Monday, November 5, 2012

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW 1971

Some films adapted from books play much better when you've read the novel first (Doctor Zhivago, The Great Gatsby, The Day of the Locust); others are such vast improvements over their source material that reading the book after seeing the film can feel recessive at best (The Godfather, That Cold Day in The Park). Then there are those films so faithful to their origins that book and motion picture serve to both compliment and illuminate one another (Women in Love, A Room With A View); and, of course, there are the movies that deviate so significantly from the books upon which they’re based that it’s best to regard them as distinct, isolated entities (The Shining, A Place in the Sun). In the case of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s sweetly evocative film of Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, it’s one of the rare movie adaptations to succeed in capturing the power and poetry of the written word in terms wholly and eloquently cinematic (Roman Polanski accomplished much the same in adapting Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby).
Timothy Bottoms as Sonny Crawford
Jeff Bridges as Duane Jackson
Cybill Shepherd as Jacy Farrow
Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion
Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper
Ellen Burstyn as Lois Farrow
A slice-of-life allegory of loss and passage as reflected in the lives of the residents of a small, dying, Texas oil town in the early 1950s, The Last Picture Show benefits from having McMurtry adapt his own semi-autobiographical novel for the screen. It's a sensitively-written contemplation on a place and time that resonates with subtle details of dialog and character only possible from experience (McMurtry wrote about his hometown of Archer, Texas, the very town Bogdanovich uses in the film. Fictionalized and renamed Thalia, Texas in the book, the town [whose largest export seems to be dust] is called Anarene in the film). Still, it’s Bogdanovich’s touches, both technical and in the handling of his cast of newcomers and veterans, that really makes the film for me, and why, when I saw it for the first time on TCM back in 2008 as part of a month-long salute to Academy Award winning films, I instantly fell in love with it.
As Genevieve Morgan, the waitress in the town's only diner, Eileen Brennan gives a sublimely understated performance 
Let me tell you, it’s really out of character for me to have waited so long to see a film considered by many to be one of the seminal motion pictures of the 70s (especially since I absolutely adore Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), but I had my reasons. The Last Picture Show and the hazily sentimental The Summer of ’42 were both released in 1971, kicking off the decade’s pop-culture fascination with all things nostalgic. I was 14 years-old at the time, and as an African-American youth inspired by the emerging prominence of black actors on the screen and excited about the upsurge in positive depictions of African-American life in movies of the 70s, these retro films, with their all-white casts and dreamy idealization of a time in America’s past that was in all probability a living nightmare for my parents and grandparents, felt like a step in the wrong direction. The antennae of my adolescent cynicism told me that all this rear-view fetishism was just Hollywood’s way of avoiding the unwieldy game-change presented by the demand for more ethnic diversity onscreen, the evolving role of women in society, the increasing visibility gays, and the touchy topic of America and the Vietnam War.
The Royal Theater in desolate Anarene, Texas
Finding little of what I consider either heroic or noble in the mythology of the American West, I was at a loss to imagine what I could possibly find poignant in a film I perceived as attempting to mourn and mythologize the passing of an era that symbolized hatred and ignorance for me more than it did simplicity and lost innocence. (In her 2007 memoir, Lessons in Becoming Myself, actress Ellen Burstyn recounts that even as late as 1970,  the racist harassment of local blacks was something of a recreational pastime engaged in by some of the idle white youths of Archer, Texas hired as extras during the filming of The Last Picture Show.) 
