Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Anarene, Texas. Fall 1951. The weather is either too windy or too humid. The wind blows down the empty main street in the morning, and from looking at it, you’d think it was a ghost town. Even a few tumbleweeds can be seen whisking down the street. There’s nothing special to look at, but for the locals, the three key places to go to are the pool hall, the diner, and the Royal movie theater. All three are run by Sam the Lion, though he sometimes prefers to enjoy time away from town, at a pond called “the tank,” where he takes two local boys fishing (even though there are turtles instead of fish)—he enjoys the setting and always recalls fondly a moment from his past. (He doesn’t like fish, anyway.)
This small Texas town of Anarene is presented as a backdrop for a character study—Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film “The Last Picture Show,” a classic that shows the certain death of a small community in a narrative that presents the town’s inhabitants as real people having true-to-life experiences. Taking place in the early-1950s, the film is pure nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that era. But this is an effective film for members of any generation (I was born in the early-1990s) because this is one of those “nostalgic” films that feel nostalgic because even though most of you weren’t raised or coming of age around the time the film was set, you still feel like the situations that occur are real or even had some of them happen to you in one way or another.
The character study that is “The Last Picture Show” follows three important characters—three young people; graduating high school seniors who live in Anarene and are about to step into the realities of…reality. They are naïve Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), smooth, distracted Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), and sexy, rich, manipulative Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Sonny doesn’t have much ambition in life and mostly tends to getting himself in situations he can’t out on top of; Duane is his friend who is slick and handsome but is unfocused and mostly tends to ask too much of a girl he’s in a relationship with; and the sexually inquisitive Jacy uses her good looks and wealth is influence any boy she wants into having sex with her…and then dump him. It’s quite easy to label Jacy as a “bitch.” And she is a real bag of tricks in how she cunningly seduces these boys in order to increase her sexual interest and thus, have her continue to do so, which results in her not only dumping Duane, but also going after Sonny, even when he is in somewhat of a relationship. But the thing is, Sonny’s relationship is an adulterous one.
Presented in glorious black-and-white (which I know was chosen due to technical problems and aesthetic reasons; I don’t care either way because it looks great), “The Last Picture Show” shows a year in the lives of these young people, from November 1951 to October 1952. Sonny and Duane are best buddies and co-captains of the local high school football team, which the locals constantly mock in how inept they are at the fundamentals. Jacy is Duane’s girlfriend, which gives another reason for Sonny to envy Duane, aside from the fact that he’s handsome, popular, and amusing. Sonny is nicer and more sensitive, but his girlfriend is an unpleasant one, so they break up…after more-or-less a year of being together.
At Christmastime, something unusual and fascinating happens to Sonny. He finds himself in an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), a depressed 40-year-old woman who is married to Sonny and Duane’s football coach. Sonny doesn’t know everything about her marriage, but he does understand that Ruth is not happy, and she sees what a kind, loving young man he is and invites him into bed. Of course, this affair is doomed and anyone could tell you that, but in the moment, no one could convince you at all. Not even those who know about the affair (it’s a small town where most people seem to know everything that goes on). And this goes on for quite a long time, until about summertime.
Meanwhile, Jacy has her eyes set on wealthy Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), whom she meets at a naked indoor-pool party. The only problem is, as long as Jacy is a virgin, he’s not interested. And this is where she shows her true colors in the film, as she toys with Duane for him to have sex with her and then dump him for selfish reasons. Where are her parents, you may ask. Well, her father practically lives on the living-room couch in front of the TV while her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), (get this) advises Jacy to sleep with Duane so that she’ll know that sex isn’t all that it’s built up to be. (Though, Lois will sometimes sleep with one of her husband’s co-workers.) She does understand what Jacy’s rebellion is about, and she knows it won’t end well.
(And by the way, Jacy’s parents are the only parents we see in this film. Sonny and Duane’s parents are hardly ever seen at all. And we don’t see their home life either. Just an observation—not a judgment.)
