The Last Picture Show
The wind whips across a deserted street in a deserted town in a cold and bare Texas. A rusting pickup truck drives by, the sound of a lonesome country song playing. It’s 1951 and America has passed this slice of humanity by. ‘The Last Picture Show‘ (1971) is an extraordinary, sensitive record of an era that was already two decades past by the time Peter Bogdanovich picked up Larry McMurty‘s novel, casting around for a new project after the unexpected success of ‘Targets‘ (1968). He had a deal with BBS Productions, the hottest company in the New Hollywood of the early seventies; set-up by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner, they’d shepherded ‘Easy Rider‘ (1969) to the screen and were seen as at the forefront of everything that was hip and youthful in a town desperate to regain audiences. —- Spoilers Within.
The old adage that the studios are always petrified was never more true than in 1971; you only have to look at the ten highest grossing films in America to see the schizophrenia of the theatres. One could choose in January 1972, when the December releases from the following year had gone wide, between ‘The Last Picture Show‘, an intimate, black and white drama; the brash glamour of Sean Connery returning to Bond in ‘Diamonds are Forever‘ or the cute safety of Disney’s ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks‘, a blatant attempt at recapturing the zeitgeist of ‘Mary Poppins‘ from seven years prior (it didn’t, and the film never even recovered its production costs from domestic rentals).
It was a wide choice and it’s easy to indulge in lazy nostalgia before you remember 1971 was also the year of the invasion of Laos (as American involvement in south-east Asia spread). William Calley was sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai massacre, while Charles Manson is given the death penalty (later commuted). Apollo 15 lands on the Moon and half a million march on Washington against Vietnam. Nixon declares a War on Drugs. Jim Morrison dies in Paris. Race riots. It was a bad year, a premonition of things to come. It’s what would await the characters of ‘The Last Picture Show‘, who are in many ways so naive, so innocent in their explorations of youthful sexuality.
Bogdanovich was looking back to an era of just before baby boomers, still kids, the sexual revolution a decade away, when even rock and roll hadn’t arrived yet. Hank Williams, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Laine dominate the soundtrack, the heartbreak narratives of country and western songs paralleling the lives on screen – Williams could easily be singing about Duane or Jacy or Sonny. It’s an innovative use of popular music; Dennis Hopper piled the ‘Easy Rider‘ soundtrack with rock (Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf) while ‘American Graffiti‘ (1973) would show the cool side of the early sixties: the hot rods cruising, the best records, the best fun a kid ever had. Bogdanovich goes for a bleak naturalism where Lucas created a commercial fantasia.
Perhaps that’s one of the most immediately striking features of ‘The Last Picture Show‘: its resolute un-hipness, its refusal to play rock and roll when country will do just fine. With the great Robert Surtees shooting in black and white (who, having started his career in 1943, knew a thing or two about this only-just-become archaic process), Bogdanovich is deliberately situating his film in the tradition of Hawks, Ford and Renoir. Directors he idolised, but instead of directly referencing them (which is perhaps the difference between New Hollywood and the independents of the nineties), he uses filmic form as his method of homage. He revels in friendships, in relationships between people: in everything and nothing happening. It’s Hawks without the gunfights, it’s a Ford scene set around the campfire stretched to two hours. Bogdanovich, liberated from studio diktat, can hone in on the most important aspects of these auteurs – the rhythm of group dynamics (which Ford’s wagon-trains and Hawks’ journeys across the Red River were just excuses for).
The town of Anarene, little more than wooden frame houses, a pool hall, a cinema and a café lorded over Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), seems to be a vision of America still rooted in the Depression, a grey world only a little different to the Midwest Bogdanovich would go on to depict in ‘Paper Moon‘ (1973). The stark, barely in focus opening titles, unsupported by the usual scroll crediting the artists and artisans alike, seems to be a direct nod to ‘Citizen Kane‘ (1941), Bogdanovich’s irrepressible admiration for his forebears shining through, but the titles seem almost to mirror the marquee announcements of the town’s cinema itself, declaring its own demise. The titular last picture show is Hawks’ ‘Red River‘ (1948), a romantic notion (the novel had an Audie Murphy film play instead) reminding us of another Texas, where men knew what to do and where to go. ‘The Last Picture Show’ is an ironic inversion of that; nobody knows where to go, confined by the flat prairies of the broad landscape.
