Wednesday, November 28, 2012

CACTUS FLOWER 1969

Thinking back to that time in the late 60s when Old Hollywood (all overlit studio sets, name stars, and conventional genres) gave way to New Hollywood (with its auteurism, non-linear storytelling, and emphasis on youth), it’s easy for me to forget how gradual and awkward a transitional period it was. Film history can make it sound like one day Hollywood was churning out The Sound of Music, the next, Bonnie and Clyde; but closer to the truth is that the old guard was very slow in passing the torch to the younger generation, and the strain frequently showed.
Some Flowers Blossom Late But They're The Kind That Last the Longest
Ingrid Bergman admires her metaphor
During what I call the movie industry’s “Last Gasp” phase (a period wedged uncomfortably between the studio system excesses of the late-60s and the emergence of the American New Wave in the early-70s) Hollywood released a glut of wheezily old-fashioned films it attempted to pass off as “with it” and “now” entertainments targeted towards the young. These woefully middle-class, middle-aged films strove to reflect a youthful perspective but were at a loss for what that actually meant beyond the token insertion of self-consciously “hip” templates like rock music (which, to the septuagenarians running the studios meant Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini); a smattering of profanity; aggressively mod costuming and art direction; and at least one cast member under the age of 40.
The Kids Are Alright
Bergman gets in touch with her inner MILF
The worst examples (like 1969s The Big Cube or the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Angel, Angel, Down We Go — starring Lana Turner and Jennifer Jones, respectively) alienated young and old alike by thrusting past-their-prime and obviously uncomprehending members of Hollywood Royalty smack into the center of psychedelic, youth-pandering tales of drugs, sex, and depravity. But most were just forced and artificial overtures to the youth market that, when serious, could only look at the young through the eyes of struggling-to-adapt adults (The Arrangement and The Happy Ending ); or when comedic, settled into the kind of sitcomy smuttiness that would come to typify TV’s Love, American Style (1968's twin smirking sleazefests, Prudence and the Pill and The Impossible Years).

One of the better films to emerge from this cross-generational limbo is Cactus Flower, a farcical comedy that in less capable hands could have come off exactly like an expanded episode of Love, American Style (Love and the Cactus Flower), but avoids that fate exclusively through the efforts of its appealing and talented cast. Truly, this film is a shining example of how resourceful actors can turn dross into gold.
Walter Matthau as Julian Winston
Ingrid Bergman as Stephanie Dickinson
Goldie Hawn as Toni Simmons
Jack Weston as Harvey Greenfield
Rick Lenz as Igor Sullivan
To keep from giving his much-younger girlfriend, Toni (Hawn), any matrimonial ideas, confirmed middle aged bachelor Julian (Matthau) pretends to be the married father of three. When a suicide attempt (always good for a laugh) prompts the Park Avenue dentist to propose, Julian asks his devoted nurse Stephanie (Bergman) to pose as his wife and reassure Toni she is not a home-wrecker and that their divorce is mutually desired and amicable . This being a farce, nothing goes as planned and all manner of Neil Simon-esque comic complications ensue before the not unexpected happy conclusion.
Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn are each so adorably asexual that their May/December romance (there's a 25-year age difference) never crosses over into gross-out territory. The rubber-faced Matthau is one of my all-time favorite actors and I just think he's hilarious in this film. His inherent likability is what keeps the film afloat. 
Based on the 1965 stage hit that gave Lauren Bacall her Broadway debut, Cactus Flower is an artifact from the “tired businessman” era of theater when breezily escapist musicals and plays were concocted for the benefit of NYC businessmen seeking to avoid the rush hour crunch of the trains to the suburbs. Dating back as far as 1952's The Seven Year Itch, these shows offered mindless laughs and tame titillation by way of middle-aged wish-fulfillment fantasies envisioning a world populated by bland professional men on the prowl pursued by bevies of beautiful young women who live only to be wed. That marriage is presented as the end all and be all in these vehicles has always struck me as positively perverse given how prominently deception, serial adultery, and lying figure in the so-called sexually sophisticated hi-jinx.
To my way of thinking, America in the very repressed and sexist early-60s had a particularly ugly concept of what constituted sexy and funny in motion pictures— Under the Yum Yum TreeThe Marriage-Go-RoundBoeing, BoeingAny Wednesday…ick! Is it some heterosexual coping mechanism that, even to this day, makes it necessary to perpetuate an image of romantic courtship as an intricacy of calculated lies and tricks leading to the altar, only to be followed by a state of matrimony wherein the “domesticated” male can’t wait to stray, and the clinging female is an emasculating killjoy? Every time I hear that pathetic “sanctity of marriage” argument in today’s same-sex marriage battle, my mind goes to all those wholesome comedies and sitcoms I've suffered through in my lifetime (from a “simpler, more innocent time”) that treated adultery like a frolicsome lark.
So she got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs, and she got herself a husband...but he wasn't hers. 
Very-married diplomat Arturo Sanchez (veteran character actor Vito Scotti) romances dental assistant Stephanie Dickinson, whose last big love affair was with a married man. What with Toni's year-long involvement with a man she thinks is married, Cactus Flower is like one long, pro-adultery infomercial.

