The Last Picture Show (1971) Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid, Frank Marshall, Sam Bottoms, Eileen Brennan, Noble Willingham, Bill Thurman, John Hillerman, Jessie Lee Fulton, Sharon Taggart, Kimberly Hyde, Gordon Hurst.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
Running Time: 118 minutes.
Rating: R (Coarse language, Nudity, Sexuality)
“You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed”
High-school football stars Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) grow up in Anarene – a small Texas town near Wichita Falls that is rapidly declining economically in the early 1950s. Facile unintellectual clods that they are they appear less concerned about their town being doomed to squalor than alleviating their own boredom. The latter concern is one likely shared by the audience that can hardly be remedied by watching movie characters get bored.
Peter Bogdanovich pretty much made his career on the success of this film and solidified it with Paper Moon (1973). It soon occurred to producers in Hollywood that they themselves could take a downbeat historical revisionist narrative and shoot it in black & white (which was more artistic than color) whilst having the camera linger a few seconds longer on reaction shots. From the looks of things that is all that Bogdanovich did here beyond casting good actors who weren’t stars. He knows the mistakes he made in this production better than anyone.
But because he made this kind of film when few filmmakers in Hollywood were it somehow made him look like he knew what he was doing. Perhaps he did know what he was doing. Pretentious films with pessimistic narratives and clever titles had big resonance with critics because they reminded them of The Bicycle Thief (1949).
Adopting the extrinsics of critically-acclaimed cinema can sometimes fool people into thinking there is more to a movie than there is. Shooting something with a differentness that was not readily identifiable (Lingering reaction shots and close-ups without speaking at a time when directors preferred only to use them with lines of dialogue) made for some wild praise. With that said this is not a terrible movie and might have even made for a good one if it had been cut properly.
This one was a glorified meandering soap opera featuring a few decent shots (particularly the pool table scene). By the time Jacy says “Oh quit prissin’! I don’t think you did it right anyway!” I found myself agreeing with her but about the overall film. I remember thinking about so-called terrible films made at the same time like Werewolves on Wheels (1971) and how much fun that was to watch compared with this one.
Echoing the scene in the motel room in which Jacy (Shepherd) lies about losing her virginity to Duane I often wonder how many people who reviewed this film positively actually saw the whole thing or even part of it. The bizarre eye for editing or near ever-present lack thereof betrays the gushing enthusiasm of a neophyte cinema auteur unleashed.
You’re seeing practically everything that Bogdanovich wanted to try including things other directors didn’t usually like to let actors do on screen. Bogdanovich made his sets cauldrons of self-indulgence for actors as well as his own tastes and interest in experimentation. If a bonafide star went along with the poor taste of the director he could get a movie made. After this film was released a lot of bonafide stars wanted to work with him. The gauge of efficacy for producers was as always how the project performed as an investment and this one did spectacularly well.
Timothy Bottoms was the real revelation of this movie and his performance will always be the best aspect of it. His understated acting style would have made him the biggest star in the world if he had been active during the days of silent film. His reaction shots seemingly imbue the audience with telepathy. You’d almost want to truncate all his dialogue given his understated brilliance when he has to act without speaking. The role was almost cast with John Ritter.
Adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel.
Screen debuts for Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid.