Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Thinking back to that time in the late '60s when Old Hollywood (all overlit studio sets, name stars, and conventional genres) begrudgingly made way for New Hollywood (auteurism, non-linear storytelling, and emphasis on youth), it’s easy to forget how gradual and awkward a transitional period it was. Film history can make it sound like Hollywood was churning out The Sound of Music on a Monday, then by Friday, it released 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” phasea period wedged awkwardly between the studio system excesses of the late-60s and the emergence of the American New Wave in the early-'70sHollywood released a glut of wheezily old-fashioned films it attempted to pass off as “with it” and “now” entertainments that sought to reach out to the young. These woefully middle-class, middle-aged, and formulaically sitcom-y films strove to reflect a youthful perspective, but were at a loss for what that actually meant. This led to the token insertion of self-consciously “hip” templates like rock music (which, to the septuagenarian ears running the studios meant muzak-type stabs at the contemporary sound by veterans like John Williams and Henry Mancini); a smattering of profanity and skin; 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: In 1969 Lana Turner starred in the psychedelic freakout The Big Cube, and Oscar-winner, classy lady Jennifer Jones looked adrift in the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Angel, Angel, Down We Go. Both films alienated audiences, young and old alike, by thrusting past their prime and obviously uncomprehending members of Hollywood Royalty smack into the center of exploitative, youth-pandering tales of drugs, sex, and depravity. By and large, most of these late-to-the-party efforts were just forced and artificial overtures to the youth market which, when dramatic, could only look at youth through the prism of struggling-to-adapt adults (The Arrangement and The Happy Ending ),  or when comedic, settled into a kind of out-of-touch smarminess that mistook smirking sleaze for daring: a la Prudence and the Pill and The Impossible Years, both released in 1968.

One of the better films to emerge from this cross-generational limbo is Cactus Flower; a farcical bedroom comedy that in less capable hands could have come off as little more than an expanded episode of the TV program Love, American Style (whose brightly-lit look it shares). However, this somewhat routine generation gap comedy (a cousin of the tepid but similar in tone 40 Carats) avoids that fate chiefly through the efforts of its appealing and talented cast. Truly, this film is a shining example of how charismatic and resourceful actors can turn run-of-the-mill 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 that she is not a home-wrecker and that their divorce is mutually desired and amicable. Of course, this being a farce, nothing goes as planned and all manner of Neil Simon-esque comic complications arise before the not-unexpected happy fade-out.
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. The inherent likability of the actor goes a long way toward preventing his character from coming across as loathsome as written

Based on the 1965 stage hit which provided 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 symbol of happy-ending bliss has always struck me as positively perverse given how prominently deception, serial adultery, and lying figure into the courtship rituals of the characters in these so-called sexually sophisticated comedies.
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 depicted as 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 comedies and sitcoms that came out of this “simpler, more innocent time.” All of which treated adultery like some kind of 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 I 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.

Say what one will about old Hollywood, when it was at the top of its game, no one was better at turning out these types 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' play) by Some Like it Hot’s I. A. L. Diamond; snappy, keep-the-action-moving direction by Gene Saks; and, most advantageously, a cast of newcomers and veterans who all know their 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're 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 timing. 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. Maybe even more than it deserves.
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

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 an indication of merit...I'm not so sure. In considering her win over Susannah York in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Dyan Cannon in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Catherine Burns in Last Summer; 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 performance excellence.
Hawn was the blonde "It" girl of the moment, and the public's affection for the bubble-head she portrayed on TV's outrageously popular Laugh-In factored heavily in her win. Apparently, the voting bloc of the Golden Globes felt the same, for Hawn also took that award home. I don't mean to sell Hawn short, however, for 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 genuine star quality and holds her own against veterans Matthau and Bergman. In fact, the publicity surrounding Hawn's debut somewhat 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 stale 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.
The talent and chemistry of Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau elevate Cactus Flower to high-style farce. Dick Van Dyke had initially been considered for the Matthau role, and when Bacall was passed over (or declined) there was talk of casting Lee Grant as the film's late-blooming leading lady.


