A+ List: The Last Picture Show

Making the transition from teenager to adult is hard enough anywhere. But when college isn’t an option and your home town is turning into a ghost town, your life just might feel like a dead end.

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, just may be the bleakest coming-of-age movie ever made. The two young men at its center, inherently nice guys, have no prospects and no real ambitions. They live in a depopulated town that looks like it will blow away with the next windstorm. Even sex is a confusing and often embarrassing experience.

For its honest look at late adolescence and early adulthood, and its reproduction of a particular time and place, The Last Picture Show earns an A+, a grade I only give to masterpieces–at least twenty years old–that I have loved for years if not decades. For other films that made the grade, see my A+ List Table of Contents.

This 1971 drama takes place in a small, dying Texas town in the early 1950s. No one actually says it’s dying. But the empty main street filled with empty stores tells plenty. The title refers to the town’s only, and dying, movie theater.

The story centers on Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior when we first meet him. He has no contact with his parents, but he takes care of his mute and mentally-challenged brother Billy (Sam Bottoms–brothers playing brothers). Sonny just slides along. He has a girlfriend as the film begins, but the heat feels lukewarm. There’s a moment where they’re necking in the back of the movie house, and his eyes are on the screen watching a young Elizabeth Taylor. He seems to have no post-school plans.

His best friend, Duane (Jeff Bridges) has a little more ambition, but not much.

And then there’s Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her first film role)–beautiful, blonde, rich, and spoiled. She’s Duane’s girl as the film begins, but things get complicated. Although still a virgin when the story begins, she’s already a master at manipulating boys. But she’s no simple femme fatale; she’s a fully-formed person who wants desperately to escape from her overbearing yet philandering mother (Ellen Burstyn).

The Last Picture Show is the rare coming-of-age movie that takes adults seriously. John Ford veteran Ben Johnson won an Oscar playing a small businessman who acts as a surrogate father for Sonny and Billy. His Sam has the outer look of classic, western-style masculinity. But he is clearly a loving a nurturing human being.

Cloris Leachman also won an Oscar as a frustrated, deeply-depressed housewife who has an affair with Sonny. She cries in their first, extremely awkward sexual encounter. But soon she’s blooming with a happiness that can’t possibly last.

There’s a lot of sex and nudity in The Last Picture Show, but very little of it is erotic. Most of it involves young people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. It’s funny, embarrassing, and kind of endearing.

As near as I can tell, The Last Picture Show was the first Hollywood-financed film shot in black and white since 1967’s In Cold Blood. The lack of color emphasizes the dry, dead feel of the town.

Director Peter Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry–from McMurtry’s novel. Bogdanovich was a noted film historian before he became a filmmaker. He wrote a book on John Ford, and the Fordian influences are clear if you know what to look for. The most obvious one, of course, is Ben Johnson. But a dance scene recalls similar dances in Ford’s westerns, and begins with Red River Valley, which plays an important role in Grapes of Wrath.

The scenes in the dying movie house allow Bogdanovich to play with his love of American films. Howard Hawk’s Red River makes an appearance. A lobby poster advertises Ford’s Wagon Master–to my knowledge the only film where Ben Johnson played a starring role.

The Last Picture Show was only Bogdanovich’s second narrative feature. He’s directed quite a few films since then, including a Last Picture Show sequel called Texasville (I haven’t seen it and don’t want to). But The Last Picture Show is the one people will remember him for.