Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich
Written By: Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurty (based on the novel The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurty)
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn
Often the greatness of a film’s sense of place is that it allows its spaces to feel lived in, to feel authentic. There isn’t anything phoney about Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, it’s unbearably real, but its swirling dust bowl home, Anarene, is so tragically uninhabited, so un-lived in, that its setting comes to serve an altogether contrary purpose. It is populated, albeit thinly, and we come to recognise the faces that roam the town’s chalky roads, but it feels so detached. The sense of place is powerful because it appears there is no sense to this place at all.
The narrative sifts through a series of hollow relationships which plague the desolate town. Love has died here. Sex is had to hurt intimacy, not to consummate it, and the film explores this demarcation of sex and love, of the purposelessness of one not being fulfilled in the other. It’s a drama about sex, but it is decidedly un-sexy.
In large part the story is concerned with the coming of age of a group of high-school seniors. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) is mild mannered and kind, but often stoic, and best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) is charismatic but has a mean streak. Both are concerned with getting laid, however it’s clear that unlike much of the town, they do have a capacity for something more real, even if they’re not entirely aware of it.
The chief destroyer of intimacy is the girl of Duane’s dreams, Jacy (Cybil Shepherd). She’s the prettiest girl in school and knowingly grows to take advantage of it. She’s driven by being an object of lust, she pines for it, and moves callously from man to man. There’s a scene where she abandons Duane in favour of a raunchy pool party where she’s forced to strip on a diving board. She abides, each item of clothing removed another hack at her cutesy pretence.
There are three characters in the entire town that come to mind as fully wearing the toll of love’s destruction. The first is Jacy’s mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn). She’s a fascinating character. She should be unlikeable. She encourages Jacy to throw away her virginity so she can see it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. She’s adulterous and sassy, but we forgive her. She isn’t immoral or unfeeling, rather she’s jaded that love has become obsolete. She’s conscious of the desolateness around her, it’s obvious she was once in love, and she is one of a dying breed with sense enough to mourn its passing.
There’s the weepy Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of the school football coach who initiates an affair with Sonny. She’s fragile and weak, for which she hates herself. She wears the toll in her desperation, her weariness, desperate for an escape.
The town’s heart and soul is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). He injects Anarene with its only semblances of life. He runs the pool hall, the diner and the picture show, the only offerings of reprieve. He’s sensible and kind. His sense of loss is worn in his sentimentality. He’s emblematic of a glowing nostalgia, an embodiment of what things could be with the right amount of passion. In the film’s best scene (and surely the scene that secured Johnson Best Supporting Actor) Sam reminisces to Sonny of a past romance he once had, now saddened by how unattainable it is at his age. Bogdanovich slowly encroaches on Sam’s face who yearningly looks out at the lifeless “tank”, pondering the zealous abandon his love once gave him; “being crazy about a women like her is always the right thing to do”. It’s a moment Bogdanovich evokes later on through the diner’s waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the camera slowly moving in on her as she recalls old friendships. In scenes like these it’s clear why Bogdanovich opted for monochromatic photography; the black and white gives the film a sense of reflectivenss, a saddened longing for old times.
With its multiplicity of damaged characters and frayed romances, The Last Picture Show could easily have descended into soap-opera, but Bogdanovich remains too grounded in humanity for that to happen. The film is stripped down to the skin. The only respite we get from the howling winds is the music which is sourced directly by the characters, playing records or watching television, and the performances are so individual and true, the film’s overarching sombreness is so poignant, that it transports us, without shortcuts, to another world whose reality is never in question.
The tragedies of the film are so finely drawn and burrowed so deep in the characters that for all their presence Bogdanovich still allows us to feel our own way through the film’s morality. Its tragic treasures are all the more valued for it. We’re offered a quiet but potent rendering of mood and place, so sincere and wrenching in its honesty, never overplaying its hand despite its potency.
The first time we see Anarene it evokes something out of a Stephen King novel. It feels as though only ghosts can be found there, closer to a cemetery than a community. In many ways it is. It’s not just people who die in this town, but it’s also the resting place of intimacy and relationships. Anarene, with its barren sound scape and dust rising in the air, is the tombstone of love, forever mourned by those who were around to see it.
It’s a truly heartbreaking film.