The Last Picture Show



USA 1971 : Peter Bogdanovich : 118mins

The Last Picture Show more than lives up to its exalted reputation as an American masterpiece: achingly beautiful, strikingly confident and piercingly mature. But this is a puzzling kind of greatness, because the film stands so far above anything else in Bogdanovich’s long career. His debut Targets (1969), was a promisingly original, economical thriller – but Picture Show is a quantum leap forward, all the more baffling considering the largely unsatisfactory titles that followed, reaching a nadir (let’s hope) with the shoddily inept The Cat’s Meow (2001).

Peter Bart’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls suggests Bogdanovich’s success depended on his collaboration with then-lover Polly Platt – who apparently acted as a virtual co-director for all Picture Show‘s scenes (their romantic and professional partnership ended when Bogdanovich left Platt for his star, Cybill Shepherd). Platt was also heavily involved in the adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s source novel – for which she’s credited along with McMurtry and Bogdanovich. While New Yorker Bogdanovich reportedly struggled to ‘get’ the novel’s small-town atmosphere, Platt responded much more strongly, having herself been brought up in an out-of-the-way spot very similar to McMurtry’s fictional Anarene, Texas.

This perhaps explains the film’s utterly believable evocation of this tiny, one-street settlement in the early fifties. Best friends Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are leaving school and facing up to adult responsibilities. Lacking strong father figures, they turn to wise mentor Sam (Ben Johnson), who operates three of the town’s main businesses, including the fleapit cinema. The boys’ friendship is tested when both fall for local beauty Jacy (Shepherd), and Sonny’s relationship with Jacy causes him to neglect his on-off affair with the wife (Cloris Leachman) of his basketball coach. When Sam suddenly dies (off-screen, like many key events) Anarene rapidly hits the skids – its sudden decline symbolised most powerfully by the movie-house’s demise.

First-time viewers of The Last Picture Show are, however, often surprised by how late in the day the closure of the cinema actually happens. It comes very sudden, very near the end, hardly mentioned at all until it’s almost over – and is explicitly the direct result of Sam’s lousy judgement. He leaves the running of the Royal to the old woman who operates the concessions stand, and her lack of cinema-management experience means no-one is surprised when the enterprise goes belly-up soon after. This isn’t the only example of Sam’s blundering – he leaves his pool-hall to Sonny (who proves unable to make it pay) and a considerable sum of money to one of Sonny’s school-mates, who soon after is disgraced after kidnapping a small girl with apparently paedophile intent.

But Sam’s death, regardless of his will’s disastrous consequences, is clearly the end of an era – and not just for Anarene. For Bogdanovich, Platt and McMurtry, it symbolises the death of a noble cinematic tradition – their film is, among many other things, a farewell to the Western genre with which Johnson was so closely associated. Bart identifies the 1969 Oscars, where Midnight Cowboy beat True Grit for Best Picture, as the transitional moment when Old Hollywood gave way to the New – and emphasises how strongly Bogdanovich and Platt ‘rooted’ for True Grit. The Last Picture Show can be read as a direct consequence of that defeat – its tone is elegaic, grim, often depressingly bleak, very anti-nostalgic, in fact.

The film is like the flip-side of American Graffiti, George Lucas’s gaudy-neon, energetic blast of rock-fuelled early-sixties Californian nostalgia. Impressive as it is, Lucas’s romp seems adolescent and puny alongside The Last Picture Show, shot in timeless black-and-white by cinematographer Robert Surtees: when Sonny looks over the Anarene skyline by night, clouds hovering in the dark sky, it’s one of the most lyrical landscape shots in American movies. Time after time, everything comes brilliantly together: the visuals, the remarkable, restrained use of period music, and the performances by the large cast.

But, despite the strength-in-depth of the ensemble (Johnson and Leachman won Oscars, Ellen Burstyn was nominated, Eileen Brennan steals her scenes as a waitress), this is very much Bottoms’ picture – the fact that he never became as big a star as either Bridges or Shepherd (or even Randy Quaid, who pops up in a small part) seems to have resulted in a downplaying of his contribution to Picture Show‘s success. This could perhaps be called ‘Wahlberg Syndrome’ after the way that, when audiences and critics talk about Boogie Nights, everybody mentions the supporting players but ignore the central performance around which the whole constellation revolves.

Bottoms has to pretty much carry the whole movie – he’s in nearly every sequence – and does so, culminating in the highly emotional finale where he visits the half-forgotten Leachman, who proceeds to unleash all her pent-up fury. It’s a lacerating display of anger – but even more impressive is the way the scene ends with a lengthy sequence involving hardly any dialogue, just these two damaged people sitting at a kitchen table: “Never you mind, never you mind,” she says. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much of a closing line. On celluloid, it’s poetry.

14th December, 2002
(seen on TV [!], 7th December)

by Neil Young
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