Jumping ahead some thirty-some years later, I’m glad I waited so long to see The Last Picture Show. Why? Well, for one, enough time had passed for me to be able to view the film in a context independent of the year in which it was made. No longer being an impatient youngster annoyed at the concept of a film looking back when there were so many “now” stories that needed telling, I had a different perspective on the subjectivity of a certain kind of nostalgia and a more expansive concept of the human condition. I found that there is something valuable and personally enriching in being able to find the shared commonality in people and lives that have no relation to my own.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Ironic, given how much my distaste for sentimental nostalgia played a part in avoiding The Last Picture Show for so long, but one of the things I most like about the film is how unidealistically perceptive a vision of small-town life it is. As dramatized in the cross-cutting lives of the town’s aimless high-schoolers (pals Sonny, Duane, and dreamgirl, Jacy) and the largely dissatisfied elder populace (town father-figure Sam the Lion and neglected housewives Lois and Ruth), nostalgia features in the narrative chiefly as heartache and regret. Not necessarily for the way things used to be, but for the loss of even the illusory dreams and hopes that are a part of being young. In many gently insightful ways The Last Picture Show actually contrasts the idealized images we hold of 50s life with a naturalistic look at Americana that proves very effective and surprisingly moving. It amuses me to think I avoided The Last Picture Show for so long because I thought it sentimentalized the past. The truth is, The Last Picture Show is the absolute antithesis of The Summer of ‘42’s brand of soft-focus wistfulness and I consider it one of the finest films to come out of the 70s.
The film's moral and mythical core is personified in the paternal figure of Sam the Lion, a dying breed of decency among the ethically-adrift denizens of Anarene, Texas.
PERFORMANCES:
I can’t say enough about the caliber of performances Peter Bogdanovich was able to elicit from his remarkable ensemble-cast. Each player brings such a wealth of depth and feeling to their portrayals that the film’s languid look at a year in the life of a sleepy Texas town has a strange, sad poetry about it. Life seems to be moving on without even a passing glance at this dusty little burg.
Cybill Shepherd, a near-insufferable presence during the 70s in everything save Taxi Driver, gives the performance of her career as the guilelessly destructive, small-town beauty, Jacy Farrow. Far from being the usual one-note misogynist nightmare of unattainable beauty, Sheperd's Jacy is one of the most insightful depictions of quiet desperation in females I've ever seen. Denied access to avenues of expression for the same youthful restlessness allowed the young males of the town, Jacy learns (not always successfully) that her beauty is the only power and hope she has to change her life. The clumsy wielding of that power renders her more hurtful than even she is aware, but I love that the film seems to understand her and finds no more fault in her shortcomings than it does the equally lost male characters. In viewing the film, I have the sense that every single move, gesture, and intonation has been orchestrated by Bogdanovich (as is rumored of Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar-winning turn in Paper Moon) but when the result is a performance of such dimension and humor, I really don’t care. She’s marvelous.
Ruth, the lonely wife of the town's high-school coach has a transformative affair with high-school senior, Sonny
Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, and especially Cloris Leachman...they all give remarkable, laudable performances. But for me, Timothy Bottoms is the one who really makes The Last Picture Show work. Saddled with the requisite (and reactive) “sensitive youth” in a coming-of-age film, his performance is something of a revelation. How he manages to so movingly portray a character at once searching, na├»ve, perceptive, and unsure, while never once leaving in doubt what is going on internally is miraculous. Especially considering he was just nineteen at the time. I just assumed and took it for granted that Bottoms was among the eight Oscar nominations the film garnered. I was shocked to see that he was overlooked and Bridges (good, but less impressive to me) nominated.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As I’m wont to do when viewing American films made before our current age of cinematic puerility; I find myself somewhat flabbergasted at how adult mainstream films were in the 70s. And by adult I merely mean mature.  There’s a considerable amount of nudity, sex, and profanity in The Last Picture Show, and while it had its censorship battles in the past (it was banned in Arizona in 1973), what I find most shocking about seeing it today is its total lack of prurience. 
Rich Kid Morality
The casual sexuality of Anarene's moneyed set is highlighted in this comically daring sequence where Jacy and her date Lester Marlow (Randy Quid) are guests at a nude swimming party (the naked backside belongs to Gary Brockette)
There’s an welcome bluntness to the way sex is presented and spoke of in the film, a tone intentionally presented in contrast to the film’s nostalgia-evoking cinematography. A film that dares expose the amoral, sexual hypocrisy of America’s Bible-thumping, “Traditional Family Values” set is a winner in my book from the get-go, but Peter Bogdanovich’s wholly appropriate, matter-of-fact depiction of it all feels trail-blazing and unimaginable today. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I was inspired to re-watch The Last Picture Show (I hadn't seen it in well over two years) due to having only last week read Larry McMurty’s beautifully written novel (love those used bookstores!). While the book is richer in fleshing out characterization and narrative detail, it’s a testament to Bogdanovich’s talent how extraordinarily the film succeeds in meeting McMurty’s descriptive prose with equally evocative imagery.
Bogdanovich cast Timothy Bottom's real-life younger brother Sam (in the cap) as Sonny's friend, Billy, an orphaned mute teen unofficially adopted by Sam the Lion.
And on the topic of Peter Bogdanovich, I wish someday someone would make a film or write a book about his life. He fascinates me. Footage of him from the 70s reveals him to be a well-spoken and charming young man of almost intolerable arrogance and self-assuredness (his laid-back demeanor, where words rather than being spoken seem to instead  ooze from his lips, reminds me of Rex Reed). A perfect candidate for the kind of hubris-based, fall-from-glory Hollywood thrives on, Bogdanovich is both everything that was good and lamentable about those glorious “New Hollywood” years.
My Own Private Last Picture Show 
This is a picture of me from 1997 in front of The Sierra Theater, the sole movie house in the small town of Chowchilla, California, the hometown of my partner (his father worked there as a teen!). The theater was built in 1941 and had been shuttered and abandoned since the mid or late 70s. The theater was still standing as late as the year 2001, but has since been torn down. 
Jan. 6, 2013 addendum
I loved Larry McMurty's 1966 novel The Last Picture Show so much that when I found a hardback copy of the 1987 sequel, Texasville, at a used bookstore, I snapped it up. Well, I just finished reading it and can only say that until now, I thought Son of Rosemary, Ira Levin's 1997 sequel to Rosemary's Baby, was the most disheartening example of an author desecrating his own work (maybe it has to do with authors falling in love with the actresses cast as their heroines. Levin dedicated his sequel to Mia Farrow- McMurtry to Cybil Shepherd).
What the hell happened??? Not only did I find it and interminable and self-consciously arch mess, (not to mention repetitious)  but its focus is Duane, the character even Peter Bogdanovich said was difficult to cast because he was essentially so unlikable. All the main characters are abhorrent or unpleasant, and all the sympathetic ones (Sonny and Ruth) have been shunted to the sidelines. I suppose it can be said the virtually unwatchable 1990 film Bogdanovich made from this chore-to-read mishmash is faithful, for I loathed it with equal vehemence.
Sadly, I purchased the third novel in McMurtry's continuing Thalia, Texas opus, Duane's Depressed at the same time I bought Texasville. I think I'll be donating that book to charity, unread.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

