Thanks to Hurricane Harvey, Americans' attention has been focused this last week on Texas, so I thought I'd pick a Lone Star picture for our Saturday movie date. To be sure, The Last Picture Show is set a long way from the glitter of Houston, in a northern town up near the Oklahoma border that does not show the state at its most appealing - a desolate, decrepit Main Street, tumbleweeds bowling down it, dusty pool hall, flimsy screen doors banging in the wind, you know the drill. It's a simply constructed tale on a familiar theme, following the final year of high school through to the dawn of adulthood. But I have always loved this film, since I first saw it when I was about the age of its protagonists, and it has stayed with me over the decades.
In 1971 The Last Picture Show was supposed to be part of the post-Easy Rider/Bonnie and Clyde "New Hollywood" of gritty, younger directors liberated from the "studio system" (the "New Hollywood" has since been obliterated by a new "studio system" of CGI, franchises, superheroes, animated toys, animated emojis, and animated Lego versions of superhero franchises, but that's a story for another day). But, as its title suggests, The Last Picture Show is at least partly an elegy for Old Hollywood: the literal "last picture" playing at the only movie theater in town before it goes out of business is Howard Hawks' Red River; and the name of the one-horse burg - Anarene (an actual ghost town in Archer County, Texas) was chosen to evoke the Abilene where Red River is set. Peter Bogdanovich's film is a younger man's hommage to Hawks and John Ford; he filmed it in black-and-white because Orson Welles suggested it, after a frustrated Bogdanovich complained that he didn't know how to get the depth of focus that Welles had on Citizen Kane. At a time when the likes of Hawks and Ford and Welles were unwanted and largely unemployed, Bogdanovich (who felt about old directors the way I felt about old songwriters) befriended them and learned a lot.
And, of course, the conscience and moral center of the town is Sam the Lion, played by the laconic, grizzled Ben Johnson, the rodeo champ and steer-wrangler John Ford plucked from the ranks of 1940s stunt-doubles and made a reliable cowboy actor and sidekick to John Wayne for the next three decades. Johnson didn't want to take the part of Sam - there were too many words, which he was not generally partial to - but Bogdanovich got Ford to talk him into it and promised it would win him an Oscar. Which it did, and deservedly so for a subtly authoritative performance with the camera lingering on all the crags and crevices of his visage even more lovingly than it does on Cybill Shepherd's finer points. Sam the Lion is the guy who keeps things going - he owns the movie house, the pool room, the diner - and, when he's gone, the town gets off-kilter and never quite recovers its footing.
To be sure, amidst all this hommage, there's plenty of New Hollywood touches: nudity, for example, and with Miss Shepherd, which if I recall correctly was the main point of interest upon my younger self's first viewing. And the film is sufficiently New that a wake of shallower imitations followed, all those elegaic coming-of-age movies from American Graffiti to Stand By Me that owe a debt to what Bogdanovich did here. It's striking that so many of these films are set in our cultural commissars' most despised era, the Fifties and early pre-pill Sixties - because even revolutionaries feel the loss of what was. Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry (author of the original novel) are focused on the early part of that era - fall 1951 to fall 1952 - so it's not a lot of narcissistic boomer angst. But, if you've seen any two or three specimens from this genre of film, you know the score: The end of childhood, the last summer at the swimming hole, is a moment, no more ...but, on the eve of adulthood, you think it's forever: all your loves, all your friendships, all your passions, all eternal.
The small towns can be in Maine or California, but we all recognize the dramatis personae: the duck-quiffed cocksure jock; the sensitive boy; the slimy rich kid lavishing gifts for the little action he gets; the prettiest girl in town, cold-hearted and calculating. But Bogdanovich's neat trick is to cast all the types almost better than anybody's done before or since, even though hardly any of them were known at all before this movie: he selected Jeff Bridges at his most buoyant and boyish because he wanted ducktailed Duane to be more likeable than in the novel; he chose Timothy Bottoms for the soulful Sonny because he had sad eyes, and for the creepy Lester a smirking Randy Quaid; and for the town doll they all covet he picked a model he spotted at a newsstand on the cover of Glamour magazine who'd never acted before and didn't particularly want to because it was too much like hard work - Cybill Shepherd. This last could have been particularly disastrous, but, even though Jacy cynically uses all the boys besotted by her, Bogdanovich didn't want too worldly a performance: she's not a bitch, she's an ingenue trying to play one. "Jacy's the kind o' girl who brings out the meanness in a man," warns the waitress. But men bring out the meanness in her: she's pretty and she knows it, so she can afford to be fickle and, up to a point, manipulative. Miss Shepherd is perfectly cast, and gives a superb performance.
The youngsters are matched by the town's older residents, for whom the fevers of youth have passed and the accommodations with glum reality have been reached: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy's vivacious mom, married to a successful wildcatter and understanding, unlike her daughter, that sexual appetites should never threaten one's material prosperity; Eileen Brennan as the diner's perpetually wearied waitress; Cloris Leachman as the lonely wife of a football coach of homosexual inclinations... All these players not only look like who they're meant to be, but manage to communicate that their characters had a real life pre-dating the first scene of the picture. But that goes all the way down to the supporting cast of leathery, paunchy townsfolk led by sheriff Joe Heathcock, who all speak (to my non-Texan ear) in very plausibly uninflected voices that nevertheless manage to be remarkably expressive, whether they're talking about the school team's poor showing or a fatal road accident right on Main Street.
