Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

          While the career of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry overflows with great accomplishments, there’s a special magic to the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, the screenplay for which McMurtry and director Peter Bogdanovich adapted from McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel. The elegiac film represents a magnificent fusion of two gifted storytellers, with Bogdanovich’s precocious classicism providing the perfect frame for McMurtry’s beautifully sad vision of a small Texas town in decline. The director provides elegant cinematography, taut dramaturgy, and vital performances; the author/screenwriter gives the piece its soul. The result of this combined effort is a wrenching little masterpiece about alienation, betrayal, disillusionment, loss, maturation, and sex. Shot in evocative black-and-white by master cinematographer Robert Surtees, The Last Picture Show is one of the highest accomplishments in screen art from any American studio in the ’70s.
          Based loosely on McMurtry’s memories of growing up in Texas during the postwar era, the film takes place in tiny Anarene, Texas, circa the early ’50s. Although it’s basically an ensemble piece, The Last Picture Show focuses on high school buddies Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms). At first, Duane seems to have the world by the tail, because he’s a good-looking, popular jock who dates the prettiest girl in town, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Conversely, Sonny seems like a lost soul as he breaks up with his high-school girlfriend and commences an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the desperately lonely wife of his football coach. Yet as the months drag on, it becomes clear that Duane’s future isn’t so rosy; Jacy is a manipulative striver willing to do nearly anything to achieve her goal of marrying into money. Partially as a result of his entanglement with Jacy, Duane discovers not only his own personal limitations (culminating in a rueful instance of impotence) but also the bleak realities of the larger world.
          As they stumble from adolescence to adulthood, watching the town around them decay from neglect and population shifts, the boys occasionally receive life lessons from an older friend named Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), owner of the local movie theater. The ways in which Sam and his beloved business suffer the ravages of time reveal profound metaphysical concepts that Duane and Sonny must come to understand. Bogdanovich and McMurtry weave a complex tapestry in The Last Picture Show, because the story also involves significant characters played by Ellen Burstyn, Clu Galager, Randy Quaid, and—most heartbreakingly—Sam Bottoms, the real-life younger brother of costar Timothy Bottoms. The irony that a story about a small town is densely populated provides just one of the literary nuances permeating The Last Picture Show. The film is also rich in allegory, metaphor, and subtext.
          Yet the movie is just as impressive in terms of cinematic technique. Bogdanovich shoots street scenes in a style heavily influenced by John Ford, so every dirty window and every wind-blown scrap of garbage says volumes. Similarly, the director films interiors with meticulous care, often framing one character prominently in the foreground, with others situated a distance behind, thereby accentuating the inability these people have to form real connections. And the performances! Johnson and Leachman both received Oscars, and rightfully so. Longtime screen cowboy Johnson unveils a lifetime of repressed feeling in his climactic monologue, and Leachman etches a poignant image of longing. Meanwhile, Timothy Bottoms conveys an unforgettably soulful quality, Bridges tempers his signature exuberance with hard-won wisdom, and Shepherd effectively illustrates the cost Jacy pays for her avarice. Fitting the bittersweet tone of McMurtry’s best writing, The Last Picture Show also features one of the most meaningful downbeat endings of the ’70s. Imprudently, most of the principals returned to the material for the 1990 sequel Texasville (again based on a McMurtry novel), but the follow-up is merely adequate, a faint echo of the original’s thunder.

The Last Picture Show: OUTTA SIGHT


Bonnach said...

I showed this at my library a couple weeks ago (I'm an AV Librarian) and the abnormally large crowd loved it. I wonder how much of this influenced American Graffiti?

Don't forget about the performance by Eileen Brennan as the waitress. Probably the best role I've seen her in.

JKruppa said...

A really great film. It seemed with this and Paper Moon (your review of which I'm looking forward to), Bogdonavich was really onto something, but it all fell apart due to what I can only assume were the wages of hubris. What a brilliant career he should have had. I saw him speak a couple of years ago, however, and found him an incredibly entertaining and insightful lecturer.