Peter Bogdanovich was 31 years-old when he first came across the book “The Last Picture Show”. The author was Larry McMurtry and the story was a semi-autobiographical novel about his life in small town Texas. Bogdanovich collaborated with McMurtry to pen a script that stayed true to the novel’s simple coming of age story.
Bogdanovich had spent time in film criticism and was heavily influenced by the writers of the French magazine Notebooks on Cinema. Many of those writers would spearhead the great French New Wave movement. Bogdanovich desired to follow the leads of Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer by stepping outside of criticism and into filmmaking. “The Last Picture Show” was the perfect opportunity. It enabled him to not only step behind the camera, but to make a movie that was undeniably his own. It would be a critical success and would go on to earn eight Academy Award nominations.
Bogdanovich’s cast is a mix of first-timers, relatively unknowns, and seasoned dependable pros. Set in 1951, Timothy Bottoms (in his second career role) plays Sonny Crawford, a high school senior living in the small dried-up town of Anarene, Texas. Interestingly, Anarene is represented by McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City in northern Texas. Bogdanovich shoots it like a wasteland -dusty and barren minus its handful of residents. You can barely define what they are doing as living. They are existing – going through the motions dictated by their circumstances. You could say Anarene represents the lives of the citizens.
The film doesn’t get bogged down in plot because there really isn’t any. It more or less follows the everyday events of Anarene with Sonny at its centerpiece. Other townsfolk we meet include Sonny’s rambunctious best friend Duane played by a young Jeff Bridges. In her film debut Cybill Shepherd plays Jacy Farrow. She’s the prettiest girl in town and a bit of a tease. She uses her good looks (and bad judgement) to get whatever she wants. Bogdanovich cast Shepherd after seeing her on the cover of Glamour magazine. There’s also Randy Quaid playing the town goofball in his first movie role.
These kids are the focus but the adults play a big role as well and are just as misguided as the town’s youth. The one exception is Sam (played by the always reliable Ben Johnson). Sam is the beating heart of Anarene. He owns the town’s pool hall, diner, and corner movie house. He supplies the people some semblance of activities but even Sam seems beaten down by the dying town and life in general. Aside from Sam, Ellen Burstyn plays Jacy’s promiscuous and disillusioned mother Lois. Cloris Leachman plays the lonely, depressed wife of the town’s high school coach. Clu Gulagar plays a despicable oil field worker and Eileen Brennan plays a weary waitress going through life’s motions.
Bogdanovich and McMurtry take their characters through a cluster of shameful, unscrupulous acts often with little attention to motive or reason. While the characters are fascinating to a degree, the film sometimes lacks the introspection to keep the town from feeling like anything but a cesspool of immorality. This isn’t always the case. There are moments of conviction and internal struggle and some character’s motivations are crystal clear. But other times Bogdanovich’s intent is hard to discern and I routinely found myself wrestling with what felt meaningful and what felt exploitative.
But a true strength of the film is its visual presentation. As I mentioned, the town is shot as isolated and dated. Even the seemingly everpresent Hank Williams songs wailing in the background convey a dreary sense of hopelessness. The choice to shoot in black-and-white is also effective (a decision made after Bogdanovich discussed his film with Orson Welles). It sets the right tone while also giving the film a real sense of time. There is rarely a wasted shot.
“The Last Picture Show” has remained a beloved film since its 1971 release. Of its eight Oscar nominations it won two (for Johnson and Leachman, both in Supporting categories). To some degree I get the strong affections many have since there is a lot to admire. But it isn’t a movie free of issues and some of them I couldn’t quite shake regardless of how hard I tried.
VERDICT – 3 STARS