The use of cinema to highlight the differences between Hollywood and reality (and thus offering a pointed commentary on how the New Hollywood was breaking with the past) comes early, when Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) takes his girlfriend Charlene Duggs (Sharon Ullrick) to see Minnelli’s ‘Father of the Bride‘ (1950). The glamorous close-ups of an immaculately made-up Elizabeth Taylor at breakfast with her father (Spencer Tracy) in a dream of domestic harmony offers a sharp contrast to the fumbling, banal kissing of Sonny and Charlene. When Duane (the very young-looking Jeff Bridges) enters the theatre with Jacy (a luminous, stand-out Cybill Shepherd) and they too start indulging in romance, we cut to Sonny looking on enviously and then back to Sonny and Jacy embracing, lit softly and idealised. From Sonny’s viewpoint, they represent, like the Hollywood films he watches, everything he wants to be.
Bogdanovich firmly places his film in an 1950s milieu, not just from the country soundtrack and television game shows that are on everyone’s television sets, but showing kids in class surreptitiously handing around a battered Mickey Spillane paperback. It’s not to display Bogdanovich’s knowledge of fifties pop culture but to build up a portrait of a whole world over the course of a year in the lives of its protagonists.
Sonny, the main character in what is an ensemble drama, is played with great sensitivity and nuance by Timothy Bottoms. He’s shown to be without any real bearings – his family are invisible, apart from a brief scene with his father (Grover Lewis), where the very triviality of their dialogue eloquently reveals how his father’s a stranger to him. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) and Genevieve are his surrogate, stand-in family, with Duane in effect the older brother he looks up to, and Billy (Sam Bottoms), the younger mute kid brother. This fragile structure, over the course of the film, is slowly broken up and dissembled, just as the symbolic cornerstone of the community – the cinema – itself closes.
Duane’s parents are also invisible, while Jacy’s mother and father are ‘rich and miserable’, Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn) taking refuge in alcohol, game shows and casual sex with oil worker Abilene (Clu Gulager). Lois tries to ensure her daughter doesn’t make the same mistakes she made, by marrying someone like Duane. It forms an inter-generational tragedy within a town suffocated by its memory of the past and knowledge of the present. Sam the Lion represents all that was good about the past times, perfectly captured in the one take monologue by the lake, Sam reminiscing about his youth to Sonny. It’s a great moment in cinema, as the camera slowly dollies up to a close-up of Ben Johnson’s grizzled, creased face, shadows playing across it. Its simplicity is why it’s so moving – Bogdanovich trusts Johnson entirely to carry the scene, and it’s a highpoint of Johnson’s long career, much of it spent in John Ford’s stock company. He laments his lost love, soliloquising ‘being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do’: it’s about taking a chance when it’s offered. It’s also Sam the Lion’s penultimate scene, one of the rare times in the film where people truly communicate.
Perhaps the only other time where characters fully connect is during Sonny’s love affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the neglected wife of the potentially gay gym coach (Bill Thurman). It’s an unusual communion of souls, separated by decades, Ruth already grown old before her time. Her romance offers a second life but when ‘Jacy whistles,’ she’s abandoned by Sonny and a fragile link is broken. Ruth’s character evolves, in many ways, growing more than anybody else. Her first scene with Sonny ends with her tears, as does their first, awkward scene of afternoon sex. By the final scene, she castigates Sonny for discarding her, anger replacing fragility. ‘Why am I always apologising to people?’ she asks rhetorically, finally standing up for herself. Sonny’s silent, unable to reply; he can’t fix the relationship and there’s nothing left in Anarene: Sam the Lion’s dead, Billy’s been knocked down by a truck, Duane’s fighting in Korea, Jacy’s at college in Houston. It’s a supremely melancholic ending, fading out from Lois’ home to the deserted main street, the cinema boarded up now, not even a broken down pick-up truck stuttering down the road. Cut to credits.
