Do the films we love in our youth still resonate for us years later?
I clearly remember how “The Last Picture Show” bowled me over when I first saw it as a college student. Based upon the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film covers one year in the life of small town Anarene, Texas, during the early 1950’s. The windblown locale (Archer City, McMurtry’s real-life home town) is itself a character in the narrative and serves as one of the film’s strongest assets. It’s hard to shake the sense of desolation produced by that short strip of worn storefronts lining Main Street across from an equally dilapidated Texaco station. This stark image is accentuated by director Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to film the story in black and white—unusual at the time of its 1971 release, but absolutely fitting.
Viewing the movie so many years later, I was struck by how well Bogdanovich captures the claustrophobia and sheer boredom of small town life. The only entertainment spots in Anarene are the town movie theater, a tattered pool hall and Friday night high school football games in which the local boys always seem to be trounced. Everybody knows everybody else’s business—there really are no secrets.
Enter Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), two contrasting high school seniors, the latter a not-necessarily-very-nice guy, the former, a far deeper individual who sometimes doesn’t understand his own emotions. The casting of this film couldn’t be better, and it’s even more of a treat now to watch these young men at the outset of their careers to see how they were able to grow into mature actors. Jeff Bridges is terrific, and Timothy Bottoms is so heartfelt as Sonny that I was shocked to learn John Ritter was almost cast in the part (Nobody does suffering better than Timothy Bottoms). Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion, Anarene’s anchor and resident role model, has lost little over the years—that Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this role was well-deserved, though his long monologue at the reservoir may seem a bit stagey today (fault of the script, not the actor). And Clu Gulager, playing Abilene, the local heel, may have the fewest lines in the movie but nevertheless leaves a strong impression.
Sadly, there’s one aspect of “The Last Picture Show” that’s become more grating over the years. This was model Cybill Shepherd’s first acting job, and unfortunately it shows. Chosen by Peter Bogdanovich to play Jacy, the prettiest girl in town, she fills the bill visually but it’s a shame that so many of her line readings go clank (One is reminded of Pauline Kael’s appraisal of an acting performance of Cyd Charisse: “She reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.”) Of course she improved tremendously after this film, but there’s a difference between acting insincerely as Jacy does and insincerely acting which Ms. Shepherd does. However, she plays the comedy well—Jacy’s reaction to Duane’s non-performance in the motel room and later, her snappishness at Duane’s preening following his success, is classic. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic had a more skilled actress with a greater understanding of Jacy’s duplicity played the role (In a parallel universe equipped with time travel, Alexis Bledel would have been ideal).
But what’s particularly striking when watching “The Last Picture Show” now is that it provided such strong roles for three mature actresses: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother, Lois; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the football coach’s wife; and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, who runs the town’s cafe owned by Sam the Lion. While few actors could play comedy as well as Ms. Brennan (check out “Private Benjamin”), it’s great to see her thrive in a more dramatic role. Both Ms. Leachman and Ms. Burstyn were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and while Ms. Leachman won, Ms. Burstyn is a lot more fun to watch. Although she’s bored to death by her husband, Lois still enjoys life. She’s accumulated more than her share of mileage, while Ruth has seemingly stayed in her shell. Nevertheless, both of these characters connect with the recessive Sonny in two of the best scenes in the film. Ellen Burstyn’s roguish, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” look at Sonny after she rescues him from his runaway marriage to Jacy, and Cloris Leachman’s explosion at the unfaithful young man when he seeks her out after Billy’s death, the scene which cinched her the Oscar, retain their power after all this time.
It’s a gift that “The Last Picture Show,” is the type of quiet movie that nevertheless still speaks to those who return to it after so many years. Seeing it again is certainly time well spent.