Saturday, May 29, 2010

Classic Film Review: The Last Picture Show (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Bogdanovich
STARRING: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson and Ellen Burstyn

"I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd have missed it, whatever it is. I'd have been one of them amity types that thinks that playin' bridge is about the best thing that life has to offer." 
~Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn)~

There are few towns in the world that are smaller than Anarene, Texas. Set in 1952, a time of gender inequality and sexual repression, The Last Picture Show revolves around the growing pains of high school football captain, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms). Sonny is attracted to Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut), the girlfriend of his best friend, Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges). Though unsuccessful in most of his relationships, Sonny strikes up a spontaneous affair with the lonely wife of his football coach, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman). This slice-of-life film is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Larry McMurty, and it traces Sonny's tumultuous relationships with all of these different characters during a few short months in the town of Anarene.  

As a fan of Larry McMurtry (his Lonesome Dove being one of the greatest novels ever written), I'd been curious about this film for a few years now, however, I never got the chance to see it until recently. McMurtry, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bogdanovich, has the ability to create wonderfully flawed human beings who lead regular, if not outright boring, lives. The things that happen to his characters are situations that could happen to anyone. McMurtry does not shy away from the prospect of his audience disliking some, if not all, of his characters at some point in the course of his novels. It's part of what makes his storytelling so compelling. The Last Picture Show is no different.

The decision to film it in black and white only serves to amplify the bleak and melancholy atmosphere that hangs over the action onscreen. The Last Picture Show is a frank look at sexuality in a small town where everyone knows each other's business. 

The performances are all subtle, understated and add to the unique qualities of its characters. As Sonny, Timothy Bottoms never fails to gain the viewers sympathy, despite his mistakes, as he moves from relationship to relationship as each one breaks down. Little is known about Sonny's past or his family life, yet Bottom manages to portray Sonny as both a confused, listless teenager and a young man slowly coming to terms with what he wants from life. It's easy to understand why he would be drawn to Ruth Popper, a woman who is more than twenty years older, yet just as lonely and longing for companionship. It's not so much sexual chemistry they share, but a mutual sadness and desire for something more than their little town can offer.

As Ruth, the unhappy wife of the town's football coach, Cloris Leachman is the standout in an already stellar cast. The winner of Best Supporting Actress for her performance, Leachman instills Ruth with the range of mixed emotions a woman in her situation would feel. She never goes over the top and gives a beautifully realized performance of a woman looking for a human connection. 

Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Ellen Burstyn are also at the top of their game, although Ben Johnson, like Leachman, is a standout in a strong cast. The winner of Best Supporting Actor for his performance, Johnson plays Sam the Lion; Anarene's longtime resident and its heart and soul. When he gives his climactic speech to Sonny about the love he lost in his youth, you can't help but realize that he represents (and carries) the melancholy and regret of the entire town. 

The films trajectory is interesting as it matures at the same point that Sonny does. The first half is all hormonal teenage angst, before gradually gaining an almost resigned adult air. The film moves past the sexual content leaving its rash teenage notions aside for its more adult consequences. 

This bleak coming-of-age film is also a love letter to film, in general. The title refers to the small town's rapidly declining interest in film. Sam the Lion runs the Royal, the only theatre in town. However, with the advent of the television, the people of Anarene scarcely attend the Royal anymore; they have better things they could be watching in the comfort of their own home. With little profits, the theatre cannot survive. The last picture show screened at the Royal is Tom Ford's 1948 classic, Red River, with its climactic scene of hollering cowboys who are leaving town for a cattle run. Like the cowboys in the film, Sonny and Duane are moving on.

Though not a perfect film, The Last Picture Show has characters and an overall effect that lingers. Like many of McMurtry's novels, you find yourself drawn into this strange little world of quirky, isolated people without fully understanding why: you just know that you want to learn more about the people and their story.