21 comments:

  1. Love this film. And Cybill *sighs* My first ever crush at the tender age of 5 years old! (I was an early starter!) Jacy is such a brilliant characterisation, the perfect depiction of small town beauty with big hopes.

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    1. Hi Mark
      After seeing this film I thoroughly understand how it could have launched Cybill Shepherd as a screen star. For a first film performance it's quite amazing. Similar to Ali MacGraw in "Goodbye Columbus" it seems as if the directors, sensitive to these women new to acting, gave them a lot of guidance. Neither would ever be as lucky in subsequent films. Now, at 5 years old, how and under what circumstances did you develop a crush on Cybill? If you tell you saw this film at 5, I'll fall out of my chair!

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    2. Apologies Ken, I've been very remiss and not stopped by since this post :(
      The Cybill crush came about thanks to Moonlighting getting shown over here in the mid 80s when I was at such a tender and impressionable age. I had a photo of her on my wall!

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    3. Well...that explains things! Thanks for clearing that up, Mark. I thought for a second that you were just a very precocious kid! :-)

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  2. Gosh I loved this one. Not the movie -- your review. The personal details are what really bring it out.

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    1. Why, thank you very very much, Allen. What a terribly nice compliment! I really appreciate your visiting the site and taking the time to share your thoughts.

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    2. Amen. I very much enjoyed your trenchant review also. I came across your webpage while Google searching for information about directors. I remember watching the movie a couple of times years ago, and being enthralled with it. But while reading your review, I could not recall ever seeing any nude scenes in the movie. Then it dawned on me - I watched it on late night TV, not in a theater. Oh, well. It is even a great movie sans any nude scenes

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    3. Hi Paul
      I'm glad Google led you to to the site and I very much appreciate your compliment! I can imagine how "The Last Picture Show" could play very well without the nude scenes, but I can't imagine the film lasting more than an hour with them excised! :-)
      Thank you for your nice comment. Come back and say hello!

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  3. I recently watched this movie again (in widescreen HD) for the first time in about 10 years and, like yourself, couldn't help but marvel at the unbelievable depth of talent and the strong craftsmanship of Bogdanovich. I can barely tolerate Shepherd in most things, but agree that she was excellent here. That swimming scene stands out to me, as you can imagine, because of how free and immodest everyone is and how amusing it is that the little brother has on a face mask in the pool. Love Cybill's reaction to him near the end of the scene. Today, this would be seen (probably NOT SEEN, to be honest!) as all very lecherous and improper, but there's something endearingly quaint and nostagliac about it (perhaps because the camera leaves the locale before the party is over?) Having known Cloris Leachman only as Phyllis Lindstrom or Frau Blecher, I recall being blown away by her, too, when I first saw it. I have never seen the sequel and wondered if you have? Thanks for another wonderful movie profile.

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Your response to the swimming scene mirrors my own. It's shocking in its being such an intelligently, well done scene that treats the nudity and sex in a way not the least bit moralizing, titillating, or false. I don't think the scene could be shot today. The film itself is probably the most thoughtful of the nostalgia films of the era, and, as you indicate, if you've only seen Leachman in Mel Brooks movies or as Mary's neighbor, she knocks your socks off!
      I did see "Texasville" and (to me) it was such a shambled mess, I had to look at the credits to see if the same folks were involved. Cocaine abuse was really high in Hollywood in the 80s, and all jokes aside, "Texasville" looks like a coke-fueled movie of addled judgement and poor execution. I thank you again Poseidon for always stopping by and offering your comments. Always like hearing from you!

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  4. Argyle here; this is such a perfectly, fully realized film. It can be overwhelming. I think I saw it a couple of times (way back, but not at the time of its release) before I really started to get it and feel how great it is. That's such a strange transition, going from being almost repulsed by something to falling under its spell, but I'm always grateful for the transition. I think part of the strength of this film is its harshness. So many of the images are sort of blasted looking and cold. The interior of the pool hall is insane; the homes are drab and hard; the main street, the wind. And then you have these characters, most of them kind of locked into a longing for something they think is out there ahead of them or lost behind them. And how they connect or miss each other because they're running at different speeds. The scene with the boys and Jimmie Sue is confounding, I can hardly say anything else. This is not one of those movies I feel I can “drop in on” if I happen to run across it on TV; it’s so potent, it can ruin your day or elevate your life. I love to carefully recommend it. As you say, the maturity of the story is amazing and I think it was relatively popular at the time, which is also amazing. Maybe there’s still hope? With all props to Mr. Bogdanovich (and I agree, he is a fascinating person) I've always understood that the production designer (and his wife at the time) Polly Platt is integrally responsible for the impact of this film (as well as "Paper Moon” and “What’s Up, Doc?”) Every visual element in this film contributes to its ultimate weight. Every sign, every costume, every piece of decor, and they’re not just there for a cool factor. She was beyond cool. And the lore says she suggested the book to him. Thank you, as always, Ken.

