I saw first saw The Last Picture Show back in 1971 at a twin theater called the Columbia 1 and 2 located on 2nd Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When the film opened, it created a phenomenon with audiences crowding the sidewalks in long lines waiting for the next available show. The Last Picture Show was only director Peter Bogdanovich’s second film; the first was the low budget Targets. Exquisitely filmed in black and white by Robert Surtees (The Graduate, Act of Violence, The Collector) the cinematography visually expresses and adds immensely to the bleakness of a dying small Texas town.
Bogdanovich was best known at the time as a film critic with a passion for old Hollywood, and the works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and others. The film purposely goes against the grain of the then changing Hollywood scene of the time by sticking to the more traditional style of classic filmmaking. Set in the 1950s, the movie industry, like much of post-war America was changing; tradition was slowly fading away, the old ways were dying; the town’s waning movie theater acts as a motif of all that change.
Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry who wrote the novel the film is based on. Set in Anarene, a dusty dying nowhere small Texas town, it follows the lives of Duane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) the prettiest girl in town and Duane’s girl. However, the real soul of the town is Sam the Lion, a man who like the town has seen better days. Sam has a movie topping monologue while fishing with Sonny where he recollects about lost love and life’s current disillusionment. The role is portrayed by Ben Johnson, a veteran character actor best remembered for roles in the classic westerns of John Ford. Sam owns the pool hall, the diner, and town’s movie theater; the only places in town where there is anything to do or go.
Duane and Sonny are co-captains of their high school’s football, a team so pathetic the local adults continually ridicule the boys’ inability to tackle. To shake up the emptiness of their lives Duane and Sonny, like many of the adults in town indulge in sex. Sonny’s got a girlfriend, gum chewing Charlene (Sharon Taggart). She’s a bit on the plump side, and whether Sonny is making out with her at the movie theater or feeling her up in his pickup, it’s really Jacy, Duane’s girl, Sonny desires.
Jacy Farrow is the prettiest girl in town and is a people user; she has her sights set on bigger plans than settling for small-town life with nowhere guys. While Jacy fools around with Duane, she wants out of the dead-end town and sets her eyes on a rich kid from a nearby town getting herself invited to a party, a nude swimming party. The rich boy is attracted to Jacy until he finds out she’s a virgin. At that point, he loses interest telling her to come back when she gets that taken care of. That’s when she decided to go all the way with Duane, something she has refused to do in the past. However, that first attempt does not work out too well for either Jacy or Duane. Finally getting Jacy in bed Duane cannot “perform.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Duane says exasperatedly.
“It was Mexico!” Jacy says referring to a short trip Duane and Sonny took recently down below the border.
“No tellin’ what you got down there,” she goes on. “I just hate you! I don’t know why I ever went with you.”
Duane keeps shaking his head not understanding why he couldn’t ‘get up’ to speed.
Clearly annoyed and frustrated by Duane’s inability, she tells him “put your clothes on, you think I wanna sit around here lookin’ at you naked? I might’ve known you couldn’t do it. Now I’ll never get to not be a virgin. What’ll we tell everybody? The whole class knows! I just want to cry! You’re about the meanest boy I ever saw! My mama was dead right about you.”
Later on, a second attempt proves more successful for both.
Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy’s mother, is still attractive but her heavy drinking is catching up, and like most folks in town, she’s bored. Drinking and sleeping with one of her husband’s oil hands (Clu Galager) is the only break in a monotonous life. Sonny meanwhile has begun an affair with the high school football coach’s unhappy wife (Cloris Leachman).
The soundtrack is dominated by Hank Williams (Cold, Cold Heart, Lovesick Blues, Why Don’t You Love Like You Use To Do) as well as other artist from the period including Kay Starr (Wheel of Fortune), Hank Snow (A Fool Such As I) and Jo Stafford (You Belong to Me) among others. All of the music comes from real sources meaning radios, record players and jukeboxes.
The Last Picture Show projects a sense of sadness focusing on the lives of two generations going nowhere. It’s a bittersweet slice of life depicting the pointlessness, frustration, and tediousness of lost dreams drowning in drink and sex. It’s a brilliant slice of life about a town where the people, as well as the town itself, is dying, drained by years of melancholy. The town is infested physically and symbolically by the emptiness of its characters’ lives.