Last Picture Show, The (United States, 1971)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Last Picture Show, The Poster

The Last Picture Show is a character study in the truest sense of the term: a movie in which the narrative is just a mechanism by which we get to know the men and women inhabiting a small-town Texas community in the early 1950s. For director Peter Bogdanovich, this represented his third feature film (although one of the previous two was done under a pseudonym for Roger Corman) and showed him at the pinnacle of his creative powers. He would go on to make two more successful movies (What's Up Doc? and Paper Moon) before the roof caved in. The complete collapse of Bogdanovich's career may be unrivaled in Hollywood. Even Orson Welles didn't implode so quickly and utterly.

The Last Picture Show is a rare movie that plays differently, but equally well, to members of separate generations. For those born in the mid-1940s and earlier, this is a nostalgia trip - a journey through memories unearthed in the nether spaces of the mind. For younger viewers - those who came into being after the second World War - The Last Picture Show is a time capsule to an era that, while not that long ago, is unlike anything that came after. 1951 Texas was a strange and contradictory place where a cultural war was being waged between the old and the new. Television was rising to challenge the preeminence of movie houses. The first shots of the Cold War had been fired and the United States was in Korea. Yet, in places like Anarene, vestiges of the Old West still existed, like the tumbleweeds occasionally seen blowing down the lonely streets.

In his 1971 review of The Last Picture Show, Roger Ebert wrote a personal essay steeped in nostalgia. The movie took him back to his teens (he was born in 1942), and stirred memories of what it was like growing up in Urbana, Illinois. For me, The Last Picture Show opens a window into a world that had all but vanished by the time I appeared on the scene in 1967. My earliest memories are from 1969 or 1970 - a time when the relative innocence of the 1950s had been overturned by the dual-pronged tumult of the sexual and civil rights revolutions. (This was also the time when Bogdanovich decided to look back and make this movie.)

The three principal characters in The Last Picture Show are graduating high school seniors preparing to make their way in the world. They are Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a naīve boy who always seems to come out second man on the totem pole; Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), a handsome but unfocused guy who has invested too much into a relationship with one girl; and Jacy Farrrow (Cybill Shepherd), a master manipulator whose wealth, good looks, and sexual curiosity allow her to acquire any boy she wants and discard him when she gets bored.

There are plenty of adults in Anarene, as well. The most prominent is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the pool hall, the diner, and the movie theater. Sam has a special bond with Sonny. In one of the film's most memorable films, the two go fishing in a pond where there are no fish (only turtles) and talk about life. Sonny is having affair with a lonely housewife, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), but she's more than 20 years his senior and is married to his high school coach. Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn) is an older, wiser version of her daughter, Jacy, and tries to offer some practical advice to her offspring - most of which is ignored. At 17, Jacy is rebelling, and her mother can only hope it doesn't end badly.

It's easy to forget that The Last Picture Show was filmed in 1971, not 1951. Set design and strong direction help the illusion, but no move on Bogdanovich's part was more critical than the decision to shoot the movie in black-and-white. That one simple stylistic decision transforms the film. With the exception of the nudity (which the Hays Code would have banned from a '50s production), it doesn't require much of stretch to believe that The Last Picture Show is a contemporary drama made in 1951 about characters living in a rural Texas town during that year. Viewers in 1971 were transported back two decades. Viewers in 2006 are taken back five and one-half decades. The year in which the movie is seen is irrelevant; once the film starts, the time is 1951.

The Last Picture Show explores the universality of aspects of the human condition, the most obvious of which is the need to connect. This is illustrated in the poignant, doomed affair between Sonny and Ruth, in the remembrances of Sam and Lois, and in the string of men who fall before Jacy. Everyone knows everyone else's business, but that's the nature of a small town. There are no secrets in Anarene, but that doesn't mean there's a lot of intimacy, either. Bogdanovich gets mileage out of this apparent contradiction. We suspect the community is too small to hold the likes of Jacy and Duane, but others, like Sonny, will live out their lives there.

With the exception of Ben Johnson, the veteran of numerous Westerns, the cast was comprised of fresh faces and character actors. Johnson rightfully won an Oscar for his work here. He is the glue that holds the film together. Sam may not be front-and-center for much of the running time, but he's as important a presence as any of the leads. The other Oscar winner is Cloris Leachman, whose lengthy resume prior to The Last Picture Show consisted mainly of television appearances. Her portrayal of Ruth is emotionally true, and more than a little heartbreaking. We can feel her loneliness, her hope, and her pain.

The film represented a break-out for Jeff Bridges, who was on the cusp of leaping to the A-list. For Cybill Shepherd, this was her big screen debut. She carries off the role of Jacy with the right mix of moxie and feigned invulnerability. The skinny dipping scene says all that needs to be said about her. Shepherd is good in this film, but her lack of range proved to be her undoing (and that of Bogdanovich, who was smitten with her and insisted on casting her inappropriately in a number of future productions) in subsequent features. She would eventually disappear in the late '70s only to re-surface opposite Bruce Willis in Moonlighting. A lack of star power and charisma prevented Timothy Bottoms from developing into more than a second-tier actor; his limitations are on display in The Last Picture Show. Despite being the central character, he is in many ways the film's least compelling individual, and his relationship with the mentally challenged Billy (played by Bottoms' brother, Sam) lacks emotional depth.

Bogdanovich adapted the screenplay from the novel by Lonesome Dove scribe Larry McMurtry. This should make it less surprising that there's the ghost of a Western hovering somewhere just beyond the edges of the screen. At times, The Last Picture Show looks like a Western. At other times, it feels like one. I'm sure the presence of Ben Johnson had as much to do with this as McMurtry's involvement, but the result is impossible to deny.

19 years after The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich and McMurtry collaborated on Texasville, the disappointing sequel. Most of the cast returned, and the movie was set in 1984, 33 years after the original. The central characters are Duane and Jacy, with Sonny reduced to a supporting part. Texasville goes nowhere, and serves only to remind us by comparison of how good its predecessor is, and how unnecessary is a reunion. The Last Picture Show stands perfectly on its own. The idea of "catching up with" the characters is appealing only as long as one doesn't see Texasville.

The movie theater on Main Street in The Last Picture Show plays a less important part than one might suspect from the title. It's in only a handful of scenes, but its primary role is symbolic. When it closes, there's a sense of loss. A meeting place is no more. The hangout and make-out location for teenagers has shut its doors. There will be no more stories told on big screens in the dark. The world has entered the television age.

Lovers of dramas featuring richly developed characters and impeccably crafted settings will most appreciate what The Last Picture Show has to offer. It's a slow, thoughtful piece with great emotional resonance but not a lot of plot. It's a little sad to consider that this was the director's Citizen Kane - a movie he would forever try without success to equal. The tale of Bogdanovich's life, from the highs of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon to the low of lover Dorothy Stratton's murder, would make for lurid, tragic cinema. During his later years, all Bogdonavich had to offer were occasional appearances on The Sopranos, but in 1971 he gave us one of the most accomplished views ever of a slice of America that otherwise would have been lost in the mists of time.

Last Picture Show, The (United States, 1971)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1971-10-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1