The Last Picture Show (1971) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sexuality and language
Running Time: 118 min. (video version runs 125 min.)
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry, Peter Bogdanovich (based on the book by Larry McMurtry)
Review published November 6, 2005
The Last Picture Show primarily follows the exploits of two small town Texas high school buddies on the cusp of graduation during the early 1950s, Sonny (Bottoms, The Girl Next Door) and Duane (Bridges, Fat City). Duane is currently dating the prettiest girl in town, Jacy (Shepherd, Taxi Driver), although she is manipulative and fickle, and impossible to trust. Meanwhile, Sonny starts up a sexual relationship of his own with the 40-something sad and lonely wife of the school's gym coach, Ruth (Leachman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the secret of which doesn't last long in this small, gossipy town. Complications begin to arise when Jacy makes a play for Sonny, while the town continues its slow but deliberate journey into obsolescence.
A real breakthrough for director Peter Bogdanovich (The Cat's Meow, Mask), with the film garnering eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, The Last Picture Show offers a sophisticated movie about teenagers, the likes of which are rare in Hollywood, both before and since. It's a well done character study, not only of the individual characters, but also of the small town as a living (or should I say, dying) entity of its own. Larry McMurtry, who covered similar themes about the decline of Southern respectability in his equally brilliant Hud, scores again with his look at all of the pitfalls and self-defeating aspects of small town life.
Call it an anti-nostalgia film, showing that the past isn't always the idyllic time that we all look back and think it to be. Sadness and tragedy run rampant in small town America, a bleak time where there are no battles to fight, and little to stick around for. Filmed in black and white, evoking the look of the films made in that era, this is still a very modern treatment of the early 1950s; the kind of realistic attitudes one couldn't see in entertainment back then, for fear of censorship or just public outrage. Adultery, alcoholism, promiscuous sex, and other issues are dealt with in a sophisticated manner, but the real allure of the film comes in its somber bitterness, as the pious fall and all that was good in the world is replaced by emptiness and a lonely existence.
The Last Picture Show is a bitter pill for some to swallow, so it really isn't going to be universally appealing, but it is still a solid drama, featuring good performances and a great attention to detail. Bogdanovich's direction is the real asset, taking bold chances and paying off with early every one of them. Even with the accolades, temper your expectations, as it takes a certain kind of soul to be in perfect tune with what the film is saying underneath; I was only able to hear it part of the time, and thus, am not able to quite claim to have found the cinematic greatness that others have proclaimed.
©2005 Vince Leo