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    1. Hello, Argyle.
      Such a kick when you stop and say hello! Such insightful observations (I particularly like the very apt "running at different speeds" line) and a concise expression of how the film affected you. Your comment that the film is not one you can "drop in on" is oh so true. It's not light and breezy like "American Graffiti" nostalgia..."picture Show" is indeed fairly blunt and in your face in its depiction of both literal and emotional desolation. Mostly I like that you give credit to Polly Platt who, in many things I've read over the years, was indeed a moving force creatively and otherwise, behind this film. I like very much that your comment pays homage to her. Bogdanovich was always willing to shuttle her to the sidelines in defense of the "auteur" theory.
      Brilliant reveries, Argyle. You always express so eloquently what your relationship with film over the years has been. Thanks for sharing it here!

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  5. Hopeful that this one shall crop up at a revival theatre. It's still, I would say, one of the better known Hollywood films of the early 1970s.

    This was also one of the top 10 highest grossing films of its year (on the list that I posted in the comments for "Goodbye, Columbus"). Fat chance you'll ever see this type of film in the top 10 ever again (black-and-white, nostalgic, not a sequel, not based upon a comic book superhero, etc).

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    1. Yes, as recently history has proven with "The Artist" audiences will turn out for a black-and-white, nostalgic, non-sequel film not based on a comic book superhero (and silent yet)...but it better be SUPER life-affirming, upbeat, and comforting. Not exactly what "The Last Picture Show" was offering.

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  6. Ken, a wonderful post on a film I've loved since first seeing it years ago. I've seen it several times since then and each time been amazed all over again at how good it is. Every single detail seems just right. For me Bogdanovich never came this close to perfection again. If they gave an Oscar for best ensemble acting, surely the cast of this film would have gotten it! "It's a sensitively-written contemplation on a place and time that resonates with subtle details of dialog and character only possible from experience," you wrote, and I think you exactly hit the reason for the film's compelling sense of authenticity. There's not a single false note in it.

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    1. Thanks, R.D.!
      I feel the same when you say that every detail seems just right. In these days of HD TV it's fairly eye-popping the level of period detail one is able to glean in each of the film's scenes. Just small things in Ruth Popper's bedroom or the pool hall give the film a sense of time and place a great many of the nostalgia movies that followed in its wake were unable to pull off. As our tastes in films are often different, I'm glad to hear this is one of your favorites. And I agree, this was probably Bogdanovich's "Citizen Kane", as indeed, he never came this close to perfection again.

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  7. I absolutely love this movie. This movie is just heartbreakingly beautiful. What a cast! The performances were wonderful, everyone involved were on their "A" game when they made this. Cloris Leachman earned her Oscar win...that final scene when she lets Timothy Bottoms have it for spurning her for Jacy, only to succumb to the fact that he's her last glimmer for hope and happiness just gutted me. Just thinking about it gets me teary eyed.

    What can I say about Miss Shepherd? A truly remarkable film debut! She embodied EVERYTHING that Jacy Farrow is supposed to be: petulant, spoiled, self-involved. Bogdonavich fell in love with her and the rest of the world followed after the film's release.

    A film that doesn't lose any of it beauty and power but only gains more and more after repeated viewings. A true classic! Thank you so much for profiling this film...it deserved to be discovered by generations to come.

    The cinema was invented for films like this!

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    1. Hi CAL
      You express yourself very well about this film. I concur on every point. There are so many moments throughout the film that leave me teary-eyed, but Cloris Leachman's final scene is truly virtuoso and terribly moving.
      I very much like how you take note of Shepherd embodying everything about Jacy's character. I'm always stunned when actors are capable of expressing the subtle depth of superficial people. It's brilliant.
      Classics are rare, but I think you're right, "The Last Picture Show" is a modern classic.

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  8. Hello Ken, and thanks for this blog. I'm a french follower and The Last Picture Show is one of my favorite movies ever.

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  9. Hello, Bruno
    On the contrary, my thanks to you for visiting my blog! It's exciting to hear from a fan of "The Last Picture Show" from so far away! I'm crazy about this film and I'm glad it's remembered so fondly by so many. Hope to hear from you again, soon!

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