The Last Picture Show (1971)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
The Last Picture Show is a eulogy to a way of life that was already dying in the 1950s, when this movie was set, and was long since gone by the time the 1970s, when this movie was made, rolled around. This is a movie set in the 1950s with teenagers who behave like it’s the 60s. This movie works as the Anti-West Side Story. Where that movie was a colorful movie about colorful characters, this is a black and white movie about a bleak and desolate place, where the last tether to the outside world is being lost. Anarene, Texas looks like every rundown one horse rural town whose life revolves around the local high school football team, a team in this case, that doesn’t seem to be worth much of a hoot. Ben Johnson plays “Sam the Lion”, the heart and soul of the town. I was familiar with Johnson from the many westerns he starred in that I had seen growing up with my father and grandfather. This however is the best acting I have ever seen him do. The scene with him on the riverbanks talking about “the one that got away” is a really well done and emotional heartfelt scene.
Growing up with modern movies, where soundtracks have all but replaced scores, it was easy to overlook what a big deal it was that this movie relies entirely upon authentic period music, mostly of the Hank Williams variety rather than studio music. That choice helped garner a true authentic feeling of the town and the time period. Peter Bogdanovich chose to make this movie after reading the novel written by Larry McMurty, who was also the author of the great western series “Lonesome Dove”… Both of those two stories feature strong elder western figures, and characters looking to escape a down and out town for greener pastures. Sadly by the time of the “Last Picture Show” there are no more uncivilized lands for a character like Sam the Lion to tame.
Jeff Bridges is a teenager in this movie, which took a bit to adjust to. This was one of the first of many classic movies that Bridges chose to be a part of over his long and mostly dud-free career. Cybil Shepard plays the town sexpot and bears a striking resemblance to modern day Reese Witherspoon. This movie does a great job of showing the desperate, lonely side of sexuality. There’s lots of sordid relationships going on. This is truly one of those towns where the line about there being only two things to do (drink and screw) really does apply. The sex and nudity here isn’t played for titillation though. There is a palpable and intentional awkwardness that is felt through the screen. A lot of the situations here, such as a relationship between an older woman and a teenage boy (Sonny) are themes that have been replayed in countless teenage comedies. But they aren’t played for laughs here. In this town things like sex, youth, experience, are all used as commodities that the characters use to buy themselves little moments of humanity in an otherwise desolate existence. To quote Neil Young, Anarene Texas would fit right in with the lyrics of “Everybody knows this is nowhere”…