Last Picture Show, The (1971)
Release Date: October 22nd, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Peter Bogdanovich Actors: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Sam Bottoms, Randy Quaid
he Last Picture Show” is an amusing reminiscence on small town adolescent life, the futility of rapid change under such restrictive circumstances and the inevitability of eventual transitioning nonetheless, and uncommon terms of love between mismatched people. Being trapped in a desolate town with no prospects can certainly be stifling. Ahead of its time in portraying the awkwardness of youth and the fears and nerves of budding sexuality, it’s a nostalgic work that holds greater significance to those more familiar with the ‘50s – like a non-comedic version of “American Pie” or “American Graffiti” mixed with “Almost Famous” or “Easy Rider,” capturing a time and place and age authentically and emotionally.
Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are best friends in Anarene, Texas in the early 1950s. They live the lives of typical teens in a tiny, dusty town, vying for attention from the only pretty girl (Cybill Shepherd), watching movies at the picture house owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), and struggling to find cheap thrills and a diversion from the dreariness of their existences. Drama and romance ebb and flow through affairs, parties, sexual rendezvouses, a road trip, rivalries, and the looming Korean War.
Several lines of dialogue, direct from the characters, sums up the motifs of drab small town life: “everything’s flat and empty here,” there’s nothing fun to do, and “everything gets old if you do it enough.” Sonny wants to break through the mold but gets caught up in the confusion and complexities of adolescence, experimenting with an easy physical relationship with an older woman (Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper) before finally connecting with the girl of his dreams – who proves herself to be shallow and self-absorbed, shedding those qualities onto Sonny, who expectedly follows his instinctual lust. Like many of the movies revolving around teenagers, the distressing boredom and lack of privacy (word travels fast) leads the way to inelegant attempts at forced maturation. The characters try to be wild and crazy, lose their virginities, and resort to bullying cruelties merely to pass the time.
In addition, the notion that nothing is ever the way it’s supposed to be, especially in terms of life, love, and new experiences, edges its way into the film. While Sonny continually searches for something better, for a revelation about his existence, and a key to growing up, Sam reminisces about the good times, his former happiness, and ageing. It’s a sentimental rumination, on the opposite end of the spectrum, from a man who has already experienced the unavoidable changes of entering adulthood and recognizes that simple joys can surpass the desire for escape from monotonous cycles. And Ben Johnson delivers that message in a pensive monologue that earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Cloris Leachman also won an Academy Award for her supporting role, while the film earned Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing nominations (director Peter Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry, who adapted his own novel) in 1971. It’s brooding and contemplative, with unexpectedly complex and taboo adult situations (Cybill Shepherd, in her screen debut, has a startlingly revealing strip scene), a consistent melancholy mood emphasized by Hank Williams’ casual tunes, and inspired black-and-white cinematography. Although a technically proficient production, its ultimate resonance will largely depend on nostalgia and familiarity with 1950’s, deteriorating dreams, and a comparably rocky coming of age.
– Mike Massie