"It's an awful small town for any kind of carrying on," Genevieve the waitress cautions Sonny. She's aware of his particular carry-on, naturally: It's a town of secrets, and most of them are known, if, in the way of taciturn rustics, unacknowledged. And they entwine back through the generations in surprising ways. The economy with which Bogdanovich and McMurtry sketch the backstory ("after my wife lost her mind," as one character dates an incident) is especially deft, as are the long shots - Ellen Burstyn stumbling alone and away from the funeral of a lost love, the faraway look in Ben Johnson's eyes in his final scene.
The Last Picture Show is thus rather more particular in its sense of time and place than most coming-of-age movies. That's accentuated by the soundtrack of old pop records, which was rare in 1971 - and certainly nothing that John Ford or Howard Hawks would have been interested in - but became a plonkingly crass period shorthand by the Eighties and Nineties. Bogdanovich deploys the technique more subtly than most of his successors: rather than simply looking up what was on the Hit Parade that week, he leans heavily on Hank Williams, a familiar name now (if mainly for dynastic reasons) but not so much then, and indeed with many of his hits better known through mainstream pop covers by Rosie Clooney ("Half As Much") and Tony Bennett ("Cold Cold Heart"), so that the bright and familiar is rendered more plaintive and local. The effect is unusual: a ragbag of hit songs that functions as a coherent score. Bogdanovich gave a lot of thought to the music - Jacy's mom waltzing at the town's Christmas dance to "The Loveliest Night of the Year", a then current hit from a Mario Lanza movie, but played by the local fiddle band.
There's a lot of period detail in the underwear, too - all the girdles and pointy bras. But Bogdanovich's treatment of the sex is likewise distinctive. In the back row of the picture house or the front seat of the pick-up, the town's girls have calibrated to a millimeter just how far the lads' wandering hands are permitted to venture. When Jacy meets a rich boy from the Wichita Falls set who throws nude swimming parties, she sees him as her ticket out. But he won't go with her because she's a virgin, so she determines to surrender her maidenhood to boring old Duane back in small-town Anarene and then dump him for the rich kid. A motel room is procured, "Wish You Were Here" is playing somewhat ambiguously on the radio, but Jacy's peremptoriness ("That tickles. You know I hate to be tickled... Just go on and do it") is no aid to romance, Having coveted his prize so long, Duane can't rise to the occasion. Furious, she insists he pretend that all went well for the benefit of their classmates, parked outside the motel room and desirous of a successful outcome. When her girlfriends burst through the door anxious to hear the details, she looks up from her chastely lowered eyelids and coos that "I just can't describe it in words." It is, in fact, a non-sex scene.
Conversely, when Sonny embarks on an affair with his coach's neglected wife, both are making do - Sonny because he broke up with Charlene Duggs, Ruth because she made a terrible, profound mistake but "I weren't brought up to leave a husband". It's meant to be clinical and awkward: the marital bedstead, unaccustomed to such exertions, creaks noisily and in crude rhythm. But tears stain Ruth's face, because it has been so long without human contact, without touch. The scene is both grim and tender. Like Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman won an Oscar, and the performance was even more extraordinary if you only knew her from her contemporaneous turn as Phyllis on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". While Jacy contrives to be deflowered, Ruth visibly re-flowers over the course of the picture: she becomes radiant. Yet the film's final scene is intentionally at tonal odds with everything that preceded it: As no one ever does in a town of known secrets, Miss Leachman lets rip in a bitter, raw, furious tirade that owes more to Euripides than Howard Hawks.
With the exception of Jeff Bridges, living large on over-ripe turns in Iron Man et al, most of Bogdanovich's splendid company never fulfilled the promise shown here: Timothy Bottoms became a journeyman actor and producer, his brother Sam (who plays the town simpleton, sweetly sweeping the pool room over and over, the cap on his head lovingly reversed by Sonny a dozen times in the movie) died young, Cybill Shepherd retreated to sitcoms, Randy Quaid fled to Canada... The director, too, has to be accounted in the pantheon of promise unfulfilled. In Anarene, boys smitten by Jacy never quite recover from their obsession. So too for Bogdanovich: during the shooting, he embarked on an affair with Miss Shepherd - even though his then wife (and professional collaborator), Polly Platt, was the film's production designer and critical to the conviction of the piece. Miss Platt stuck around and sportingly did her husband's mistress' hair every morning. Which is, I suppose, being practical about these things. Bogdanovich was rather less clear-sighted: He decided Cybill was his muse and starred her in ill-advised Henry James adaptations and Cole Porter musicals that damaged both their careers; whether or not she was his muse, Cybill was no sybil when it came to picking projects. By the Eighties, Bogdanovich was barely making movies. In 1990, he and McMurtry and most of the Picture Show principals re-teamed for a sequel called Texasville, exploring Jacy, Sonny et al in middle age.
But, like the man says, you can't go home again. I always like the scene in the picture with the three principals on the front seat of Jacy's car, bellowing their clunky school song, semi-mockingly, semi-sincerely, as is the way of youth. That's the trick of the film right there: it's knowing, but it means it. Likewise, the last summer of adolescence is both an endless summer and a fleeting moment: with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich took the moment and distilled it for all time.
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