By John H. Foote
22. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)
For a very few short years, Peter Bogdanovich was among the elite directors of the seventies, exploding into the forefront of filmmakers at the age of thirty one after a long career as a film critic, interviewer, and film historian/ essayist having interviewed and become friends with the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles. His breakthrough film was released to rave reviews in 1971, but four years later he was finished, crucified by the critics for two releases after a run of three great pictures. An Oscar nominee for Best Director, hailed as an auteur around the globe he was the victim of his own massive ego, believing he should be among the great directors of all time. More on that later in the article.
After directing a couple of very low budget films including Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff, Bogdanovich was invited to direct the adaptation of a book he had fell in love with, The Last Picture Show. Written by Larry McMurtry who would later write Lonesome Dove and win an Oscar for his screenplay to Brokeback Mountain (2005), McMurtry was in many ways a chronicler of Texas, past and present.
With The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich created a film that juxtaposed the struggles of young and middle aged, and over the course of the film we come to realize the only difference is the years that are between them, and the wide eyed hope the youth still possess. We watch how fragile that hope is, and how easily it can be destroyed carelessly by the actions of another and see in the adults the ravages of having that hope brought to ruination.
Set in Anarene, Texas, in 1951, the small town is in the early stages of death, but no one knows it. The young people are obsessed with sex, hoping to actually do it as opposed to talking about it. The boys in the town are all in lust for Jacy (Cybill Shepard) a beautiful, very aware young girl who knows exactly the impact she has on men and has known from a very young age. Her wiles are dangerous to any by or man who comes near her, she is reckless with her emotions and her love (if she is capable of loving anyone?) and hurts more than one man. Duane (Jeff Bridges) is her current boyfriend, but after a night in a hotel he is unable to perform, bringing Jacy to pretend as though they did have sex. Realizing there is no future with Duane, she dumps him and moves on, and on and on, eventually settling for Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), best friend of Duane and of course, she comes between the two. The new lovers try to escape town but are stopped and Sonny is warned by Jacy’s own mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn) to forget about her, knowing her daughter will ruin any man she comes near.
The film is frank in dealing with sex and sexuality, one of the first mainstream movies to show full frontal nudity pubic hair, and openly discuss sex. Affairs are portrayed, including one with an older woman, Ruth, hauntingly portrayed by Cloris Leachman in an Oscar winning performance, and Sonny, who after wounding her terribly, returns to her for comfort. Theirs seems to be the only love that is real in the film, along with the love Lois once had for the town’s patriarch Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).
There is life, and shocking death in Anarene, the last one by far the most tragic when young Billy (Sam Bottoms), a gentle, simple minded boy who sweeps the streets is killed after being struck by a truck. With the closing of the movie theatre, Sam gone, and now Billy, it seems that Anarene is dead too, metaphorically at least.
Both Ben Johnson and Leachman won Academy Awards for their supporting performances, while the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Director among them.
Bogdanovich shot the film in black and white, giving the picture the sheen of an old John Ford western, beautifully capturing the time and period. He would follow this success with What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), both critical and box office hits, but his fall from grace came swiftly. Having left his wife Polly Platt, who many believe had a great deal to do with the creation of The Last Picture Show, for model Cybill Shepard, the two making a long list of enemies for their cavorting through Hollywood as though they were better than everyone else. After the staggering failure of his films Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975) both featuring Shepard, they were both finished, though Shepard found success on TV eventually.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.