As you guessed from the descriptions I’ve already given for the story (or stories, if you will), “The Last Picture Show” features more sex in manipulation or adultery than in tenderness or warmth. Well, there is the latter in the relationship between Sonny and Ruth. It’s a need to connect with someone that makes it special in comparison to what Duane and Ruth continue to go through. But reality eventually (and unfortunately) will take its toll, leading to the “stuff-happens” effect that seems to be apparent throughout this film.
I almost forgot where I was going with that last paragraph, and that’s what this film can do to you, I guess. A lot happens in the two-hour-six-minute running-time of “The Last Picture Show,” a good deal of it having to do with the sexual encounters these kids face. This all happens mainly because when these kids don’t have the diner, the pool hall, or the theater to go to, the next place they can think of, aside from home, is the bed (or, in the case of one particular scene, a pool table—don’t ask). And midway through the film, that does seem to be the main place to go, especially after the aforementioned Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the soul of Anarene, is put out of the picture, leaving Sonny the pool hall and the theater in danger of closing down. Without the soul of Anarene comes the certain death of the town itself, with less ambitions for the people still living here and the human condition only decreasing with each passing week. No wonder the sex in this movie is mostly out of lust rather than love.
“The Last Picture Show” was filmed in 1971, but is set in the early-1950s, and the odd thing is that it’s easy to forget that. That’s because the feel of this setting in the film is exactly right. It really looks like a small town in the ‘50s, and we as an audience are taken there. Credit for that not only goes to the director Peter Bogdanovich, but also to cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, and the set design deserves a lot of credit as well. (Though, I’m not sure the explicit nudity in the film would have been allowed in a drama back in 1951.) Shooting it in black-and-white helps as well, strangely. And you really get a feel for this small rural town in Texas; you really feel the environment that these people live in.
And you also get a good sense of who these characters are, and what sort of people they will become, and despite some of their deeds, you do sort of hope for them to do better than they do now in life. Duane may smarten up now that he’s joined the US Army (and gone off to fight in Korea), Jacy may learn a bit about what her mother has been trying to tell her, and Sonny may be stuck in town, but may make the best of what he has, though it may be difficult (especially in a few crucial moments in the final act, each having to do with grief, regret, and resentment). The characters’ stories are rich and with many levels to them that you want to imagine what their lives will be like.
Timothy Bottoms is solid as Sonny; Jeff Bridges brings a rugged appeal to Duane; and Cybill Shepherd wonderfully brings her role of Jacy to where it can be seen as a three-dimensional dream-girl (she’s not invulnerable and only uses her moxie and body as a way to make things exciting in this town). Of the supporting cast, Ben Johnson is excellent as Sam the Lion; you really feel that he truly is the “soul of Anarene” and without him, there’s hardly a way for the town to be cured of the illness that’s killing it. The scene in which he tells Sonny and a mentally-disabled boy, Billy (Sam Bottoms, Timothy’s brother), about a time he cherished back when he was younger is just wonderful. His presence is an important one, and even though he disappears from the film midway through, it doesn’t make us forget him. Cloris Leachman is equally great as Ruth, capturing the character’s warmth, loneliness, and pain. Also good are Ellen Burstyn as Lois and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, a waitress at the diner.
Anarene, Texas is dying. By this time, many decades later, it may already be dead. The title of the film is symbolic for meaning the closure of the movie theater and thus the loss of a place where teenagers can meet, hang out, make out, etc. Once that’s gone, there isn’t much else, except for loneliness and harshness. That’s what I got from the meaning of the title “The Last Picture Show,” even though the theater has no key role in the film. In the end, when the theater closes, there is that sense that the people in this town have lost something special. They may not know it until later on, but there is something disappearing there. Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” is a highly accomplished slice-of-life drama with a feel for its setting and strong characterization. It’s a thoughtful, well-put-together nostalgia-trip that is powerful no matter what generation you belong to.