When film critics or film journalists decide to become filmmakers, you’d think it would be good idea. After all, their extensive analytic knowledge should bring a lot to the production process. On the few occasions when this has happened, it’s been a mixed blessing. When film critic Peter Bogdanovich began making films in the late 1960s, his first few films were interesting to say the least and occasionally outstanding. His 1968 thriller Targets with screen legend Boris Karloff was amusing and quite chilling; his tribute to the 1930’s screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972), with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, was hilarious. But it is his 1971 black and white coming of age film, The Last Picture Show, that made some believe he could be a true film artist.
The Last Picture Show is a moving adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about adolescent teens in a small town of Anarene, Texas in 1951. The film starred a terrific ensemble cast of young upcoming stars Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, as well as veterans Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.
Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Bridges) are the two most popular high school seniors on their school’s losing football team. Both are seeing girls who want to have “good” reputations. Sonny has been dating Charlene for a year now and things are routine; Duane is dating Jacy (Shepherd) the prettiest gal in the senior class. Jacy’s dad is rather well off, but her mother Lois (Burstyn) is living a life devoid of passion. On occasion she overtly flirts with Abilene (Clu Guulager), a guy who works for her husband. In fact, most of the town’s adults are leading passionless lives. The local café’s waitress Geneiveve (Brennan) watches the world go by while serving up coffee and cheeseburgers. Sam the Lion, the owner of the café, pool hall and local cinema (The Royal), lives for an occasional fishing trip and memories of his wilder days. Mrs. Ruth Popper (Leachman) is the lonesome coach’s wife, whose passions are revived after Sonny takes her to several doctor’s appointments, and casual talk turns to sexual desire. A young mute boy, Billy (played by Tim’s brother Sam Bottoms), is humiliated when a bunch of the local guys pay his way to a backseat experience with a local hooker.
Bogdanovich who was mentored by the great Orson Welles at the time of this film’s pre-production. According to Josh Karp’s Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of ”The Other Side of the Wind it was Welles who recommended the film be shot in stark black and white. Welles also made suggestions on casting, and noted it was a sure thing that whomever played the elderly old cowboy, Sam the Lion, would likely receive an Oscar for his performance. Welles was correct. Johnson, the veteran of so many Westerns, won a best supporting actor Oscar as Sam.
In one of Johnson’s finest scenes he tells Sonny of how the country’s changing. While spending a lazy afternoon at a local fishing hole, Sam recalls how twenty years ago he used to take a wild woman out there swimming and how much he truly loved her. But that woman was married so nothing more came of it after a while. Sonny would later learn that that wild gal was Jacy’s mom, Lois.
So much of this film is about the physical environment and the feeling it evokes. Bogdanovich fills the background with early ‘50s twangy old country tunes by Hank Williams, Hank Snow and others. Robert Surtees’ cinematography quietly captures the small town loneliness, the stark buildings, windswept streets and angst with thoughtful poetic beauty. At times his visual imagery is closely reminiscent of John Ford’s Westerns (a director Bogdanovich greatly admired).
The Last Picture Show is an outstanding tale of growing up in an innocent time, a film much more effective and profound than George Lucas’s American Graffiti, made two years later. It would receive a total of 8 Oscar nominations including: Best Picture, Director, Adapting Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Burstyn) and Best Cinematography; it won for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress (Leachman). Sadly, when Bogdanovich revisited these characters in the 1990 remake Texasville the results were truly disappointing.