Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Last Picture Show (1971)

by on September 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 30 thru Thurs Oct 6 at 2:00, 4:30, 7:00, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

Film Forum celebrates the 30th Anniversary of Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece with a week-long run of a new 35mm print.


‘Tis also a choice time to salute Boganovich’s first wife Polly Platt, who passed away in July. A successful producer (Broadcast News, Bottle Rocket) and Oscar-winning production designer (she is responsible for Picture Show‘s haunting setpieces), Platt steered Bogdanovich towards some of his best material, including Larry MacMurtry’s elegiac novel. As documented in George Hickenlooper’s 1991 documentary on the film’s production, Picture This, Platt did Cybill Shepherd’s hair and makeup every morning – even after her husband had left Platt for the Southern starlet. Some would argue his career was never the same. Platt was a class act and underlooked figure – you can read her New York Times obit here.


Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

When “The Last Picture Show” came out, in 1971, it was acclaimed not only as the breakout hit of a young gun (the director, Peter Bogdanovich, was still in his early thirties) but also as a dusty remembrance of things past. The movie was set twenty years before, in a small Texas town, where even the young folk—played to perfection by Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, and others—bore the look of natural-born elegists, and where the quest for sexual services (led by Cloris Leachman, as the wife of a sports coach) seemed less a matter of lust, let alone joy, than a desperate bid to delay the dying falls of love. Nowadays, we are the nostalgists, and it is Bogdanovich’s film that asks to be treasured as the product—indeed, the standard-bearer—of a faded age. There was a time when movies themselves felt like small towns: rooted fast in their environments, and alive to the wistful chatter of minor characters as they crossed paths and then went on their way.


A.O. Scott for The New York Times:


Joshua Rothkopf
for Time Out New York:

It’s weird to be celebrating the 40th anniversary of a movie that already seemed decades old when it debuted. Peter Bogdanovich’s gentle small-town-Texas drama stood out starkly from its contemporaries; there was nothing modern about it, certainly not like A Clockwork Orange or The French Connection. And while the bookish director’s peers—Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, etc.—would go on to infuse Hollywood with a sense of daring, Bogdanovich (a scholar of old legends like John Ford and Howard Hawks) seemed hell-bent on dragging it back to a glory age.


Still, none of this negates the power of these performances (particularly a young Jeff Bridges as a ’50s high-school football star), nor the film’s b&w windswept spell, a potent combination of decay and naïveté. Indeed, it may play better now, with nostalgia a default mode that all can relate to. The Last Picture Show is mainstream cinema at its most empathic, attuned to real economic anxieties—Ben Johnson’s weathered local proprietor is the heart of the story—and flattering to an audience’s intelligence. It’s meant to make you feel sad for what’s lost, but a vitality throbs through it. Most landmarks from the 1970s would never get greenlit today; this one gets remade in some form or another (TV’s Friday Night Lights, the music of Arcade Fire) on a weekly basis.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

‘Gettin’ old, that’s what’s ridiculous.’ The different ways people become who they are – rich or poor, cultured or common, honest or treacherous, loving or hateful, sad or satisfied – were never more eloquently explored than in Peter Bogdanovich’s sweetly sorrowful second film. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s knowingly nostalgic semi-autobiographical novel, it’s the tale of three Texas teens, played by then-unknowns Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Cybill Shepherd (pictured), whose journeys to adulthood involve death, disaster, ruined relationships, moments of joy and the slow realisation of life’s unfairness. It’s a masterpiece: filmed in sparkling monochrome, relentless in its emotional intensity and unfettered insight and packed with memorable characters, of whom Ben Johnson’s lovelorn, regretful cowboy sage Sam the Lion, quoted above, is perhaps the most iconic. The scene where Sam imparts his wisdom to young buck Bottoms may be the saddest, loveliest moment in 1970s American cinema. And that’s saying something.


Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

It’s strange to think that Last Picture Show could have been considered naturalistic when it came out in 1971. A veritable panoply of nods to the medium’s grand old oxen according to Cahiers du Cinéma, it visualizes the dusty, tiny Texan burg of Larry McMutry’s novel by pilfering John Ford’s elegies for frontier values, Howard Hawks’s deadpan camaraderie, and Orson Welles’s bulbous camera angles. More importantly, Bogdanovich lavishes deeply felt compassion on the variously alienated characters—directionless teen pals Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd’s calculating tease, Cloris Leachman’s lonely homemaker, Ben Johnson’s expiring mentor—struggling to connect in a town (and, by extension, a way of life) that’s watching itself become extinct. The film contrasts interestingly with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, released that same year. Both are aching westerns about thwarted dreamers in a shifting world, yet the genre conventions that entrap and destroy Altman’s characters are what supply Bogdanovich’s with a guiding, if quickly vanishing, light. Even if Bogdanovich ultimately seems to be responding more to the passing of a cinematic age than to the foibles of the people on the screen, his wistfulness remains wired into the upheavals of a culture entering a new era of disconnection, loss, and self-inquiry.


Armond White in Film Comment (March 1993):

Except for the Godfather trilogy, The Last Picture Show is the greatest melodrama in American sound movies. This is primarily due to Bogdanovich’s postCode frankness about the sexual habits and lurid emotional entanglements usually buried beneath stereotypes of American life. Even in ’71, Bogdanovich’s concentration on the diverse labors of love seemed slightly out of sync with the prevailing cultural trend; he was contemporary while at the same time radically, profoundly independent. His feel for American language and behavior opposed the stylized conventions of Hollywood populism. The Last Picture Show burrowed into the emotional trap of community and family life in an era of youthful dissent and disengagement (typified by the BBS Productions unit that sponsored the film). Its evocation of George Stevens and Howard Hawks went beyond the cultural signifying of the Film Generation to correlative experiences that could no longer be romanticized. (Compare veteran Hollywood cameraman Robert Surtees’ work on Picture Show with his more or less concurrent collaborations on Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 to see Bogdanovich’s exacting, unpictorial aesthetics.) Yet even Bogdanovich’s most radical tropes–Hawks’ simple compositions, Stevens’ lap dissolves, Welles’ psychological acuity–were mislabeled as exercises in nostalgia. The same careless illogic caused Nineties critics to dismiss Texasville. Bogdanovich’s tone was antinostalgic more than it was realistic, but it was complexly achieved through a sophisticated movie disciple’s anguished awareness that the dreams of the past were gone for good.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

There are two deaths during the film’s year, but no babies are born, and Bogdanovich’s final pan shot along Main Street curiously seems to turn it from a real location (which it is) into a half-remembered backdrop from an old movie. “The Last Picture Show” is a great deal more complex than it might at first seem, and this shot suggests something of its buried structure. Every detail of clothing, behavior, background music, and decor is exactly right for 1951 — but that still doesn’t explain the movie’s mystery.


Mike Nichols’s “Carnal Knowledge” began with 1949, and yet felt modern. Bogdanovich has been infinitely more subtle in giving his film not only the decor of 1951, but the visual style of a movie that might have been shot in 1951. The montage of cutaway shots at the Christmas dance; the use of an insert of Sonny’s foot on the accelerator; the lighting and black-and-white photography of real locations as if they were sets — everything forms a stylistic whole that works. It isn’t just a matter of putting in Jo Stafford and Hank Williams.


“The Last Picture Show” has been described as an evocation of the classic Hollywood narrative film. It is more than that; it is a belated entry in that age — the best film of 1951, you might say. Using period songs and decor to create nostalgia is familiar enough, but to tunnel down to the visual level and get that right, too, and in a way that will affect audiences even if they aren’t aware how, is one hell of a directing accomplishment. Movies create our dreams as well as reflect them, and when we lose the movies we lose the dreams. I wonder if Bogdanovich’s film doesn’t at last explain what it was that Pauline Kael, and a lot of the rest of us, lost at the movies.


Michael Guillen recounts a Bogdanovich intro of the film for The Evening Class:

“The Last Picture Show,” Bogdanovich related by way of introduction, “was one of those life-altering experiences. We all went to Texas in October and—when we came back in December—we weren’t the same people. My marriage broke up. I fell in love. My father died. All that happened while we were making the picture. You can’t really tell by watching the picture; but, I see it. I remember when that happened and that happened. That was the scene after Cybill cried all night. Her nose was red but, luckily, it was in black and white and you couldn’t tell.