Having so far lodged a case as to why Cactus Flower should be at the top of my list of most reviled films, I state here and now that no one is more surprised than me that this film ranks among my favorite comedies of the 60s. It’s a sweet-natured, laugh-out-loud, absolute delight… almost in spite of itself.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Say what one will about old Hollywood, when it was at the top of its game, no one was better at turning out these kinds of frothy, intricate farces. Cactus Flower has the undistinguished yet delectable visual gloss of a Doris Day movie; a sardonically funny screenplay (adapted from Abe Burrows) by Some Like it Hot’s I. A. L. Diamond; snappy, keep-the-action-moving direction by Gene Saks; and, most advantageously, an appealing and talented cast that knows its way around a punchline.
The premise of Cactus Flower is silly in the extreme, but it’s inconceivable to me that anyone could ever devise a journey that I wouldn't want to be taken on by Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, and Ingrid Bergman. What an absolutely amazing cast! Just the fact that they are all in the same film should qualify Cactus Flower for classic status, but watching their sublime comic sparring is like taking a master class in chemistry and charisma. Their scenes fairly crackle with inspired bits of acting magic. Each is so deft and gifted a performer that together they infuse Cactus Flower with spark and wit.
Another Cactus Flower odd couple is Jack Weston and statuesque Eve Bruce (she played the Amazonian streetwalker in The Love Machine), both of whom add hilarious support to the increasingly complicated proceedings
PERFORMANCES:
As Goldie Hawn’s nomination and win for Cactus Flower is the only Oscar® recognition the film received, it’s a fact worth mentioning. But as any indication of real merit, one has to keep in mind we’re talking the Academy Awards here; an organization that first weighs in on sentiment, politics, publicity and popularity before it ever gets around to considering excellence. In this, her first major film role (in 1968 she appeared in Disney’s creaky musical, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band in a giggly blond role E.J. Peaker probably turned down for Hello, Dolly!), Hawn radiates real star quality and holds her own against veterans Matthau and Bergman (Hawn's debut sort of stole the thunder of Bergman's return to American screens after a 20-year absence).
Old Hollywood meets New Hollywood
With her enormous eyes and Betty Boop voice, it is difficult not to watch Hawn every second. She's so excitingly kinetic a presence she single-handedly blows the cobwebs off of Cactus Flower's rather old-fashioned bedroom humor. I think she does a marvelous job with a deceptively difficult role. She has to make Toni sweet and waiflike enough to care about, but strong and resilient enough so that Julian doesn't come off as a total jerk. Although Hawn is really perfect in the role, there’s no denying that her win was heavily swayed by her being "This Year’s Blond" for 1969. It's perhaps best not to dwell too long on the other performances and actresses nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category that year and just enjoy watching a future superstar’s first class film debut.
The talent and chemistry of Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau elevate Cactus Flower to high-style farce
















THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Goldie Hawn's character is a clerk at a Greenwich Village record store, and the scenes that take place amongst the shelves of albums (featuring artists like Lou Rawls, The Beatles, Buck Owens, and Petula Clark) and walls of psychedelic blacklight posters feel as distant and of another time as any episode of Downton Abbey. They make me feel so nostalgic. (Bang! Right in the childhood!)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Because there’s so little about Cactus Flower that actually reflects the year in which it was made, I think it plays better now than it did in 1969. In the year of Woodstock, the Stonewall Riots, Charles Manson, and the Vietnam War, America could certainly use a few laughs, but Cactus Flower's mid-life comedy must have seemed a tad out of touch. Today, it's a film that fits snugly into the vague, pop-culture mashup of what is thought of as the 60s (on a double-bill, Cactus Flower would not look out-of-date with 1963's Move Over, Darling) and feels charmingly old-fashioned and just a tiny bit camp (what with references to “love beads” and those Muzak versions of songs by The Monkees and Boyce & Hart playing on the soundtrack). The dialog makes me laugh, the performances are great fun to watch, and if I don't dwell on the whole lying-your-way-to-love subtext, I have a wonderful time each time I see it. This is rom-com done right.
By the way, given my oft-voiced disdain for all things Adam Sandler, I don't recommend checking out the (loose) 2011 remake of Cactus Flower titled, Just Go With It. I haven't seen it, but c'mon, it stars Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston...call the bomb squad.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Inscription reads: "Ken, See how old and mean you get if you hang around long enough."
Back in 1995 I had the pleasure of being Walter Matthau's personal trainer (a fact that amused the legendary sloucher no end). I liked him a great deal and found him to be every bit as funny (he told the best dirty jokes!) and sweet as he appears on screen. With all the anecdotes he shared about working in Hollywood, I should have been paying him. He's very much missed.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, November 15, 2012

SHOWGIRLS 1995

Philosophically speaking, if the bad times in our lives help us to better appreciate the good, perhaps bad movies work in much the same way. Watching a staggeringly inept, epically-bad film like Showgirls really makes me aware of all the things I take for granted when I watch a movie. Things like coherence, consistency, believable characters, understandable motivations, or even human-sounding dialog. There's not a lot of good that can be said about Showgirls, except maybe that it's possessed of an uncanny ability to make most any other film, by comparison, look like Citizen Kane.
I recall how Showgirls was released to a lot of hoopla and self-aggrandizing fanfare back in 1995. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (perpetrators of 1992’s Basic Instinct) were promising to deliver to the world a gritty and boob-filled update of All About Eve set in the "glamorous" world of Las Vegas showgirls. It was to be an NC-17 backstage musical that would do for pasties and g-strings what Singin’ in the Rain did for umbrellas. Of course, when Showgirls ultimately hit the theaters, audiences were more shocked by the film’s overarching vulgarity and incompetence than by its sexual explicitness, which tended to incite giggles. The $45 million film tanked at the boxoffice and overnight, Showgirls became a “Bad Films We Love” cult favorite. In one fell swoop careers, reputations, and investments were dashed, but fans of craptastic camp cinema were thrown the biggest and most riotously silly chunk of cheese since Faye Dunaway had them rolling in the aisles with: "Barbra, PLEASE! PLEASE, Barbara! Leave us alone, Barbara! If you need anything, ask Carol Ann!"
I am a huge, huge fan of Showgirls, a fact that doesn't cloud my awareness that it is, in almost every detail, an almost irredeemably terrible film—and no amount of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls/The Room revisionist thinking (“It’s a satire! It’s supposed to be bad!”) will convince me otherwise. But Showgirls is so loopy and over-the-top in its attempts to be daring and sexy that it winds up being quite a lot of good, mean-spirited fun, and more enjoyable than a great many more competently-made motion pictures. I never know just why it is that some bad films are ones you can barely sit all the way through, while others, every bit as bad, are entertaining as hell and become lifetime favorites you can watch again and again. Whatever the reason, Showgirls has been a so-bad-it's-good favorite of mine since the year it was released, and no matter how many times I see it I keep finding new atrocities to gasp and laugh at. It's a perfect storm of blessed dreadfulness.
Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone / Polly Ann Costello
"I used to love Doggy Chow, too!"
Gina Gershon as Cristal Connors
"You are a whore, darlin'!"
Gina Ravera as Molly Abrams
"I can barely thread a needle!"
Kyle McLachlan as Zack Carey
"Nomi's got heat!"
Glenn Plummer as James Smith
"I have a problem with pussy!"
 *(The exclamation points are my own because dialog this ridiculous fairly demands them. Seriously folks, Eszterhas was paid upwards of $2 million for this stuff.)

