The Last Picture Show, which plays as part of my Cinephile Sunday strand on Sunday 24th March, is a bona fide masterpiece of western cinema. It was Director Peter Bogdanovich’s first major film as director and was right at the beginning of the now legendary era of American cinema of the 1970’s that had exploded into life with Easy Rider in 1969 and gave us the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Rafelson and Hal Ashby (of whom more in May).
Bogadanovich was a film critic and cinephile from New York who moved to Los Angeles in 1966 with the specific intention of breaking into movies. After catching a break with low budget schlockmeister Roger Corman and directing Boris Karloff in Targets (1968), Bogdanovich put together The Last Picture Show, released in 1971 and based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and Texan Larry McMurtry.
The film would go on and garner eight Oscar nominations, winning two supporting statuettes for Cloris Leachman’s perfect performance as the lonely wife of the football coach and for Ben Johnson’s tired, disillusioned Sam the Lion. It was a critical and commercial success and Bogdanovich would go on and make two more box office hits in succession, the wildly funny What’s Up Doc? (1972), sadly mostly forgotten now, and the sublime Paper Moon (1973).
The Last Picture Show, however, is no Easy Rider, it’s not in itself trying to storm the Hollywood barricades, it doesn’t pretend to speak to a new dynamic youthful renaissance. It tells the tale of a small hot dusty town in Texas miles from anywhere, far from the urban sophistication of New York or San Francisco, populated by a handful of bored restless teenagers and anaesthetised adults leading lives of quiet desperation.
It’s 1951 and the towns teenagers played by a very young Jeff Bridges, Tim Bottoms and Cybil Shepherd live in a world just before Elvis and revolution is not on their minds, just getting laid and trying to find something to do.
Whatever is going on in the wider world is unlikely to ever impact Anarene as it slowly dies. Sam is closing the town’s cinema, the town folk don’t come anymore, they sit mesmerised in front of their TV’s.
Sam is still showing old westerns, films that show a mythical time of American heroes that is long gone, if it ever even existed.
The relationships in this film are brilliantly represented, and anyone who has grown up in a small town will recognise how true much of it is. For my money the most affecting storyline is that of the boy, Bottoms, who has an affair with the wife of the football coach, Leechman.
There is something so achingly true about their need for human contact that moves me to tears every time.
Bridges continues to have a vibrant film career, but it’s a real thrill to see him as the cocky, but ultimately conflicted young boy about to go to fight in Korea, surely an unimaginative way to get out of town, but the only one he can think of.
Sheppard would go on to fame in the TV show Moonlighting with Bruce Willis, her performance in this film is the perfect representation of the child/adult embodied in being a teenage girl.
Shot in black and white CinemaScope, Bogdanovich is already in full control of the tools of cinema despite it being his first major feature. The use of country music hits is masterful and he is not given the credit that would go to his contemporaries such as Scorsese for using culturally specific hits.
Bogdanovich claims the film is greatly influenced by Orson Welles, which is more difficult to see thematically, however his respect for John Ford is clearly apparent. Ford was a very straightforward film maker who claimed his films had no particular subtext, a self analysis that was self evidently disingenuous and so The Last Picture Show is like the anti John Ford. It’s wide open spaces are suffocating and it’s big skies represent a horizon that can never be seen let alone reached.
It’s a beautiful film that really deserves to be seen in the cinema and will stay with you long after the last reel finishes.
You can book tickets here: Booking Link