“Anyway, what can I tell you? We had so much fun making this film. I’ll tell you a funny story. Ben Johnson, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor [for his performance as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show], he turned it down three times. ‘Oh Pete, there’s too much goddamn words in it. It’s kind of a dirty picture. I might want my mother to see it and she can’t see this.’ So I called John Ford, who I had known for years, and I said, ‘Jack, I’ve got a really good part for ol’ Ben and he won’t do it. He says there are too many words in it.’ Ford said, “Oh Jesus, he always says that! When we were shooting Yellow Ribbon, he would come on the set and say to the script girl, “Any words for me today?” If she said yes, he’d sulk. If she said no, you just have to ride the horse, he’d be happy.



J. Hoberman for The Criterion Collection:

Peter Bogdanovich was the American director whose career path most closely approximated those of the French New Wave filmmakers. The subject was far from Bogdanovich’s experience—and perhaps even his interests—but as his then wife, production designer Polly Platt, explained, their strategy was to treat the novel as “the French would have made it, where these weird American sexual mores could be investigated.” But unlike the French (and as straight as Schneider had suspected), Bogdanovich also planned to make the movie as a knowing pastiche of classic postwar Hollywood—a true Good Old American Art Film! The Last Picture Show was even shot in black and white; Bogdanovich picked veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees based on the sharpness and clarity of his work on Intruder in the Dust (shot on location in Oxford, Mississippi, twenty-two years before).


With its wide-open spaces, small dusty towns, and cast of lunch counter waitresses, drugstore cowboys, and hardhat oil riggers, The Last Picture Show shared an echt American iconography with Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider—but with a difference. Where Easy Rider deployed Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix and Five Easy Pieces drew on Tammy Wynette, The Last Picture Show provided wall-to-wall Hank Williams. Full of period artifacts (paperbacks, magazines, movie posters), Bogdanovich’s town is a museum of 1951-ness (with Korea standing in for Vietnam). Movies are, of course, the privileged artifact, as embodied by veteran western actor Ben Johnson’s central role and narrative function as the town’s heart, Sam the Lion.


Countless movies followed Bonnie and Clyde into ultraviolence; The Last Picture Show perfected something else that film had intro­duced, a retro tendency. In the long run, The Last Picture Show would prove nearly as influential as Easy Rider; in the short run, it was nearly as profitable and even more favorably received (including getting eight Oscar nominations—for picture, director, cinematography, adapted screenplay, and two each for supporting actor and supporting actress; both Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won). It’s possible that The Last Picture Show received better notices than any American movie between Gone with the Wind and The Godfather.



Andrew Sarris is amused with the 1970s critical shift, but still can’t help admiring the film, in The Village Voice:

Who would have thought a few years back that in 1971 Peter Bogdanovich would be traveling first-class on the express train of film history while Dennis Hopper was bumming a ride on a freight train headed for oblivion? What interests me most about the reactions to “The Last Picture Show” is that it seems to appeal to many people who would normally be attuned more to Dennis Hopper’s chic modernism than to Peter Bogdanovich’s austere neoclassicism. Furthermore, many of the people who grooved on “The Last Picture Show” seem to have loathed Bogdanovich’s heartfelt tribute film on John Ford. Hence, Bogdanovich has won over many of his erstwhile enemies by providing them with an emotional experience they did not anticipate from a registered admirer of Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Alan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh, not to mention Jerry Lewis, a taste Bogdanovich shares exclusively with the French. It has been said jestingly of Bogdanovich that while every other young American director yearned to be Fellini or Bergman or Antonioni or Godard, young Peter had his sights set on the Irving J. Thalberg award. Now Bogdanovich has the last laugh, and possibly an Oscar to go with it. Let us hope so. The Academy could do a lot worse.


What is fascinating about Bogdanovich’s treatment is that he avoids both the challenges of Lawrencian sensuality and the pitfalls of Andersonian pseudo-sensitivity. McMurtry’s graphic seduction of Jacey Farrow (Cybil Shepherd) by Abilene (Clu Gallagher) on a pool table would have tempted most modern directors with its metaphorical potentialities (Jacey thrusting her hands backward into the corner pockets at the moment of climax). Bogdanovice actually shot the sequence, and then cut it from the movie because he said it did not advance any of the characterizations dramatically or psychologically. Indeed the mark of a true neoclassicist when one considers all the extraneous footage inserted haphazardly by Hopper into “The Last Movie.”