As Showgirls is set in Las Vegas (the Las Vegas of Joe Eszterhas’exceedingly puerile imagination, anyway), let me take a moment to talk about gambling. The business of making movies is always a gamble. No matter the genre, subject matter, or star, when it comes to knowing how the public is going to respond to a film, screenwriter William Goldman’s famous “Nobody knows anything” quote is still the law of the land. I suspect that one of the chief reasons there was so much anticipation surrounding Showgirls' release, and why the nearly-unanimous negative public response caught the filmmakers so off guard, was because...from a purely marketing standpoint...Verhoeven and Eszterhas appeared to have had such a sure thing on their hands. Sex, violence, nudity, strippers...they must have thought it was a slam-dunk.  
Run, Nomi, Run!
I have a theory that the crazy-eyed casino change-girl (Jean Barrett) Nomi encounters when she has her first (and only) stroke of luck in Vegas is actually a Nicholas Cage-like harbinger of evil.
Showgirls was essentially being peddled as Flashdance meets Basic Instinct (two massive boxoffice hits, both penned by Eszterhas). Hollywood, a town that lives by the motto: "If they liked it once, they'll love it twice," was more than happy to pump millions into a project that promised to deliver all the most marketable elements of those films (strippers, violence, sex, lesbianism) only bigger, louder, gaudier - and a lot more nude - plus, music by Prince!
"Fucker! Fuck off!"
Reasoning perhaps that if one crass, misogynist male fantasy can produce a blockbuster, there should be no earthly reason for an even crasser, more sexually-explicit misogynist male fantasy not to do even bigger business; Basic Instinct's non-dynamic duo of Verhoeven and  Eszterhas were reassembled and given carte blanche to create the most expensive, sexually graphic, mainstream motion picture ever made. And of course, the rest is history...or, more accurately, infamy.
Yes Sir, I Can Boogie
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
To the chagrin of trash movie fans the world over, changing tastes and the decline of the Hollywood studio system sounded the death-knell for a certain kind of bad film. This once-plentiful genus of awful had once proved a reliable source of cult-worthy camp, but began to disappear with the youth-oriented 60s. I speak of the overheated, overproduced, self-important melodrama. Those high-gloss soap operas made by Douglas Sirk, Ross Hunter, or Joesph E. Levine starring lacquered starlets and lantern-jawed heroes. These films boastfully paraded their pretensions and allusions to loftier purpose while erroneously labeling their crass, commercial vulgarism as glamour and high style. Invariably, upon release these films were branded instant laughingstocks due to the ofttimes jarring discrepancy between intent and execution.
I must have missed that musical where Ann Miller tells June Allyson she likes having nice tits 
"Showgirls is a throwback to movies in the '40s while combining Bob Fosse and a twist of the Marquis de Sade," said a touchingly delusional Elizabeth Berkley in a 1995 interview.
In my personal roster of the best of the worst, The Oscar (1966) and Valley of the Dolls (1967) signify the apex of the nadir of the 60s. For the 70s, nothing can touch Lost Horizon (1973) for blissful wrongheadedness; and in the 80s, the notorious Mommie Dearest (1981) has to be the gold standard.
Checking out the Competition
All too often Showgirls feels like a film made by men who have never had a conversation with a woman that didn't start with "How much?" or "You're not a cop, are you?"
By the 90s, as mainstream movies settled into a kind of uniform, bland mediocrity born of trying to reach as broad a demographic as possible, I thought the age of the so-bad-it’s-good fiasco had passed. Well, thank God for Showgirls! A grandiose grotesquerie that made even a jaded, seen-it-all, trash-addict like me sit up and take notice. Fully deserving of all the critical brickbats and backhanded compliments hurled its way since its release, the astonishing thing about Showgirls’ unique brand of terrible is that it is entertaining as hell. Not even one minute of the film is ever less than a demoralizing humiliation for all involved, yet unlike other cult classics that suffer from the occasional lag in pacing (Sextette, Myra Breckinridge, Can’t Stop the Music) Showgirls mines a vein of profound godawfulness that pays consistent dividends. There's never a dull moment!
An equal opportunity offender, Showgirls makes galling use of the "Magical Negro" stereotype in the character of Molly, Nomi's ridiculously selfless and self-sacrificing friend, confidant, and 'round-the-clock rescuer

