Monday is the first day of school down here in Dallas so it seems only appropriate that this latest entry in our Back to School series should be a look at one of those most quintessential Texas films ever made, the 1971 best picture nominee, The Last Picture Show.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show takes place in 1951 and tells the story of two high school seniors, best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges, reminding us once again why everbody loves him). Sonny and Duane live in the rural town of Anarene, Texas. With little to look forward to in the future, beyond perhaps getting a job working in the oil fields, Sonny and Duane are both intent on enjoying their final year of high school. Sometimes, that means driving down to Mexico for the weekend. Sometimes, it means going to the only theater in town and seeing a movie. Most of the time, however, it means hanging out in a pool hall owned by the strict but fatherly Sam (Oscar winner Ben Johnson). Often times they are accompanied by the intellectually disabled Billy (Sam Bottoms), who responds to everything with a blank smile and spends most of his spare time wandering around with a broom, futilely trying to sweep the dusty streets.
The charismatic and impetuous Sonny is dating the beautiful and self-centered Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd), who is the daughter of the wealthiest woman in town. Jacy knows that her cynical mother (Ellen Burstyn) is having an affair with an oil worker named Abilene (Clu Gulager) but she’s more concerned with her own future. Even though she’s dating Sonny, Jacy still accepts an invitation from the awkward Lester Marlow (played by a memorably goofy Randy Quaid) to attend a naked indoor pool party. At the party, she meets Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), who is rich and will be able to provide her with the future that Duane never will. However, Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in her because she’s a virgin. If nothing else, this gives Jacy a reason to stay with Duane, at least until after they have sex.
Meanwhile, the far more sensitive Sonny ends up having an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance in this film), the wife of the high school football coach. It appears that Sonny truly cares about Ruth but then he finds himself being tempted by none other than his best friend’s girlfriend…
At heart, The Last Picture Show really is basically a small town soap opera, a Texas version of Peyton Place. The difference between the two films — beyond the fact that The Last Picture Show just happens to be a 1oo times better than Peyton Place — is that The Last Picture Show doesn’t take place in a beautiful, idealized small town. Instead, the town of Anarene is a believably bleak location, one that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in the American southwest. A good deal of the success of The Last Picture Show is due to the fact that it was actually filmed on location in Archer City, Texas.
(Nothing annoys me more than when I see the mountains of California in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be taking place in North Texas. We don’t have mountains up here. For the most part, we don’t even have hills. The land is flat. You can see forever, if you know where to look.)
Of course, you can’t talk about The Last Picture Show without talking about Robert Surtees’s stunning black-and-white cinematography. Not only does the black-and-white remind us that this is a film about a fading way of life but it drives home the fact that Sonny and Duane don’t have much to look forward to. Growing up in Anarene means they are destined for lives without color or excitement. In the end, can you really blame them for occasionally acting before they think?
Ultimately, the success of The Last Picture Show is due to a lot of things. This was Peter Bogdanovich’s second film as a director and he did such an excellent job here that he’s basically spent the rest of his career trying to live up to this one film. (That said, Bodganovich also left his wife for Cybill Shepherd — despite the fact that his wife was the one who suggested that he make this film and cast Cybill in the first place! Don’t worry though — Polly Platt got her revenge by having a far more successful career than her ex-husband and she even produced Say Anything, a film that we will soon be looking at.) The screenplay, by McMurtry and Bogdanovich, is full of sharp dialogue and memorable characters. As for the performers, this is probably one of the best acted films ever made. Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms play off each other well, Cybill Shepherd is the epitome of casual destructiveness, and Ben Johnson is brilliantly cast as the film’s moral center. My favorite performance comes from Ellen Burstyn, who delivers every line with just the right combination of contempt and ennui.
Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show
If you’re a Texan, The Last Picture Show is one of those films that you simply have to see. And if you don’t enjoy it and if you don’t relate to at least a few of the characters (I related to Jacy, though I like to think that I’m a lot nicer in the way I treat people), then you’re not a real Texan.
It’s as simple as that.