The Last Picture Show (1971)
“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…”
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd
Synopsis: A group of 1950s high schoolers come of age in a bleak, isolated, atrophied West Texas town that is slowly dying, both economically and culturally.
It’s 1951, and the small town of Anarene is slowly dying under the Texas sun. The wide streets of its main thoroughfare remain resolutely deserted, their tranquillity spoiled only by a persistent wind that covers everything in dust and sand. The only places where any kind of life can be found, it seems, are the pool hall, the restaurant and the cinema, all of which are owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), an ageing throwback to the days when cowboys roamed the plains. Now, it’s battered old pick-up trucks that journey listlessly from place to place. The people of the town seem trapped in some kind of collective ennui. The adults reminisce about a past that is out of their reach while their kids lack direction and seem destined to repeat their parents’ mistakes unless they can defeat the odds by making something of their lives.
The film’s story focuses on three of the town’s teenage residents: Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) is an amiable young man who, at the start of the film, has been going out for a year with Charlene (Sharon Taggart), a plump and grumpy girl who only dates him because he’s on the town’s hopeless football team (‘why don’t you learn to tackle?’ is the constant refrain from all the townspeople). He splits with her for no particular reason and spends the rest of the film being batted back and forth like a ball of wool between a cat’s paws. Duane (Jeff Bridges) is his best friend from the wrong side of the tracks, who is dating Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the town’s prettiest girl. She’s pretty alright, but her girl-next-door looks disguise a deceitful and manipulative nature.
Apart from a couple of deaths of secondary characters, there’s not much of any real significance that happens during The Last Picture Show, but everybody’s life is dramatically altered in some way. There’s a lot of sex involved, but most of it is joyless. In fact, director Peter Bogdanovich paints an altogether bleak picture of small-town rural America in the middle of the 20th Century. Ripping away the rose-tinted spectacles through which society remembers its past, he digs deep to the rotten core to expose the malaise at the heart of the town and its people. In Bogdanovich’s hands sex isn’t the tie that binds its practitioners but the wedge that drives them apart and isolates them, because to each of them it means something different.
Sonny has an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the plain wife of the school’s football coach. For him it’s an opportunistic fling, a chance to discover the contours of a woman’s body, but for the ageing Ruth, trapped in a loveless marriage and painfully aware of life passing her by, it’s something deeper and altogether more personal. For Jacy, sex is simply a means of obtaining what she wants — only she hasn’t yet mastered the techniques of using it to her advantage. But her matter-of-fact attitude and absence of emotion about it indicate that she will one day soon become a skilled and cunning practitioner; for Abilene (Clu Gulager), the taciturn foreman at Jacy’s father’s oil plant, sex is a means of ownership, while for Billy (Sam Bottoms), the simple mute son of Sam, it’s an alien and frightening land.
The film is shot in beautiful but stark black-and-white by Robert Surtees. Director Bogdanovich allows the camera to dwell upon the town’s broad, empty streets and decaying buildings which serve as a reflection of the moral decline of its residents who slavishly pursue self-gratification without consideration for the consequences or the feelings of those around them. It’s perhaps a surprisingly jaundiced perspective for a filmmaker who was then in his early thirties and still in the early stages of his career, but it’s a viewpoint that’s produced a movie with the ring of authenticity about it.
The weight of much of the movie falls upon the younger members of the cast. Bridges handles his role with the calm assurance of a product of an acting family; the shallow nature of his character doesn’t often call for much depth of interpretation, but when it does Bridges is more than able. Bottoms is something of an enigma: he pretty much nails the part of Sonny, capturing that brand of youthful winsomeness that so often transforms into a frustrating kind of insouciance in middle age, but his career never really went far after this. He’s worked constantly, and has more than a 100 film and TV titles under his belt, but most of the titles are forgettable. Sadly, it’s Cybill Shepherd who proves the weak link out of the three, and it’s a shame that Bogdanovich asked so much of her meagre talents in her debut movie role. She looks the part; in fact she looks as if she’d taste as delicious as ice cream on a scorching day, but she never really captures the heart of her character, struggling at all times to convincingly suggest the manipulative wiles lurking beneath that girl-next-door exterior.
(Reviewed 22nd April 2013)