PERFORMANCES:
I recently watched Goodbye, Columbus and The Last Picture Show and found myself struck by how clearly protective and watchful the directors of those films (Larry Peerce and Peter Bogdanovich, respectively) were in shaping the remarkable screen debuts of their novice stars (former models, neither Ali MacGraw nor Cybill Shepherd had ever acted before). Alas, after watching Showgirls, it becomes equally obvious that the same can't be said for Paul Verhoeven's direction of Elizabeth Berkley.
Switchblade Sister
With nearly ten years television experience behind her by the time she made Showgirls (most notably, Saved by the Bell), Elizabeth Berkley is far from being a novice, but she's certainly not what anyone would call an actress. Giving a frenetically undisciplined performance better suited to a Russ Meyer movie, the very game Berkeley (perhaps too game, in retrospect) would have benefited greatly from some real guidance in modulating her emotive intensity, and was in dire need of a director more determined to show her off to her best advantage and less dedicated to shining a spotlight on her shortcomings. Berkley's 100% commitment to each scene is more embarrassing than laudable, and it's hard to think of someone as red-hot sexy when you feel sorry for them.
Attempting perhaps to pay homage to that weird scene in the 1981 musical, Pennies from Heaven where Steve Martin bullies wife Jessica Harper into indulging his fantasy of having her apply lipstick to her nipples, Showgirls inexplicably has Nomi go through the same ritual just prior to opening up a jumbo-sized can of whoop-ass on heartthrob/rapist Andrew Carver
On the other hand, Gina Gershon as Cristal, the Texas Tassel Twirler, fares much better. She plays Cristal as if she were a drag queen, which proves to be an insight into character appropriate to the depth of Eszterhas' script. Although a considerable amount of her performance seems centered around her rather dangerous-looking mouth (I'm reminded of how Joan Collins was always biting into something [or someone] for evil emphasis on Dynasty), and the script conspires to make her and every other woman in the cast look as foolish as possible at all times; Gershon nevertheless is an exceptionally fun and campy villain and is, throughout, consistently better than the material she's given.  It's almost impossible not to go around calling everybody "darlin'" for a day or two after seeing her in Showgirls.
Irresistible Force...Say Hello to Immovable Object 
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Perhaps my favorite source of unintentional comedy in Showgirls is the dancing. It’s plentiful and the professional dancers in the cast are certainly talented, but it kind of reeks. There's a great deal of fun to be had at the expense of “Goddess,” the  appropriately cheesy and strangely atonal Las Vegas topless revue full of glitter, g-strings, and comprised almost exclusively of chaotic running about, gnashed teeth, and frenzied head-releases.
There’s the freestyle dancing that Nomi engages in that’s supposed to reveal her fire and passion, yet looks more like she’s being attacked by a swarm of bees. And then there is the artistic, high-minded dancing promoted by choreographer-hopeful, James Smith (Glenn Plummer), Las Vegas’ shortest nightclub bouncer and Showgirls’ baldly hypocritical voice of moral outrage. Unfortunately, the actor portraying James (“I studied in New York…Alvin Ailey!”) clearly can’t dance a lick, and the “artistic” choreography attributed to him looks suspiciously like the lap dancing he berates Nomi for doing.
Which brings us to Showgirls’ raison d’être: the T&A triumvirate of lap-dancing, stripping, and pole-dancing. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that sexy never looked so unsexy, and unsexy never has, and never will again, look so deliriously ludicrous.