Why then is “The Last Picture Show” so popular? I suppose at least partly because Peter Bogdanovich establishes a realistic mood and sticks to it…With what seem to be ghostly wind machines from the abandoned sets of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (Welles), “My Darling Clementine” (Ford), and “The Ox-Bow Incident” (Wellman), Bogdanovich manages to give his real-life location the resonance of an old-movie lot. At times I began to wonder what happened to people after they walked out of the fin-de-siecle frames.[…] no movie I have seen this year can match the spark that “The Last Picture Show” has set off in audiences…



Girish Shambu for Senses of Cinema:

Bogdanovich employs a powerful conflation in The Last Picture Show: the bittersweet nostalgia for the passing of an era is blended with a realism and honesty that views the early 1950s very differently from the way films of that period did. The film is book-ended by two movie screenings at the Royal cinema theater: Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and Red River. The former, starring a glamorous Elizabeth Taylor, perfectly symbolizes the confectionary quality of the studio product of its day, quite out of touch with American realities, the very realities that Bogdanovich set out to capture so mournfully and vividly in his film.


Despite its austere black-and-white texture and its visual spareness, The Last Picture Show is clearly a 1970s film about the 1950s. The prosperity and stable social complacencies of 1950s America are nowhere in view. Even the pride of work and professionalism – an integral part of the Hawksian universe – are absent in the film. The film even manages to evoke a nostalgia for a time and place that never existed, setting it next to the day-to-day lives of its characters. For example, when Sonny meets his girlfriend Charlene at the movies, they kiss. While this takes place, Sonny’s attention is clearly not on Charlene but on the screen where we see an outsized image of the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride. A striking contrast exists between the employment of Red River and Father of the Bride in The Last Picture Show. The nostalgia of Red River is truer and feels rooted in a bygone historical time and place while the confection of Father of the Bride is clearly implied to be manufactured and fake Nevertheless, the adventure and accomplishment in Red River are as distant and unattainable for the characters in The Last Picture Show as the glamour of Elizabeth Taylor. The two films referenced in The Last Picture Show are polar opposites and yet they jointly deepen the melancholic aura surrounding the characters of the film. At film’s end, Sonny attempts to leave town after Billy’s death but after driving for a few miles is overcome with the paralyzing weight of his dull but stable past in Anarene, turns around and drives right back, unable to sever the connection with his grim reality. These realities of the small-town social milieu are meticulously captured by the film, and are particularly affecting because Hollywood films of the 1950s rarely ever saw the decade and its values and practices as perspicaciously as The Last Picture Show does.



Shambu continues:

Part of what remains vibrant about The Last Picture Show today is its palpable honesty and bittersweet qualities. These are epitomized in the small details of several scenes, and almost every scene in the film quietly possesses such detail: the deafening, rhythmic creak of bed-springs that drowns out Ruth’s tears when she and Sonny make love, awkwardly, for the first time; Sonny and Ruth sharing their first secret kiss as they empty a can of garbage in the moonlight; Duane trying unsuccessfully to make love to Jacy as she snaps irascibly, “You know I don’t like to be tickled.!”; or the fleeting moment, pregnant with estrangement, of Sonny running into his father at the Christmas party, and both having little to say to each other. The world of The Last Picture Show is one in which each generation is a little less purposeful, a little weaker, and a touch more defeated than the generation that came before it. The film captures these accumulating defeats tenderly and forgivingly, and makes each moment feel authentic and real. Without in any way being heavy-handed, the film gently leads us to contrast the lives of the younger characters with what might have been if the communal traditions of the pre-television past had survived.


Alex Simon interviews Bogdanovich:

Do you feel that Picture Show on one hand was a terrific experience because it made your career, but on the other hand, that it’s also become your cross to bear?

No, I don’t. I mean, unlike Orson, who did feel that way about Citizen Kane, I don’t feel that way because I have made other pictures that did business and that people liked, whereas with Orson, it was the only one that people had ever heard of. He made great films that no one’s ever heard of. When people approach me, they don’t just mention Picture Show, there are other films they’ve liked, but that wasn’t the case with Orson. In fact, he said to me once—we were talking about Greta Garbo, and he loved Garbo—I said, ‘Isn’t it a pity with all the movies she made, she did only two really great ones.’ Orson says “Well, you only need one.” (laughs) So I thought, if you only need one, at least I got the one out of the way early on.


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