Goldie Hawn's character is a clerk in 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...and so old. 

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 that is the entire decade of the 1960s (on a double-bill, Cactus Flower would not look out-of-date with 1963's Move Over, Darling), and feels charmingly corny and just a tiny bit camp (what with references to “love beads” and those stodgy Muzak-style arrangements 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 too long on the whole lying-your-way-to-love subtext, I have a wonderful time watching it. This is rom-com done right.
By the way, given my oft-voiced disdain for all things Adam Sandler, it's not likely I'll be checking out the loose 2011 remake of Cactus Flower titled Just Go With It. Although I'm curious to see if they are able to update the casual sexism of the original material, I'm not curious enough to subject myself to both Adam Sandler AND Jennifer Aniston...quick, call the bomb squad!

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 which 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.

One of the Goldie-centric newspaper ads for Cactus Flower

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Philosophically speaking, if the bad times in our lives help us to better appreciate the good; perhaps bad movies work 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 held the promise of doing for pasties and g-strings, what Singin’ in the Rain did for umbrellas.

Of course, when Showgirls ultimately did hit the theaters, audiences found themselves more shocked by the film’s overarching vulgarity and incompetence than by its sexual explicitness; the latter tending to incite giggles more than arousal. The $45-million film tanked at the boxoffice and virtually overnight, Showgirls became a “Bad Films We Love” cult favorite. In one fell swoop, a single misguided movie waylaid careers, reputations, and legitimacy. Investors lost their shirts (appropriately enough) and hopes 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 also, in every significant detail, an almost irredeemably terrible film. And no amount of revisionist Beyond the Valley of the Dolls /The Room 11th-hour damage control (“It’s a satire! It’s supposed to be bad!”) could ever convince me otherwise.

But Showgirls is so loopy and over-the-top in its attempts to be daring and sexy that watching it winds up being quite a lot of good, mean-spirited fun. Its desire to really be "about" something is almost touching in its naivete. And it's certainly more watchable 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 delight in. 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 of the most marketable elements of those films, only bigger, louder, gaudier - and a lot more naked- 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

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, confidante, and 'round-the-clock rescuer

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 of 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 wholly 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 
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 that signifies Nomi moving up the sleaze ladder. From appearances, the review is all glitter and g-strings and seems to be comprised almost exclusively of the dancers chaotically running about, gnashing teeth, and letting go with frenzied head-releases.
And then 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!

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'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.
1. James Smith's lead-footed "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), eats, has sex, sits.

Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012


It's been my experience that certain films adapted from novels play much better if you've read the book first: Doctor Zhivago, The Great Gatsby, and The Day of the LocustConversely, some screen adaptations are such vast improvements on their source material that reading the book after seeing the film can feel, at best, a recessive experience: The Godfather, That Cold Day in The ParkThen there are those films so faithful to their origins that both book and motion picture complement 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 and 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 of a place and time that resonates with subtle details of dialogue and character only possible from first-hand experience. McMurtry wrote about his hometown of Archer, Texas (fictionalized and renamed Thalia, Texas in the book), the very location Bogdanovich uses in the film. The town of Archerwhose largest export seems to be dustis called Anarene in the movie.
McMurtry's characters and dialog are vivid, even for someone like myself who never spent much time ins mall towns. And Bogdanovich's contributions (technically and in the deft handling of his cast of newcomers and veterans) are assured and perceptive. Small wonder, then, that when I saw The Last Picture Show 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 a Black 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 1970s, these retro filmswith 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 grandparentsfelt 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 inclusion 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 to be 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 which, for me, symbolized hatred and ignorance 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 look at the film in a context unrelated to the year it was made. No longer an impatient youngster annoyed at the idea of a film looking at yesterday when there were so many "today" stories that needed telling, I had a better perspective on what might be called the subjectivity of the nostalgic experience. It didn't matter that I couldn't specifically relate to the era or the small-town life depicted; the film had something significant to say about small, everyday, human things like loneliness and the risk of allowing oneself to be emotionally vulnerable. 
A coupla good ol' boys and their gal

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 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 restlessly dissatisfied elder populace (town father-figure Sam the Lion and neglected housewives Lois and Ruth), nostalgia figures in the narrative chiefly as expressed heartache and regret. Not necessarily a longing for how things used to be, but more a sense of loss related to the illusory dreams of youth. 
In many gently insightful ways, The Last Picture Show actually contrasts the idealized images we hold of '50s life with a realistic 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 assumed 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.

