Tuesday, August 14, 2012

1971 - The Last Picture Show

Rehearsals are well under way for Cosi, the first production of Australian Made Entertainment, the theatre (and eventually, film) company that Kat and I recently formed. We begin performances on September 7 in New York City, only three and a half weeks away, so if you're going to be in the area, get your tickets now.

We now turn our attention to the final nominee from the Best Picture race of 1971...

The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich
Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
(based on the novel by Larry McMurtry)
Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Sharon Taggart, Randy Quaid, Joe Heathcock
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
2 wins, for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Best Supporting Actress (Leachman)

Contrary to my usual rule, my viewing of The Last Picture Show was of the director's cut, not of the original version that played in cinemas in 1971, which appears to be difficult to find. Nonetheless, with only seven minutes of additional footage, I think we can let it slide.

It's 1951 in a small town in Texas. Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) is a senior in high school and doesn't really have any plans, either for tomorrow or for the rest of his life. His best friend Duane (Bridges) is dating the spoiled Jacy (Shepherd), a strained relationship if ever there was one. After Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene (Taggart), who he never really cared about anyway, he begins an affair with his football coach's middle-aged wife Ruth (Leachman). Stumbling from one day to the next, Sonny impulsively takes a trip to Mexico with Duane, takes over the town's pool hall, begins a flirtation with Jacy, and generally comes of age.

Being set in the early 1950s, director Peter Bogdanovich cleverly replicates the style of film-making during that era. The film is shot in black-and-white and, during some of the darker scenes, the lighting often employs that stark contrast effect in which an actor in close-up moves in and out of a small sliver of bright light. The performances, too, are sometimes filled with a 1950s bravado and enthusiasm, typical of the acting style back then.

However, the most fascinating element is the incongruity that results from the pairing of this nostalgic style with the solemn and crude subject matter. During the actual time period, it seems unimaginable that such sexuality and bad language would have appeared on film, but twenty years later, without the shackles of censorship, The Last Picture Show is free to create a sobering look at life in a small town. Stylistically, though, it remains in the 1950s, creating a slight feeling of unease.

The story certainly doesn't rush. With its slice-of-life approach, the characters plod along, experiencing things unfolding without any main driving goal at the forefront of the plot. Which is not to say that nothing happens. The film is full of major events, and considering the plight of the younger characters, could easily be described as a coming-of-age story - kind of a cruder small-town version of American Graffiti. Sex is clearly a focus, particularly the awkwardness of first encounters, but in no way could it be said that any of the sex scenes in this picture are actually sexy. In one scene, for instance, our attention is directed toward the awkward noises of the squeaking bed as one participant attempts to hold back tears.

Timothy Bottoms (pictured) carries the film well with a very understated performance as a young man trying to make sense of his world. He is joined by several young stars in the making. Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut, is extremely effective as the manipulative girl with powerful eyelid-batting skills. Also on debut, Randy Quaid is delightfully awkward as the patient rich kid. Jeff Bridges deservedly scored his first Oscar nomination for his breakout role, but was beaten to the Best Supporting Actor trophy by his co-star Ben Johnson, who delivers a moving performance as the surrogate patriarch. The film also received two Supporting Actress nominations, the first for Ellen Burstyn's fantastic portrayal of a woman attempting in vain to prevent her daughter from making the same mistakes she made. Cloris Leachman clinched the Oscar, though, with an incredibly touching performance, capped off by a memorable outburst near the end of the film. And yes, that's Magnum P.I.'s right-hand man, Higgins (a.k.a John Hillerman) as the school teacher at the beginning.

For a bit of extra trivia appropriate to this blog, some of the characters in the film attend a screening of Father of the Bride, which is itself a Best Picture nominee.


  1. A coming of age story, soap opera, portrait of a dying town, and a story of lives lived in quiet desperation – take your pick, it is all there in The Last Picture Show. A young maverick film director looks to the past and to the masters, yet doesn’t shy away from the showing what the relaxed cinema codes allowed in 1971. Taking the advice of some of the directors he interviewed as a critic and reporter, Peter Bogdanovitch uses long takes, films almost exclusively at eye level, and in black and white. He uses a subtle jump cut near the end to focus on a discarded broom, one of the few modern touches. Another novel approach was to eschew a traditional score for a soundtrack of classic country and pop tunes played on car radios and record players. This was two years before American Graffiti used the same approach.

    The episodic story is pretty basic in plot, the sexual longings of youth and reminiscences and regrets of missed opportunities for the elders. There are no great revelations, but by the end, you sure feel like you know this town and its people quite well.

    A word should be said about the remarkable cast, easily the best ensemble of the year. Newcomers, sensitive Timothy Bottoms, cocky Jeff Bridges and manipulative Cybil Shepard each want something different out of life, yet their youthful inexperience shows through. Shepard’s Jacy was clearly transparent, yet all she had to do was bat those big eyes and pout, and she pretty much got what she wished. The trio of older ladies, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan were simply outstanding. It was a shame that Eileen Brennan was left off the Supporting Actress list. The Last Picture Show would have matched Tom Jones with three nominees.

    Then there’s Ben Johnson. After James Stewart had to turn down the part to start a TV series, it took Director John Ford to talk Johnson to accepting it. His scene by the watering hole, talking about lost loves and changing times was the acting highlight of the movie, aided immeasurably by Robert Surtees stunning camerawork.

    Larry McMurtry sure knew how to write about small town Texas. Other adaptations of his novels included Hud and Lonesome Dove. Throw in Terms of Endearment and you have quite a resume. I find it difficult to come up with a flaw in the movie. It certainly isn’t as flashy as the world of A Clockwork Orange, or as dynamic as the violent urban streets of The French Connection. I guess some would find it rather dull. Bogdanovitch certainly kept it focused on Anarene. The out of town trips to Mexico and Oklahoma were set up but left out. I think that Peter Bogdanovitch made all the right moves here; something that would elude him for the rest of his career.

  2. Hey!

    Nick from www.cinekatz.com here. Doing some scout work for the LAMB. We're wanting to make an email newsletter for community features as well as a list we're making similar to Sight & Sound's best movies of all time list. Just need an email! Email me at npowe131 at gmail.com

  3. Congratulations Matt and Kat on the fine review that "Cosi" received from Sarah Lucie at Show Business Magazine (http://showbusinessweekly.com/article-2125-cosi-at-urban-stages.html). Looks like you have a winner.