2016 BlindSpot Series: “The Last Picture Show”


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.


3 Stars

21 thoughts on “2016 BlindSpot Series: “The Last Picture Show”

  1. I’ve never seen this one. I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw a clip of it in IFC’s Indie Sex documentaries. I had no idea the film had 8 Oscar nominations. Great review!

    • Thanks Brittani! It is pretty highly regarded by many but not in the ‘mainstream classic’ vein. I don’t know, I was really hoping to adore it but never could get fully attached.

  2. Excellent choice and critique, Keith!

    Orson Welles had a hand in the development and execution of this film. Since Bogdanovich needed the town to appear differently than it did in broad daylight. Painting houses was discussed. Different camera angles,etc. Until Welles bellowed, “Of course, it should be shot in Black & White!” Ending all future discussion. And for a middle of nowhere town. It and the film’s soft muted shadows thrown by the cast works wonderfully.

    Great budding cast showing future greatness. Especially a very laid back and confident Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. And Ben Johnson proves that he still has it!

    Also intriguing for a first glimpse of Bogdanovich’s quiet, “sitting back and letting the scenes happen” style of directing. A lot of confidence in himself and the abilities of his cast shines through.

    • Thank you so much for reading and for the great comments. Sounds like you’re a big fan of the film. As I wrote, I can certainly see why people are enthusiastic about it. There is definitely a lot of trend-bucking craft at work which I really appreciate it. I wish I could have shaken some of my hangups though.

  3. A lot of my enthusiasm comes from a director’s first or second films. As you get an idea of what they are capable of. And as a test bed. This film works very well. As does Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’, And Rian Johnson’s “Brick”.

    Bogdanovich is also surprisingly good at directing comedy. If you need another ‘Blind Spot’. Give his “What’s Up, Doc?” with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal a shot.

    • The Killing it’s such a great example. I’m pretty sure it kicked off my 2016 BlindSpots. I’ve seen bits of What’s Up Doc? but it has been a long time.

  4. I saw The Last Picture Show about a year or so ago…. I think I had a few of the same issues you did, not feeling like a had a handle on the story or what the film was really driving at. But the sense of place is what stays with me. The dusty and almost deserted Texas town lives in my mind long after memories of the story and characters have faded.

    • Exactly. The cinematography is stellar and it definitely stays carved in your mind. I also liked several of the themes it plays with. But I do feel there are moments where it comes across as paper-thin and a bit exploitative.

  5. Keith, excellent review. I love this film and all its contrasts. The multi-faceted characters with their intense passions are driven in part by the boring setting. My favorite character was Ruth Popper by Cloris Leachman. What I like best about the film is the contrast between appearance and reality. It’s a Peyton Place, for sure, and I agree there doesn’t seem to be a central defining plot. I think the strength of the film lies in the acting jobs–everyone is great in it. The town becomes a character of its own right; its heartbeat and breath are the disillusioned and desperate.

    • Thanks Cindy. There is certainly many things to appreciate particularly the cinematography and the presentation. The town is indeed a character but in many ways it represents the people of the town – aimless and beaten-down. Overall I wish I could have gotten past some of my issues. Those few things held it back just a bit.

      • I have seen many films that were classified as “best-ever” and “must-see” only to wonder what the fuss was about. ‘The Wild Ones’ is an example. To each his own. I’ve also been told by a respected film critic that the worst thing one can do is give a good review to a bad film. I think about that and stick to my thoughts. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the review. The one word that comes to mind for me when thinking about this film is “melancholy”. This is a story about endings: the end of innocence, the end of relationships, the end of youth, the end of life, the end of friendships, the end of a town. Change is a constant and sometimes change means irreversible decline in all its guises. Through the simple, almost simplistic portrayal of a small group of people in a nondescript dusty town, Bogdanovich captured the essence of what it means for the nostalgia of youth to fade away and be replaced by the uncertain, meaner present and future of adulthood.

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