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The Last Picture Show (1971)

May 22nd, 2007 · No Comments

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In the one-stoplight town of Anarene – near Wichita Falls in the northern plains of Texas – high school seniors Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) endure remarks about their performance on the gridiron. “A few football teams have had some luck with tackling. Keeps the other team from scoring quite so often,” says Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), owner of the pool hall the boys hang out at.

Sonny accompanies his girlfriend to see Father of the Bride at the movie house, where she berates him for forgetting their year anniversary and later, trying to put his hand up her skirt. He breaks up with her, and at a diner, complains to the waitress (Eileen Brennan) “there ain’t nobody else to go with in this town.” The only other pretty girl is Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) and she’s with Duane.

Jacy’s mama Lois (Ellen Burstyn) wants to send her daughter to a good school so she can marry a wealthy boy, and Jacy begins to lose interest in Duane, attending a midnight swimming party in Wichita Falls with a country clubber (Randy Quaid). Sonny’s coach offers to get him out of civics class to drive his wife Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) to a clinic in Arlington, and soon those two are having an affair.

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Peter Bogdanovich was a film nerd who moved to L.A. with his wife, production designer Polly Platt, hoping to become a director. The connections he developed ultimately led to writing, directing and editing a thriller for Roger Corman titled Targets in 1968. He was better known for an AFI documentary he made on one of his heroes, director John Ford.

Bogdanovich first saw Larry McMurtry‘s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show on a paperback rack at the drugstore. The title appealed to him, but he put the book down as soon as he discovered it had little to do with movies, but was about kids growing up in Texas. Bogdanovich was from New York. Actor Sal Mineo gave a copy of the book Bogdanovich and told him how good it was. The director asked his wife to read it.

Bert Schneider – who produced Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces – wanted to work with Bogdanovich, but wasn’t interested in the thriller the director had proposed. Schneider was making small, personal films that tapped into the youth counterculture. Platt was enthusiastic about the McMurtry book, and Bogdanovich convinced Schneider to buy it for him.

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Adapting the screenplay with Larry McMurtry, Bogdanovich was advised by Orson Welles that to get the depth of field he wanted, he should consider shooting in black and white. Scouting locations, Bogdanovich settled on Archer City, which coincidentally, was McMurtry’s hometown and the place where the characters he’d based the book on still lived.

The town wasn’t happy about their dirty laundry being aired, but the film was a huge critical and commercial success, receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. The 32-year-old Bogdanovich was heralded as a new Orson Welles.

In examining a year in the life of a small Texas town from one football season to the next, The Last Picture Show is a superior film on all kinds of fronts. It’s a low key – but terrific – coming of age story, a tribute to small towns, ’70s filmmaking at its finest, a love poem to cinema, and one of the three or four great films made about the Lone Star State.

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The script is rooted in the emotional lives of its characters and beautifully captures the same inner desolation McMurtry conjured for Brokeback Mountain. Polly Platt did a brilliant job not only with the sets, but designing the look and feel of the film, which explores taboos like adultery and teenage sex with the same directness and honesty as European films had become renowned for.

Bogdanovich’s decision not to employ a musical score – but use country western or big band music from the early ’50s – makes the picture feel like a scrapbook pulled down from an attic, as opposed to feeling artificial. In that sense, I think it breaks with the conventions of Hollywood even more vividly than Easy Rider did.

This is the kind of character driven drama that isn’t made much anymore, particularly when it comes to the female roles. Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan are all fantastic, especially Leachman, who won an Academy Award for her work here, along with Ben Johnson. Cybill Shepherd made her film debut, and was never as good as she was in this, a movie that comes as close to being perfect from start to finish as I can recall.

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The Last Picture Show not only makes the cut for The Greatest Movies, but Filmsite.org provides an exhaustive analysis of it.

Neil Young at Jigsaw Lounge says The Last Picture Show “more than lives up to its exalted reputation as an American masterpiece.”

DVDTown hips you to what you can find on the film’s Special Edition DVD.

Tags: Based on novel · Coming of age · High school · Mother/daughter relationship · Prostitute · Road trip · Shot In Texas · Small town

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