Early in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, as the wind from the Texas plains whips the small town of Anarene, the high school senior Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) halts his recalcitrant pickup truck—Hank Williams is warbling “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?” on the radio—to give a ride to his mute young friend Billy (Sam Bottoms). When Billy sits beside him, Sonny turns his cap backward on his head, a gesture that makes Billy smile and that Sonny will repeat several times, and his buddy Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) once, during the course of the movie. Sonny, Duane, and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), Duane’s girl, later sing their high school’s song, partly in affection, partly in mockery, as they drive in Jacy’s convertible—the three joyfully united in friendship, no matter that both boys love this vain and luscious heartbreaker. It’s 1951, school’s nearly done, and anything is possible.
In these moments and others throughout his wistful film, Bogdanovich seems to be making the point that people are often unaware that the times they are living are the best of times, that simple quotidian rituals and shared moments are what make the long journey tolerable. Other rituals he depicts include Sonny’s visits to Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the neglected wife of the school football coach, for afternoon lovemaking that becomes more satisfying with each renewal, and the long hours spent in the Royal, Anarene’s little movie theater, and the other establishments—pool hall, café—run by the grizzled Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). As time goes by, these validating experiences slip away or terminate abruptly, leaving Sonny high and dry, with nothing but Ruth’s anger at his desertion—that and the humbling realization that he has lost what was valuable. Though he hasn’t got the wherewithal to leave Anarene, as Duane and Jacy do, the painful rite of passage will serve him well in the future. Maybe. At least, it will give him plenty of bittersweet memories, such as of his last peaceful experience of Sam, his and Billy’s surrogate father, who takes the boys fishing at the tank and tenderly reminisces about a love affair. The Last Picture Show is like a multilayered poem in the way it indulges Sam’s nostalgia—and ours for the veteran western actor Johnson—while feeding Sonny’s future reveries about his own past.
The film was revelatory when it opened in October 1971, and it has proved the most assured of Bogdanovich’s uneven career. With its eight Oscar nominations and two wins—for supporting actors Johnson and Leachman—it became a flagship of New Hollywood, though not that sprawling movement’s most representative work. It was financed by BBS, which, in its earlier incarnation as Raybert Productions, had dreamed up the Monkees and delivered the countercultural shock of Easy Rider, and had just presented the existential angst of Five Easy Pieces. This was the maverick company, run by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner, and abetted by Jack Nicholson, most associated with the seventies revitalization of American cinema, partially through the rejection of classical modes of storytelling. The Last Picture Show has a foot in both camps, the old and the new. Slow and mournful, it does not seem to have much in common with the work of other directors who emerged during the decade, especially vivid stylists with urban preoccupations like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, and William Friedkin, or a caustic observer of human foibles like Robert Altman. Yet it fully embraces the new era’s sense of personal artistic vision. And like the other Raybert/BBS productions, it powerfully depicts loss, loneliness, the failure of family, and the pipe dream of love—themes very much of the time. Sonny is as alienated in his way as Nicholson’s characters in Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, and as Tuesday Weld’s in Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place, which costarred Nicholson and Orson Welles.
Following the decade in which veteran directors like Ford, Hawks, Curtiz, Borzage, Anthony Mann, Capra, Milestone, Stevens, Walsh, Wyler, Siodmak, and Jacques Tourneur made their final features, The Last Picture Show bids farewell, with its symbolic shuttering of the Royal, to Old Hollywood. It achieves this through its lovingly realized classical aesthetic and perfect period detail, which owe not only to Bogdanovich but also to the production/costume designer, Polly Platt (whose marriage to the director foundered when he began an on-set relationship with Shepherd). A cineaste influenced by the nouvelle vague, Bogdanovich had programmed films and written intelligently about cinema before making, under a pseudonym, his first feature, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, followed, more auspiciously, by Targets (both 1968). He was a self-described “popularizer” and friend of some of America’s preeminent auteurs, including Hawks and Ford, on both of whom he made documentaries. The Last Picture Show would be his Fordian film (as 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? would be his Hawksian film), and one that paid homage to Hawks in passing. In looking back to what was timeless in their work, however, Bogdanovich was also addressing what was timeless in his own era of social and sexual upheaval.
Welles, who was staying with Bogdanovich at the time he made The Last Picture Show, contributed too. Their talks apparently prompted Bogdanovich’s crucial decision to have Robert Surtees photograph it in black and white, the better to facilitate deep-focus shots and evoke nostalgia for an ebbing culture, in the same way Welles had fondly if ruefully recalled the aristocratic Indiana neighborhood of the early 1900s in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The dusty aura of The Last Picture Show suggests less the pristine Ambersons, however, than Hawks’s Red River (1948), Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), and Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952). The use of long shots, isolating people in the arid outdoors, depriving them of intimacy, was Fordian—one thinks of Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, taking a lone walk away from Sam’s graveside. “Some of the best scenes that you make are in long shot,” Hawks said. “I learned that from Jack Ford. Peter Bogdanovich has done that very successfully in The Last Picture Show, but he sat on my set for two and a half years and on Ford’s for two and a half years, so he learned a few things.” Surtees had assisted Gregg Toland early in his career and would have been familiar with his deep-focus work on Ford’s The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (both 1940), and, of course, on Citizen Kane (1941). According to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, The Last Picture Show’s lack of master shots flummoxed BBS’s Schneider and Blauner, but Rafelson allayed their fears, saying the film would “cut like butter” because Bogdanovich was editing in the camera.