Over the course of my career as a dance instructor here in L.A, I've had a few Showgirls cast members take my class: Gina Gershon (Cristal); Michelle Johnston (Gay Carpenter, "Goddess" line captain and brown rice & vegetables pusher); and Gina Ravera (Molly). But back when I was just a student and learning to dance, there was one surprising member of the Showgirls cast who used to attend beginning jazz class with me at the now defunct Dupree Dance Academy... 
You guessed it. None other than tough-guy, former Bond villain, Robert Davi (as Al, the oafish but fatherly manager of Cheetahs topless lounge). Yes, I've seen Al in spandex. And surprisingly, he's actually a better dancer than Showgirls' Alvin Ailey disciple, Glenn Plummer!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There’s an old Hollywood axiom that says, “No one starts out intending to make a bad movie.” But take even a casual glance at Showgirls and you're likely to be left with the nagging impression that making a monumentally bad film had to have been a part of Verhoeven’s and Eszterhas’ strategic purpose.
What's My Line?
One of these men is sleazy Showgirls screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and the other is actor William Shockley, who portrays Showgirls' sleazy pop star, Andrew Carver. Or maybe they're both the same person? Know me...Nomi...Malone...Alone...it's all starting to make sense
A flop upon release, Showgirls, through DVD sales and savvy marketing that made peace with the film's overriding incompetence by embracing its cult-classic status, has at last become a bona fide hit.This reversal of fortunes doesn't alter Showgirls' quality (except perhaps in Hollywood, where the only bad film is one that fails to make money) but it's nice to know the audience for magnificent cinematic trainwrecks didn't die out with the 60's, the studio system, or Mommie Dearest.
FAVORITE SHOWGIRLS MOMENTS:
1. James' leadfooted "dancing" at the Crave Club.
2. The allegedly hetero male dancer in Goddess" threatening another dancer with the line, "You want a knuckle-sandwich?" Really? What is he, one of the "Dead End" kids?
3. The absurd insistence that Suzanne (Somers?), Latoya Jackson, Janet Jackson, or Paula Abdul would appear in a tacky, topless Vegas revue. OK, Latoya would, but the others? C'mon!
4.The exaggerated force and sound of the roundhouse punches delivered during the Crave Club brawl. Every jaw would be dislocated. It's like a Popeye cartoon.
5. Nomi's reaction when called "Pollyanna" which she mistakes for someone calling her by her real name (Polly Ann).
6. I may be alone in this, but I think Zack has a waaaay nicer butt than Nomi. Verhoeven should have exploited this angle more. Certainly would have helped keep me from laughing so much.
7. Am I the only one who thought that much-discussed "Ver-sayce" dress was kinda putrid? Like something Mariah Carey would wear.
8. Zack's haircut reminds me a lot of Liza Minnelli during her "Results"/Pet Shop Boys phase.
9. Those two little kids backstage who are shocked by the use of "The F word," but not by seeing their mom in a g-string amongst an ocean of exposed boobs and naked butts.
10. Nomi's "intensity" when she dances (aka, scowling and baring her teeth).
"Showtime."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

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 of 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, naïve, 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 an 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