THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, 1971
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid
The coming of age of a youth named Sonny in a small Texas town in the 1950s.
OSCAR Winners for Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Johnson and Leachman)
CLICK HERE and TV episodes
While so many other movies made during the 50s craze of the early 1970s, namely American Graffiti (1973), portrayed the 1950s as a time of innocence, and chose to idealize them, The Last Picture Show feigns no such naiveté. The film is a mournful eulogy for the lost innocence of youth, personified by the slow death of a small Texas town.
The Last Picture Show is the story of two friends coming of age in Anarene, Texas, where the only things to do there are play pool, go to the movies or have sex in the back of a car. It’s the kind of place where the children grow up thinking about when they will get to leave. Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) are high school seniors and best friends; Duane is the better looking of the two and is dating the prettiest girl in school, Jacy (Cybill Shepard). Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend and begins to have an affair with his coach’s wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Jacy quickly becomes aware of how she can manipulate men with her looks, using both Duane and Sonny for kicks before throwing them to the curb. During the course of the film, the town endures the death of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the owner of the movie theater and pool hall who was the conscience and backbone of the town; his death marks a turning point and only speeds up the town’s inevitable decline. As the film ends, Duane is going off to Korea and Sonny is attempting to reconcile with Ruth, who he spurned for a fling with Jacy. As the tagline of the movie went, “Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…”
What sets The Last Picture Show apart from its contemporaries, and what makes it such a masterpiece, is its willingness to acknowledge that people in the 1950s were as lost and confused as at any other time. The film is shot in black and white, using the cinematography to bring us back to a time when America was still seen as the land of opportunity, a beacon of hope, an era long gone even by 1971. This film is more about feeling and mood than plot; the story doesn’t really go anywhere, which is exactly the point. Nothing much happens in Anarene, except for the death of innocence. The people in Anarene are all emotionally cut off from each other; many of the scenes in the film depict sexual acts, and yet they are mechanical and passionless. These people don’t feel anything for each other; they have sex because they don’t know what else to do. The only two people in the film who do seem to care for each other are Sonny and Ruth; he makes her feel young and desired, and, while at first he is probably using her to gain experience, he eventually comes to realize that she is the only person who has ever really cared for him. It is the most unrealistic relationship in the film, and yet the only one that feels real.
The most important character in the film is Sam the Lion, who takes Duane and Sonny under his wing and tries to teach them to be men. When they bring a mentally challenged boy to a prostitute, it is Sam who admonishes them for cruelly putting the boy in danger for laughs. In one memorable scene, Sam takes Sonny out to fish in a pond where there are no fish; Sam, who admits that he doesn’t even like fishing, goes out there just to remember a time when he was a bit younger and had an affair with a young, married woman. He tells Sonny about how the two of them would skinny dip in the pond and she would dare him to do wild things; this is a beautiful spot to him because of what it represents. These memories are all that Sam really has left in his old age and they are what keep him and, in turn, the town going. He made the town just a little bit more beautiful through his memories and, once he dies, so does any semblance of beauty in the small town.
The Last Picture Show is notable for its mostly young cast, a number of whom would go on to extremely successful Hollywood careers. Besides being the film debuts of Cybill Shepard, who would go on to fame with her role in Taxi Driver and on the television series Moonlighting, and Randy Quaid, who would be nominated for an Oscar for The Last Detail (1973), the film was also the first major role for Jeff Bridges. The film was only the third directed by Bogdanovich, a former film critic and personal friend of Orson Welles. While he did continue to direct successful movies for a few years, most notably Paper Moon (1973), his career faded by the mid-1970s after a series of big budget flops.
Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Last Picture Show would win two, Best Supporting Actor for Ben Johnson and Best Supporting Actress for Cloris Leachman.