. It’s a moving, poetic and well-written work and its power has not faded with the passing of time.
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich.
Written by: Peter Bogdanovich, Larry McMurtry. Based on The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry.
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees.
Editing: Donn Cambern.
Running Time: 126 minutes.