“The Last Picture Show” is a haunting, beautiful, multi-layered time portal. Released in 1971, the movie provides a pitch-perfect recreation of mid-century life in a tiny West Texas town. Peter Bogdanovich directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Larry McMurtry, author of the novel upon which the film is based. Bogdanovich’s handling of his ensemble cast, and his building of tension at a relaxed pace, are masterful.
The film opens and closes with wide, sweeping shots of Anarene, a sleepy crossroads where high winds blow dust and tumbleweeds over the road and the dilapidated buildings. The first two characters to appear are Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior through whose eyes most of the narrative unfolds, and Billy (Sam Bottoms), a pre-teen mute whose Sisyphean efforts to sweep away the town’s dust mark him as a figure of sympathy and simplicity. Over the course of the movie, which spans exactly one year, Sonny will come of age. Billy, by contrast, will forever remain a child with a foolish grin. By the movie’s logic, Billy gets the better deal.
As the narrative commences, Sonny is dating Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart). One evening, after an awkward make-out session, they finally admit they have no feelings for each other, and they break up. Meanwhile, Sonny’s best friend, Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), is dating the prettiest girl in town, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Although Duane thinks he has it made, Jacy has eyes for Bobby Sheen (Gary Brokette), a rich and wild boy from nearby Wichita Falls. Jacy stops at nothing – toying with Duane, and alternately using and insulting her friend Lester Morrow (Randy Quaid) – to get to Bobby.
Over the course of the film, Sonny, Duane, and Jacy all navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They each lose their virginity. They each experience modest joys, mixed with severe disillusionment, from their sexual encounters and their romantic attachments. They each make rash decisions that will permanently fix their destinies.
The younger characters are guided, and mis-guided, by the older ones. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) owns the pool hall and movie theater where the boys hang out. He provides them advice and stability in place of their absent fathers. Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the basketball coach’s wife, gives Sonny all sorts of lessons on how to treat women. Jacy’s mother, Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), brazenly cuckolds her husband but has more to teach the younger characters than they realize.
Everything about the movie feels real. The soundtrack, dominated by Hank Williams, fits perfectly. The gorgeous black-and-white camerawork earned cinematographer Robert Surtees an Oscar nomination. Awkward cuts and portrait-like framing make the movie feel as if it were made in 1951, rather than 1971. The sets and the imagery are compelling in their austerity. Ruth Popper’s kitchen, the scene of so much activity in the film, is shot with such immediacy that the viewer feels like a voyeur.
The screenplay received an Oscar nod, and deservedly so. Considering how many characters appear, each is presented with miraculous vividness. Johnson and Leachman each won Academy Awards for their supporting roles. But Bridges and Burstyn also were nominated in the same categories, and nobody would have objected had they won instead. All four give moving and wistful performances. Some of the most poignant passages of McMurtry’s novel address Ruth Popper’s interior monologue. Leachman manages to convey in her features every emotion her character feels.
“The Last Picture Show” is about the crossing of thresholds. One day children are innocent, the next they are disillusioned, and nobody knows when the change occurred. People pass away. The title of the movie refers to the shutting of Anarene’s lone movie theater. The place where a community once gathered for big-screen spectacle is replaced by small screens playing to a dispersed audience.
The metaphor is prescient. In today’s era, dominated as it is by blockbusters and expensive special effects, it is impossible to imagine anybody paying slow, melancholy homage to 1951 with the fealty and tenderness of “The Last Picture Show.”
DIRECTOR: Peter Bogdanovich SCREENWRITERS: Peter Bogdanovich, Lary McMurtry PRODUCERS: Stephen J. Friedman, Bert Schneider CAST: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson MPAA RATING: R