The Last Picture Show (1971)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Written by Larry McMurtry & Peter Bogdanovich

Much has been said about what has been termed the “New Hollywood” era of American filmmaking, and I have not heard or understood them all. Peter Bogdanovich and his film The Last Picture Show, amongst others by him and other notable American filmmakers in the early 70s, are generally included into this movement. My understanding, and a very simple one at that, is that the movement was essentially in response to the success of foreign cinema in the late 50s, early 60s, which included French New Wave films by Godard, Truffaut and company, and Italian Spaghetti Westerns, most notably by Sergio Leone. American film studios then began giving their filmmakers more freedom to make the films they wanted to make, which resulted in extremely fresh films which pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in American cinema. As such this film certainly fits into that category.

Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) is a high school senior and captain of his lackluster West Texas football team. He lives in Anarene, a small, poor town on its way down between World War II and the Korean conflict.  He scoots around town, killing time with his buddy Duane (Jeff Bridges) whose girlfriend Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) is the desire of every boy in his class. Sonny’s relationships with everyone in town throughout the school year, including his coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman), Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) and even his little brother Billy (Sam Bottoms) are explored as he comes to know the difference between lust and love.

On its surface this is a very simple film, which I attribute to screenwriter Larry McMurtry, upon whose book the film is based. My experience with McMurtry is limited, but very positive. He finally broke through with the Academy Award in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, but his genius shone through with the marvelous western Lonesome Dove, which was later adapted into a mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. His work is full of imagery and depth of character, yet his style is so simple and easy to consume, and this film is no different. You could say not a lot happens in this small, dying Texas town, but that would be a lie. A lot of stuff happens and it is all connected to where the film is going and what Bogdanovich and McMurtry are trying to say.

And their message is communicated by a great young cast headed by Timothy Bottoms who embodies the bored American teenager beautifully. He doesn’t know what he wants out of life yet, he doesn’t even really know what he wants out of a girlfriend. He is accused of having no school spirit after the football team finishes the season poorly and he has a defeated look throughout, but who can really blame him when he lives in Anarene, Texas. His friend Duane is played by a very young Jeff Bridges, who has since become one of the best actors of his generation and Jacy is played by the beautiful Cybill Shepherd, who showed such promise in her younger years, going on to later success in television. The older actors, Eileen Brennan, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, all give good performances.

I think the film is such a success because of the great mood and atmosphere which is created by Bogdanovich and his ensemble cast. There is a real desolate and almost hopeless mood surrounding everything. When anything good happens, it happens with a cloud around it. I never felt like anything great would happen, that love would endure or one of these kids would make it out of this town, and if they did, they would never look back, never truly remember the people. As such it almost felt like a conglomeration of a bunch of other “New Hollywood” films, but I mean that as a compliment. There was definitely a distinct feel to the era and many great films came from it, this being one of them. The black & white cinematography was a great choice too, which was supposedly an idea by Orson Welles, who was living with Bogdanovich at the time.

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