Rambling Reviewer, “The Last Picture Show”

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, matches a perfect ensemble cast with a perfect script in telling a bitter-sweet story of vanishing opportunities in a small Texas town between 1951 and 1952. The story is based on Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel by the same title, and filming was largely made in his hometown of Archer, Texas.   

The movie stars Timothy Bottoms, Cybil Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Jeff Bridges, and Eileen Brennan. Timothy Bottoms’ younger brother Sam played Billy, his mentally disabled friend. The story revolves around Sonny, played by Timothy Bottoms, and Duane played by Jeff Bridges, as two high schoolers transitioning to adult life. Their broken homes and poor backgrounds give them few options for the future. The boys’ dating lives reflects their conflicted views of themselves. Cybil Shepherd as Jacy is the town beauty and a magnet for boys. She’s Duane’s girlfriend – but for how long can that last? Sam the Lion is an old cowboy that owns the pool hall, café, and picture show (movie theater) in town where these boys hang out. He’s also the father figure to Sonny and Duane. As the year passes conflicts arise between them – some that will be repaired – some that last forever.

The Last Picture Show was nominated for Best Picture and Director and it won Best Supporting Actor Awards for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Bogdanovitch talked to Orson Welles about how he wanted to make the film using deep-focus cinematography, just like Citizen Kane. Wells told him in order to achieve that he couldn’t film it in color. And besides, he added. “All the best performances are in black and white.” Bogdanovitch liked the idea, plus he thought it would give the film the right period look and bleak feeling. So Bogdanovich asked the producer and was told he could. Bogdanovitch was also a fan of the John Ford westerns, and wanted one of his actors, Ben Johnson, to play the role of Sam the Lion. Johnson was not only an actor in Western movies, but he was one of the few that had been a real cowboy, and more, a rodeo champion. But Johnson turned him down. “Too many words,” he said about his part in the script. So Bogdanovich turned to Ford for help. Ford said Johnson always says that about a script. But after Ford called him, Johnson relented and called to tell Bogdanovich he would accept – in what would become the most iconic role of his career. Bogdanovich picked Cybil Shepherd from the cover of Glamour magazine. She was a super model at the time. They ended up having an affair and a relationship that lasted several years. Music was synchronized into the movie through scenes of jukeboxes, record-players, or car and truck radios. Most of it the honky-tonk tunes or doleful songs of Hank Williams.
The Last Picture Show is one of those unforgettable movies whose acting, story and scenery are among the greatest in movie-making. Contains brief scenes of nudity.

Christian Esquevin is a member of the Coronado Island Film Festival Board of Directors, an avid film aficionado, and the creator of the blog Silver Screen Modes which focuses on the fashions and films of classic Hollywood. He is also the author and researcher for a stunning tabletop book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Labelon fashion designer and icon, Gilbert Adrian, the chief fashion designer for MGM studios from 1928 to 1941.


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