The Last Picture Show (1971) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson
Peter Bogdanovich is one of cinema’s great historians. Though his directorial output is sparse in his older age, he’s still writing novels and celebrating the history and art of Hollywood cinema. He regularly appears on DVD special features discussing the stories and anecdotes he’s collected over the years from his relationships with Hollywood’s greatest personalities. In the 70's he was one of the most prolific and celebrated directors of the 'film school generation'. Of course, Bogdanovich never went to film school, but learned his craft through watching and studying the great filmmakers.
His breakout film, "The Last Picture Show" is a product of his love for cinema. Years later it's still a masterpiece, a timeless elegant classic about a dying Texas town in the 1950's and the coming of age of it's youth. Timothy Bottoms plays Sonny, a typical jock high school student, good looking, popular, but with a palpable sense of doubt and worthlessness. His best buddy Duane (Jeff Bridges) is his fellow pick up artist and backfield partner. There’s also Cybill Shepherd as Duane’s on and off again girlfriend who tests the waters with almost every guy in town in an effort to lose her virginity. In his last year in high school, the future seems bleak for Sonny, his vulnerability causes him to start up an affair with his high school football coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman) – his elder by 20 years. The events of the year play out the narrative with the subtext of the dying town and it citizens getting left behind with the dust and the tumbleweeds.
While the film is based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, the material allows Bogdanovich to express himself using the language of his mentors. It’s a unique mixture of tones, the sombre reflection on lost youth and the spiritual connection to the town echoing the themes of the great Westerns. Yet, there’s a distinct liberal dramatization of the sexual discovery of the characters. There’s much uninhibited nudity and frank sexual discussions, which echoes the progressiveness whimsy of the French New Wave.
The film is filled with wonderful characters and honest and truthful relationships between them. It's a pitch perfect lead performance from Timothy Bottoms who expresses his disillusionment with his future by taking up with Cloris Leachman, a performance which her won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The relationship is played more with frankness than traditional romance, or even comedy (as in 'The Graduate'), but it's the just the right mixture to pull out the dramatic emotional conflict from both characters. Cybill Shepherd, in her first role, is both gorgeous and awkward as the virginal Jacy. It's intriguing watching her discover the power of her beauty, and how her manipulation can drive men crazy. Ben Johnson (also an Oscar-winner) has the most endearing scene, a beautiful speech to Timothy Bottoms on the shore of the river confessing the secret love affair of his youth which he never really got over. Later on we'll find out who his secret lover was making for a remarkably emotional climax.
Visually Bogdanovich uses the language of Ford and Welles. His exteriors creates that breathless mythological John Ford world. The ever-present wind creates a continuous motion in the frame literally sweeping us off our feet and into this bygone time and place. DP Robert Surtees employs the great elegance of Gregg Toland’s famous deep focus photography - a technique birthed by Welles and Ford in the 40’s.
"The Last Picture Show" plays like a southern "American Graffiti" - George Lucas' 1973 breakout ensemble youth film. The music in "Last Picture Show" is all source music heard from radios in the background. While Lucas' soundtrack of his youth was early rock and roll, Picture Show uses classic country and western tunes like Hank Williams, Pee Wee King, Johnny Ray. It not only sets the time and place, but it outmoded tone of depressed melancholy.
"The Last Picture Show" is a treasure for cinephiles, made with the same kind of reverent passion for the art as the films of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Francois Traffaut.
"Last Picture Show" is available on a new two-disc DVD set which also features Bogdanovich's atrocious 1976 flop 'Nickelodeon'