Bogdanovich’s assured direction, confident about where always to place the camera, where to cut, when silence is better than sound, leaves an impression of immense maturity from the young director. A few particularly striking moments spring to mind: the rapid montage when Duane and Sonny fight over Jacy, the former smashing a coke bottle into the latter’s face in a flurry of violent edits, the formal control intensifying the action. Also, the startling jump cut (so French, when the points of reference are so often American) when Sonny realises it is Billy who has been knocked down in the street, his shock conveyed in a point of view shot which skips ahead in vision mirroring his devastating understanding of what’s happened. Bogdanovich said he’d wanted to bring a French frankness to the sexual mores of a small town, but it’s when these stylistic elements, carefully deployed, emerge from the classical, lucid filmmaking that they become all the more powerful in amidst an updating of Ford and Hawks, combined with the passionate humanism of Renoir – like in ‘La Règle du jeu‘ (1939), everyone has their reasons here. This is even extended to the troubling figure of Jo Bob (Barc Doyle), the preacher’s son, who kidnaps a little girl, supposedly to molest her, although he never goes through it. The sequence is symptomatic of how the town’s social fabric is crumbling, but as an audience we’re left with ambiguous feelings due to Jo Bob striking such a pathetic figure. As the teacher (John Hillerman) early on in the film says, quoting from Keats, ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – essentially justifying Bogdanovich’s insistent naturalism and concordant moral uncertainty. Our protagonists are imperfect, human: Sonny callously leaves Ruth, Duane resorts to blunt violence out of frustrated jealousy, Jacy is both vulnerable and manipulative, looking for fulfillment through men. Perhaps only the surrogate figures of Sam the Lion and Genevieve, along with the innocent Billy, retain any kind of moral authority.
The final, haunting line, delivered by Ruth Popper as she finally comes to terms with a cold world, ‘Never you mind honey, never you mind,’ stressing how petty so much of the hurt in the film is, caused by youthful lust, jejune betrayals, juvenile bravado. Yet Bogdanovich’s deeply felt sympathy for everyone, for the whole of the town of Anarene, reveals how even such superficially minor pain can be amplified in a town, where as Genevieve caustically puts it, ‘Someone can’t sneeze in this town without someone offering a handkerchief.’ Its parasitic interconnectivity of the community ultimately kills the town and it’s part of ‘The Last Picture Show‘s greatness that we appreciate the humdrum tragedy of it all. This is what makes it a fundamentally New Hollywood film – the old Hollywood could never have conceived such events as drama (if one sets aside issues of sexual censorship).
It’s a masterpiece, recognised as one immediately upon release, declared by ‘Newsweek’s Paul Zinneman as ‘the most important work by a young American director since “Citizen Kane“‘, a little hyperbolically perhaps, but not so far off the mark. Off a $1.3 million budget, it grossed $29.1 million, or approximately $173 million in 2015 dollars, and that was with significantly lower ticket prices. A critical and financial triumph, it received eight Academy Award nominations. It lost Best Picture and Director to Friedkin’s ‘The French Connection‘ (and before we’re tempted to acclaim the Oscars of having better taste in the seventies, we ought to remember that Franklin Schaffner’s tedious pageant ‘Nicholas and Alexandra‘ was also a Best Film nominee), but Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won in the supporting actor categories. So it saw success and was yes, perhaps the height of Bogdanovich’s career despite making two more hit films. His critical destruction with ‘At Long Last Love‘ (1975) and ‘Nickelodeon‘ (1976) which permanently, and probably unjustly, tarnished his reputation, was the vindictive turning of the American critics on one of their own, a malicious humbling of hubris. The truth is, such media feuds seem irrelevant over four decades on. What remains are the films, and ‘The Last Picture Show’ is one of the most astonishing movies from a tumultuous decade.