I can't say enough about the caliber of performances Peter Bogdanovich elicited from his remarkable ensemble cast. Each player brings such a wealth of genuine 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 giving even a passing glance to this dusty little burg.
Cybill Shepherd, whom I found to be a near-insufferable presence during the 1970s in everything save for 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 the avenues of expression made available to the young males of the town, Jacy channels her youthful restlessness into exerting control over the only realm of power afforded women at the time: her physical appeal. Though not always successful in her efforts, Jacy comes to learn that her beauty is her only source of power and the only hope she has to change her life.
The clumsy wielding of this power turns her into a more hurtful being than even she is aware of, 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. Looking at the film, I have a hunch that every move, gesture, and intonation was 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 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 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) role of the "sensitive youth" in a coming-of-age film, his performance is something of a revelation. How Bottoms manages to so movingly portray a not particularly articulate who is at once searching, naïve, perceptive, and unsure...while never once leaving the intensity of his inner struggle in doubt is pretty miraculous. Especially when one considers that he was just nineteen at the time. I like his performance so much that I assumed and took for granted Bottoms was among the eight Oscar nominations the film garnered. I was shocked to find out he was overlooked, and Bridges (good, but less impressive to me) was nominated instead.
Bill Thurman as Coach Popper, Cloris Leachman's neglectful husband who struggles
with his homosexuality

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 mean grown-up and mature. Although there's a considerable amount of nudity, sex, and profanity in The Last Picture Show (and, banned in Arizona in 1973, it's a movie that had its share of censorship battles), what's 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 a welcome bluntness to the way sex is presented and spoken of in the film. A tone I can only assume is intentionally presented in contrast to the film's nostalgia-evoking cinematography. As a film that dares expose the sexual hypocrisy of America's Bible-thumping "Traditional Family Values" set, The Last Picture Show is a winner in my book from the get-go. But Peter Bogdanovich's straightforward, matter-of-fact approach really wins me over with its nonjudgmental (yet subtly moral) point of view. Something that feels truly trail-blazing looking at it today.  

What inspired me to revisit The Last Picture Show was finally reading Larry McMurtry'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 eye how extraordinarily the film succeeds in meeting McMurtry'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 teen with a speech disability who's been 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 from the '70s reveals him to be a well-spoken, charming young man with almost intolerable arrogance and self-assuredness. Yet, he can be so engaging and personable when discussing films and directors he admires. And like his idol Orson Welles, Bogdanovich can be fascinating as an actor. Bogdanovich's life is tailor-made for the kind of hubris-haunted, fall-from-grace, true-story Hollywood cautionary tale that plays like cheap fiction. He symbolizes the best and worst of those glorious "New Hollywood" years. 
My Own Private Last Picture Show
This photo of me was taken in 1997 in front of The Sierra Theater in my partner's hometown of Chowchilla, California. The last standing of two of the town's only movie houses, The Sierra was built in 1941 and seated approximately 495 people. My partner's father worked there as a teen in 1he late-'40s. Shuttered since the mid-'70s, The Sierra was ultimately demolished in 2006.

Jan. 6, 2013 Addendum
I loved Larry McMurtry'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 dedicated his to Cybil Shepherd).
What the hell happened??? Not only did I find it an interminable and self-consciously archness (not to mention repetitive), but its focus is Duane, the character even Peter Bogdanovich said was difficult to cast because he was essentially so unlikeable. All the unpleasant characters are the main focus of the drama, while all the sympathetic ones (like Sonny and Ruth) have been shunted to the sidelines. 
That Bogdanovich made a film from it that I loathed with equal vehemence is perhaps a testament to its faithfulness to the source material. 
Unfortunately, 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   2009 - 2012