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


  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.

    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!

    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!

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

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

    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.

    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

    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!

  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.

    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!

  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.

    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!

  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).

    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.

  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.

    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.

  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 deserved to be discovered by generations to come.

    The cinema was invented for films like this!

    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.

  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.

  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!

  10. A great review of a great film. But where's the frontal male nudity in the pool scene? The shocker was Bobby Sheen coming at the camera full on grinning. They've cropped him from the chest up for the dvd's.
    What's up with that?

    1. I have to check the DVD copy, because I remember him being cropped from the hips up, while those who saw it in the theater remember it as you say-full frontal. Never sure why this sort of things happens when so many directors are o touchy about their original films being tampered with. Also, what could be the purpose of such a crop? Maybe someone out there knows why.

  11. I could write a long long comment as I have been doing lately....but thankfully, I won't. lol. I'm very happy that you singled out Timothy Bottoms, though. I had a huge crush on him, after seeing him (at the age of 12) naked in a dorm room shower in my favorite movie...the Paper Chase. When I saw the movie again in college....I really loved him for his talent, as well as his ...ummm. well, body. Moving on....I was surprised to learn that Bottoms was not nominated, as well. ??? Ellen Byrnstyn said that Bottoms reminded her of James Dean. Bottoms shared Dean's gift of "method acting" and his gift for pissing off directors ( Bogdonavich and Timothy developed a hatred of one another, because of Timothy's "rebel attitude" in doing things his own way, and not taking direction). I wanted to see everything Timothy had done in his career and looked him up in the library. I always felt his best work is in the terrifying movie "Johnny Got His Gun" as a Vietnam vet who has lost his arms and his legs.....his character having flashbacks of his life, before and after the war. But hard to say because as Sonny....he's so phenomenal. Timothy may have pissed off one director too many....his movie career as a leading man stalled later in the 70s, only having luck in TV movies here and there in the 80s. He has a career now as a character actor, here and there in movies (he played George Bush in some crazy hbo thing). I just swoon when I see him in either this or the Paper Chase. That boyish face, that unique sensitivity, his mystery ....I could go on, but i'll stop here. just happy that you, ken, singled him out for his great work.

    1. Hi John
      I welcome your comments very much, the length of them not mattering in the least. So, please, feel free to express what you want about a film. if it reads too long to your eyes, some readers have found it helpful to break their comments into installments.
      I like that you had a crush on Timothy Bottoms, too. I had no idea that he and Bogdanovich didn't get along, nor that Bottoms had a reputation for being difficult. I haven't seen many of his films, but Get TV has been showing "Love and Pain and the Whole Damned Thing" a lot..a film i wanted to see very much back in the day. He is quite delightful in it and it would have easily been one of my youthful favorites.
      He has a great, sensitive quality, and I'm happy to hear you appreciated his work in this film as well.

  12. Thank you for the excellent review of the film.

    1. That's very kind of you to take the time to read this and comment. I just took a look at your site and I'm thrilled by all the familiar '70s titles! I will be checking it out. Thank you!

    2. You're welcome, it was a great read. I love the film and will be looking at it in the near future, everything about it worked. Hope you like the blog, I'm always on the lookout for 1970s films, can never get enough of them, I'm sure you know what I mean!

  13. Bogdanovich's handling of the actors is really something. Almost every major character has at least one lengthy monologue: something that would stick out like a sore thumb in most movies, but in this one they are all so beautifully acted and directed that they don't seem the slightest bit stagy or fake. (Ben Johnson turned the role down several times because he hated to memorize lines!!). His direction of Sam Bottoms' Billy is also brilliant. A mute, ever-smiling orphan who dies at the end? This character should have been a mawkish disaster, but for me he's one of the most memorable in the film. (I love the way he's always sweeping the dirt in a street that's a literal dust bowl!). The scene where he's "deflowered" by an obese, loudmouthed hash-slinger is so matter-of-factly done that it somehow manages not to be offensive, even to today's audience.

    1. I don't think I ever noticed the number of monologues, and given how often I've seen the film, I guess that proves your point. Bogdanovich does indeed do a marvelous job with his actors. When I see how TEXASVILLE turned out, and compare it to the almost gentle way you note...he handles potentially off-putting scene or wincingly sentimental ones...I have to wonder about how much of life experience dulled his touch, or recognize perhaps the only recently-heralded influence and input of Polly Platt.
      I like the constant sweeping of the dustbowl streets, too. That element of this movie came to mind when I saw Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER and they had a character whp was always trying to sweep up the sand at a windy beach house. Thanks, Kip. As usual, you always take notice of interesting things in films. Thanks for sharing with us here!