I really loved Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. This was a film that was never on my radar, but then when I heard about the talent behind the film, I knew that I should check it out. Everything about the film is nearly perfect from the spot-on performances to the masterful direction to the technical side of the film. I very much enjoyed how the movie was filmed in black-and-white. It added to the surprising realism the film showed us. The film is about life and how people try to figure out the meaning of their lives in the rather desolate town of Anarene, Texas.
There is no denying how depressing the film can be. It’s certainly moody and there is no happiness to be found. The lives of everyone is like living in an empty void. People move on from one thing to the next with nothing to look forward too. This is one of the factors that make this movie so powerful. Also adding to the depression of this dying town is the changing times. The town resembles an old Western town way past it’s due date. You understand the reasons the tumbleweed rolling through town. The film points out rapidly-evolving urban centers nearby as people flock to these towns to start new lives. But for the people remaining in town, the old-timers fondly remember the happy days while the young people wonder what to do without being so bored. After all, downtown only consists of a diner, the pool hall, and an old-fashioned movie theater all owned by one man known as Sam the Lion.
Something that really surprised me is how much of a factor sex plays in the film. Of course, sex is necessary in everyone’s lives. But this film really pulls the strings with that sentence. People have sex with each other in the film because there is nothing else to do. They use sex as a way to get through their rather meaningless day. Except for a few cases, there is no sense of eroticism in the sexual activities. There is this one girl named Jacy who uses her looks to seduce every man in town and there is the relationship between our main character Sonny and the older wife of the local gym teacher, Ruth. After Sonny cheats on Ruth with Jacy, there is a very powerful scene between Ruth and Sonny (that involved chucking a coffee pot at Sonny’s head) that shows the deep, real feelings that people did have. The feeling that love actually existed inside of these people.
It’s 1951 in this small, hapless town of Anarene, Texas. The only person who seems to enjoy life is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), a father figure of almost everyone in town. Life does not hold much of a future in this town for the younger generation. Two kids the film keeps an eye on are the co-captains of their terrible high school football team; Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges). Sonny is more of the sensitive kind of person while Duane is a brash, outgoing man-but they happen to be best friends. Duane also happens to be dating the best-looking girl in town, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the daughter of an oil baron. Meanwhile, Sonny just broke up with his long-time girlfriend who only were together for the lack of anything to do. Jacy begins a pursuit on her mother’s Lois (Ellen Burstyn) to find other men that could give her a future. Meanwhile, Sonny begins an affair with the older Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman). These events show exactly how much of a future is left for the younger generation in Anarene.
The film has a very strong cast, whom many would go on to have strong careers. There really is not a single standout because everyone gives an incredible performance each depicting their own sense of sadness. If I had to choose the best performance in the film, I would pick Cloris Leachman as the unhappy wife who begins an affair. That forementioned scene in the argument with Sonny is very powerful. Ben Johnson would be a very close second as Sam the Lion. He’s a stern man content with life in the town, but he understands the plight of the young ones. His scene where he takes Sonny out fishing and reminisces on his younger life concerning love actually brought a few tears to my eyes. There is Jeff Bridges, who gave a very steady performance and despite his young age, he already held a commanding presence onscreen. Cybill Shepherd was an unrecognizable name at the time, but her sexual turn as Jacy opened up some eyes. Ellen Burstyn likewise as her mother.
I also must comment on the use of music in the film. Unlike many films at the time, it does not have an orchestral score. Instead, it uses some pop music as background music. The use of Hank Williams made a good, rather unique fit for the film.
Also, I have to mention the cinematography, which was used in black-and-white. That gave to the overall realism of the movie. But it is the little things on camera that showed the emptiness of the town. Whether its the tumbleweed, the dust blowing the air, the sad faces of everyone, the broken-down cars, etc. Everything that was shot, in some shape or form, showed what life was in this town.
Overall, The Last Picture Show is a bleak, sad movie that is nonetheless a very powerful feature that is masterfully directed by Peter Bogdanovich and brilliantly adapted to the screen by Bogdanovich as well. He gets powerful performances from everyone in the film, and that is a rare feat for a young director. It goes to show that growing up is not all golden and wonderful as some people struggle to live because of the area they reside in. This is surprisingly a very powerful film and one of my favorites from 1971.
My Grade: A