Like the state of California in the eyes of surviving midwesterners caught up in an apocalypse, the old days are a paradise to these Texans, a paradise one yearns for but will never reach because it is gone, a mirage that only lucidly lives in scrapbooks and memories. They forget that, in these supposedly more romantic days, they were likely as miserable as they are now, just with a few less wrinkles.
But old times are all these people can believe in. Anarene’s population falls short of 500, and it feels like less. The adults have probably lived here their entire lives, perhaps too scared to see a world more urgent than the sleepy one to which they’ve grown accustomed. The children, along with the soon-to-be high school graduates, might not ever leave, either: Their stays may be interrupted by college or their decision to enlist, but with their families and their friends still listlessly calling home to the Texas town, they’ll inevitably return. Get married, raise a family. The cycle has drudged onward for decades.
But Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) interrupts the cycle, setting up camp in a desolate, black-and-white 1951 where prospects continue to be wretched. We reckon the people we meet have always lived in Anarene in one way or another — these are just their latest incarnations.
Within the movie’s expansive ensemble reside characters we’ve met before: the lonely housewife, the brash but cowardly jock, the prettiest girl in school, the weathered former frontiersman, the sensitive young soul who shouldn’t be in this town to begin with.
Bogdanovich doesn’t pander to the possibilities of melodrama, though. Avoiding anything that might otherwise turn it into a soap, he is instead intent on finding something universal in these people, and how their sufferings, as well as their accomplishments, might line up with our own. And, in some ways, how they line up with the struggles that naturally come with the human experience.
It does not feel like a young man’s movie — so nonchalant, contemplative, emotional — and yet it is the work of a 32-year-old filmmaker without much prior experience in moviemaking. By 1971, Bogdanovich had only made two feature lengths: the no-budget sci-fi jape Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) and the unnerving psychological thriller Targets (1968), neither of which suggested that a masterpiece would soon be coming out of the woodwork.
Bogdanovich’s interest in making The Last Picture Show, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Larry McMurty, was piqued by accident. While stopped at an anonymous drugstore in the earlier part of the decade, Bogdanovich had picked up the novel while waiting in line, out of curiosity. He put it back, however, thanks to its blurb’s uninteresting announcement that the novel was about Texas kids coming of age.
But a week or so later, Sal Mineo, of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) fame, coincidentally handed the filmmaker a copy of The Last Picture Show himself, sighing that, while he had always wanted to be in an adaptation of the book if it ever were made, he was now at too awkward an age to play any of the central parts. Inspired, Bogdanovich read the novel, was struck by it, and, with the approval of his wife, Polly Platt, went through the motions of production as any director would, unaware that a classic was about to be born.
Famously, Bogdanovich became one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the 1970s after the release of The Last Picture Show. Many saw him as a successor to Orson Welles, who had similarly announced himself a generation-defining artist at a young age. It helped that Bogdanovich’s next two films, screwball homage What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Depression-era black comedy Paper Moon (1973), were also well-received.
The film was ultimately nominated for eight Academy Awards in total and took home two trophies, for supporting actors Cloris Leachman (as the wife of the closeted football coach who’s having an affair with a high schooler played by Timothy Bottoms) and Ben Johnson (as a tired theater owner and general supplier of wisdom).
Yet with such a titanic reputation preceding it, it comes as something of a shock that The
Last Picture Show is so understated, so pensive. It doesn’t use its black-and-white cinematography as a device to harken back to the fizzy days of ‘50s Hollywood but rather as a tool to emphasize how drab and barren Anarene is. It doesn’t host performances showy at their center, either — they all carry a very real, deep-seated anguish. This is a movie meant to evoke the unpredictability of the everyday, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
It contains many wonderful moments that simultaneously encapsulate a character’s entire life story and allow us to understand what a certain moment means to that character. I love the scene where Sam the Lion (Johnson) takes 18-year-old Sonny (Bottoms) fishing (despite knowing that this particular body of water contains no fish), and bittersweetly recalls a period in his youth wherein he had an affair with an older woman and oftentimes took her to this very spot. And the instance at the beginning of the feature when Sonny takes his homely girlfriend to the movies but is distracted by the school’s utmost beauty Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), whom Robert Surtees lights like Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951).
This movie captures so much: The uncertainty one feels as they’re graduating from high school; the standstill in which one finds themselves when they’re trapped in a marriage that’s run its course; the loneliness of middle-age; the constant despair that comes with the wondering if you’re meeting (or have met) your full potential.
Bogdanovich and McMurty’s Oscar-nominated screenplay wisely utilizes space as a mechanism to convey these realities. Characters rarely express themselves through monologues, instead given the task to simply live (whether that living be supplemented by tears in their eyes or grins on their faces) and give us a part of themselves through expression alone.
The actors playing them are stupendous — how rare it is to have this large an ensemble so full of rich, gorgeous performances. Bottoms stuns as the kid who is wise beyond his years but is still stupid enough to think this affair is an excusable endeavor. A 22-year-old Jeff Bridges impresses as the footballer more prone to thinking with his heart than with his head; Johnson stupefies in a role so abbreviated but so haunting. I admire Eileen Brennan as the sad-eyed waitress who keeps a brave face on for her customers, and I admire Ellen Burstyn even more as the homemaker who tries so hard to rebel against the role society has given her — she’s foul-mouthed, dares to carry herself like Lana Turner in lieu of pushing 40 — but remains trapped.
But most tantalizing about The Last Picture Show is Shepherd (breathtakingly beautiful in the way Grace Kelly was at her Hitchcock prime), who plays an individual who knows she’s breathtakingly beautiful and decides that she’s both going to lose her virginity by the end of the year and sleep with every boy who looks her way, too.
The film begins and ends with a gritty, almost ugly shot of downtown Anarene, the winds blowing and the tumbleweeds rolling rampantly. We’d swear we were in the midst of a ghost town. But as we discover, things aren’t dead here, just exhausted. This town doesn’t have a reason to exist, and the people who live in it don’t either.
Yet both push forward, even as the local theater closes, even as some families move on to different towns, even as America changes. But The Last Picture Show remains timeless and ubiquitous, one of those movies set in such a specific time and place but nonetheless continues to feel current and evocative. What a masterstroke it is. What an implacable, eerie enigma it is. A
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
The Last Picture Show September 26, 2017
he residents of Anarene, Texas wish they could live in the old days. The days where families were more humorously dysfunctional and friendships were more adventuresome; the days where the food tasted better and the jokes were funnier. Years in which all felt licked and dipped in a pot of sugar; years in which you were younger and thought things couldn’t get any better.