The Last Picture Show by Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show

A hissing, persistent wind coaxes a tumbleweed down the clapboard-sided streets of a Texas town.  In the distance, a loud bang cuts the silence.  Is it a gunfight, a classic showdown in the El Paso or San Antonio of 1870?  No, it’s the backfire of a beat-up old truck struggling to make it home.  This is the Anarene, Texas of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show (Amazon Link to Movie and Trailer), a 1951-set melodrama about the repressions and boredom of small town America and the ways in which the confluence of these two factors creates an emotionally destructive spiral for those unlucky enough to find themselves in this backwater.

With this evocative opening The Last Picture Show sets up its theme.  This is the tale of a town whose present is only a ghost of its past and that past wasn’t much to brag about.  In Anarene, any positive view of days gone by is something fabricated in a memory that one generation has come to realize never existed while another has never believed to begin with.

Certainly, this defines the older folks who have whittled away their lives in Anarene.  They are a sad group who clearly had dreams of a better life, but found those fantasies dashed by the very actions they took to achieve them.  Ruth (Cloris Leachman) married the football star only to discover the loneliness of living with a man who prefers the boys he now coaches.  Lois (Ellen Burstyn) married the most ambitious man in town and is now trapped in a golden corral where the false cures for her loneliness are to be found in a bottle and in the bed of her husband’s callous foreman (Clu Gulager).  The emotional center of these adults is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).  Once the symbol of local virility, Sam is now spending his last days running a pool hall and reliving the memory of a passion that, like his life, led nowhere.

At the center of this story, though, are the young people.  Anarene is the end of the line for their parents.  Their children don’t want to fall into this trap, but they have to contend with adults who cannot or will not point them toward a better future.  After all, that generation has long since stopped believing there was one.  Hardest hit is Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a nice if unmotivated teen who has voluntarily taken on the responsibility of protecting a young developmentally disabled “sweeper” (Sam Bottoms).  Sonny’s best friend, Duane (Jeff Bridges in his star-making role) is determined to rush into manhood if only because it will give him a sense of self-worth and a ticket out of town.  He loves Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the confused town flirt who is trying as hard as she can to become the object of everyone’s desire.

And therein lies the basic thrust of The Last Picture Show:  The older generation lives with the regrets of a past that was betrayed by their future while the young people have no clue about how to escape a similar fate.  For all of them, the one thing that they cannot escape is each other.  They continually intertwine, frequently getting into a cross-generational game of musical beds.  Theirs are lives marked only by whatever can satisfy them in the moment because no one believes that the future can ever do that. 

The Last Picture Show is one of the key movies of that period now referred to as “Hollywood’s Second Golden Age.”  Stretching from 1967 to 1976, this was an epoch marked by a group of young filmmakers who either by training or ego fully endorsed the auteur theory, the belief that the director, not the studio, is the author of the film.  For these mavericks, the idea was to reject the generic studio look that had long dominated mainstream filmmaking and seek out more personal and uniquely cinematic ways of telling stories.

For Bogdanovich, a well-respected film historian by the time he was in his early twenties, The Last Picture Show was his opportunity to both reflect on and reject the studio impositions.  On the one hand, his visual style borrows liberally from the works of John Ford and Howard Hawks.  Shot in black and white by the great Robert Surtees, the images in The Last Picture Show evoke the early 1950’s with the painterly eye of those masters.  On the other hand, the dusty world of Anarene is utterly devoid of the nostalgic glamour that would have been de rigeur in any studio-made period film of just a few years before.  The Hollywood view of the past demanded rose-colored glasses.  The Last Picture Show defiantly rejects any such perspective and is all the better for it.

Much of the credit for the success of The Last Picture Show must also go to Larry McMurtry, the original author and co-screenwriter with Bogdanovich.  A bard of the Southwest, McMurtry’s 1961 novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” was adapted into the 1963 Paul Newman movie Hud, a perfect regional companion piece for The Last Picture Show.  His later works would include the source material and/or screenplays for Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain.  Much of the power of The Last Picture Show comes from the feeling that it was lived by its author, of an autobiography seeping through the edges of the fiction. Bogdanovich underscores this by shooting the film in Archer City, McMurtry’s hometown and the basis for Anarene in his novel.

One of the most remarkable things about The Last Picture Show is the way in which it examines all of this despair, both civic and human, without ever succumbing to it.  Bogdanovich accomplishes this by moving the story quickly from character to character, situation to situation.  When it does stop, it reveals surprisingly detailed moments of subtle emotional power.  Sam the Lion’s monologue about his wistful affair is told while he sits quietly with Sonny by a fishing tank.  During this, the two roll cigarettes, Sam with practiced grace, Sonny sloppily trying to make it work.  The different ways in which each does this shared ritual underscores both the closeness and the distance between these two characters.

The use of such imagery is both deliberate and profoundly eloquent.  Throughout The Last Picture Show we are given moments firmly rooted in the iconography of the mythological American west – that cigarette rolling, a square dance, a posse chasing down an evil-doer.  Bogdanovich then de-mythologizes these by exposing behaviors, sympathies, emotions, and disappointments that our myths of the Old West never addressed.

Ultimately, The Last Picture Show captures more than a moment in time.  It manages to balance one generation’s coming of age with another generation’s coming to terms.  In short, something we all can relate to as the tumbleweeds of Covid roll down our deserted streets.