Peter Bogdonovich’s classic adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” is a display of the ends of things that perhaps at one time had life.
The film opens on the main street of the fictional town of Anarene, Texas in November 1951, just as the Korean War was occurring.
A strong gust of wind blows while a mute, mentally handicapped boy fruitlessly sweeps a dusty street, and a junky pick up truck careens down carrying Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms); both on the brink of adulthood with no future in sight. Anarene is a town that has a past and only a few remnants of a present represented by a pool hall, a diner and movie house. All three are owned by Sam “The Lion” (Ben Johnson in an Oscar winning performance). Sam is old and wise. The town speaks through Sam, who is well aware nothing of promise is offered here anymore. So it’s no surprise that all the remaining townsfolk can occupy themselves with are their televisions and sexual conquests.
Variations of perspectives that are sexual in nature continue to symbolize what is dying in Anarene. Cybill Shepherd in her very first role portrays Jacy, the pretty girl. Her innocence will be lost as soon as she gives away her virginity. It matters little to her how that happens. Bogdanovich offers a great scene where Jacy attends a swimming pool skinny dip party. Jacy is pressured into standing on a diving board to undress in front of the revelers. I looked at this moment as a teetering balancing act. Jacy is bordering saying goodbye to her youth forever. She does undress all the way only to almost trip off the board. For the moment, Bogdonovich saves the character’s present state as she narrowly avoids falling in the water.
Later, on a whim during New Year’s Eve, Sonny and Jackson go off to Mexico with little money in their pockets and no plan in mind. When they return, an unexpected turn of events has occurred. The fate of this town is withering away with the breeze that’s always intruding. The mute boy will occasionally sweep the street again but accomplish nothing from it.
The films in the movie house represent those that were once celebrated but are now almost never noticed as these families are becoming more glued to the next common household appliance, the television with variety hour shows.
The music never changes or grows up. Hank Williams Sr, occupies the minds of folk who maintained this town at one time and are slowly dying off. The next generation does not have much appreciation for it.
I could go on. Every scene in “The Last Picture Show” brings about another example of an ending. Bogdonovich was meticulous in his symbolic method of McMurty’s story.
I love that the film, released originally in 1971, was shot in black & white because it shows the story in a historical context; this is what’s left of what once was. The sexual situations don’t hold back in nudity. It’s wise as I thought the nudity clashed with the black & white; it was almost intrusive. The nudity is overcoming the home life heartland that small towns like Anarene used to be remembered for. Sadly, the characters have a hard time accepting this fate.
Cloris Leachman portrays Ruth Popper, the wife of the high school coach who she suspects of being gay. She engages in an affair with young Sonny and her big moment comes when she frustratingly throws a coffee pot at the wall in a rage. She’s terrified that Sonny could never retreat to her pace of life. He’s apt to move on from her. She’ll be stuck with a closeted gay husband in an unstimulating environment. Time has become stagnant for Ruth within the confines of a lifeless marriage and a dead town.
A new way of life awaits. Destiny for Jacy, Sonny and Duane do not include Anarene in their plans.
Eventually Sonny and Duane attend a showing of John Ford’s “Red River” featuring John Wayne. The next morning, after the movie house has closed forever (no one buys tickets anymore), a new fate awaits, maybe even death. Worse yet, maybe for one of them, there is no fate. Maybe, for one of them all that’s offered is an absence of life while residing in Anarene, Texas.
I didn’t realize how much material I absorbed until after “The Last Picture Show” was over. Peter Bogdonovich provided more for me to think about then I was aware of. The initial slow pace of the film seems mundane at first until you understand that people like Ruth and Sam have memories they experienced but will never carry forward. It’s sad. Their history had meaning at one time. The legacy of their past, however, has no future.
“The Last Picture Show” is on AFI’s 100 best movies from 2007. It deserves to be as Bogdonovich deftly shows how a past withers away from a nowhere future. His set pieces and direction of characters show the suffering they endure with an unsure end they can not escape.
I haven’t stopped thinking about “The Last Picture Show” since it ended.