The screenplay was adapted by Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich from McMurtry’s semiautobiographical 1966 novel, the sexual frankness of which made it a highly appealing property in 1970. McMurtry had been reared in Archer City, in the Panhandle Plains region of Texas. He renamed the town Thalia for the novel, and Bogdanovich, who shot the film in Archer City, changed Thalia to Anarene—to rhyme with the Abilene of Red River. In contrast to today’s Archer City, sustained by oil, ranching, and McMurtry’s latest bookstore, Anarene in the movie appears to be dying: a tumbleweed rolls ominously across the street near the end. The opening shot that tracks from the Royal reveals how desolate the town is; the answering shot that closes the film ends on the Royal, which has closed following Sam’s sudden, offscreen death. Sam was Anarene’s bastion of moral authority, as Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is in Ford’s analogous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ben Johnson earned the role with his dignified portrayals of Southern-born U.S. cavalrymen in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), and the protective leader of the Mormon wagon train in Wagon Master—serene, canny gentlemen of the frontier.
Bogdanovich makes clear his influences. Early on, we see a Wagon Master poster outside the Royal’s box office. The last movie shown there is, anachronistically, Red River, whereas in the novel it’s The Kid from Texas (1950), which fails to divert Sonny and Duane from their thoughts about Jacy: “It would have taken Winchester ’73 or Red River or some big movie like that to have crowded out the memories the boys kept having,” McMurtry writes. Sonny and Duane watch as Wayne and Montgomery Clift start their cattle drive, which will end in rancor with their climactic fistfight. The Last Picture Show, too, proceeds to a vicious fight—between Sonny and Duane over Jacy, who soon after weds Sonny, knowing her parents will have the marriage annulled before it is consummated. She does it to succor her wounded vanity on learning that Sonny has been sleeping with Ruth; stripping in front of the Wichita Falls smart set at a pool party is a tougher (if more exciting) trial for Jacy than eloping.
Jacy has been labeled a femme fatale by some critics. She is fickle, but like Sonny, she is also an innocent finding her way, a naïf, for all her manipulativeness, who defines herself in relation to men, including her mom’s lover, the opportunistic oil driller Abilene (Clu Gulager)—an Oedipal revenge if ever there was one. Whatever her caprices, in 1971 many young women viewers would have cheered her readiness to experiment sexually with different men; Ruth’s affair with Sonny is equally affirming, a better option than permanent lassitude and disappointment, if not exactly a feminist statement. Acting on desire is a salve for several characters’ aimlessness, but not its every manifestation is healthy, or sane: Joe Bob Blanton (Barc Doyle), the religious kid, nearly molests a little girl. In the novel, McMurtry matter-of-factly describes the coition of teenage boys with animals; Bogdanovich necessarily drew the line at bestiality (though it is referred to in the film). The critic John Simon cited this omission and that of Lois’s having sex with Sonny as examples of the film’s romanticization of the world of the novel. But these were discreet choices: Sonny’s sleeping with Lois on-screen would have not only diluted the delicacy of his forlorn affair with Ruth but also cost the movie the touching conversation between Lois and Sonny when she recalls the only man who knew her worth. It is through Ruth’s and Sam’s upbraidings that Sonny learns about emotional responsibility and through Lois’s acceptance of her past that he learns about the transience of love.
The Last Picture Show contrives to be both elegiac and brutally realistic. The deaths of Sam and Billy, Jacy’s inconstancy (sickening to both Duane and Sonny), and the recognition that Sonny and Ruth will be unable to reignite their affair are as chilling as the northers that sweep through Anarene. All that can be cherished are those fleeting moments of happiness contained in small intimacies. Ruth, newly radiant, wears Sonny’s shirt after their second tryst (so much better than their noisy baptism by bedsprings). The kindhearted café waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) serves Sonny a healing cheeseburger. Sam, during the fishing trip, offers Sonny a roll-up as if they were a pair of Hawksian cowboys.
In that same interlude, Sam remembers bringing his girl to the tank more than twenty years before and swimming with her “without no bathin’ suits.” Memory confers a pleasure as precious in the present as the events being recalled. Dazzling, inventive, and trenchant though much of New Hollywood was—and abrasive and cynical too—nothing else it came up with matches Sam the Lion’s faraway look as he dwells on his wild affair with his lost love. Fading out as he is, it’s the last picture show in his mind’s eye.
Graham Fuller has written about movies for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times, as well as for the Criterion Collection releases of A Canterbury Tale, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Walker. Many of his articles and essays can be found online at inalonelyplace.com.