Greetings again from the darkness. Tuesday night was a real treat for this movie lover. Thanks to the Dallas Film Society, Frost Bank and Alamo Drafthouse, the first in a Texas-themed film series was presented … The Last Picture Show. As I have stated many times, seeing the classics in a theatre goes far beyond reminiscing. It is experiencing the best of cinematic art in the forum its creators meant for it to be seen.
Forty-two years ago, director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich and writer Larry McMurtry (screenplay and novel) assembled a cast that blended veteran stage, screen and TV actors such as Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, with an energetic and fresh-faced group of relative unknowns such as Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd. It was the first screen appearance for Quaid and Shepherd (who had been a successful teenage model), as well as Sam Bottoms (Timothy’s brother) who plays Billy, the smiling, sweeping mute boy who so adores Sonny and Duane. Of course, Bridges had been acting off and on through his childhood thanks to his dad Lloyd, but this was his breakout role.
It’s not unusual for this film to be pre-judged as some simplistic, outmoded black and white movie with no relevance to today’s world. In fact, a better argument can be made that this is one of the finest commentaries ever made on human nature, friendship, growing up, mentoring and personal dreams. You might wonder how a story that takes place in some tiny, desolate, wind-blown rural Texas town in 1951 (the start of the Korean War) has anything to do with society today. The small town setting actually strips away all distractions of today’s stories and focuses on what makes people tick … why they do the things they do. We see the strong, the weak, the disabled, the rich, the poor, the innocence of youth, the melancholy middle-aged and the impact our decisions and actions have on others. It’s easy to ask “why do they stay” or “what makes life worth living” in Anarene. Those same questions are asked by many people every day in any town or city you can name, regardless of size or location.
The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Cinematographer, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), with wins for Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman) and Supporting Actor (Ben Johnson). The French Connection was the big winner that year, and other nominees included A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof. What a year! Ms. Leachman and Mr. Johnson are both heart-breakingly terrific in the movie. Johnson’s scene at the fish tank is mesmerizing and he perfectly captures the wistful wonderings of so many middle-aged men who feel like life has passed them by. I’ve often interpreted Sonny and Duane as the two sides of Sam the Lion (what he once was and what he is now). Johnson passed away in 1996, but used his wonderful slow drawl and strong presence in such films as The Wild Bunch, Dillinger and many John Ford westerns. Ms. Leachman (still working today in “Raising Hope” after striking it big in “Mary Tyler Moore” and Young Frankenstein) generates such empathy from the viewer as she re-discovers a reason to live. She is also the key to what I consider one of the most powerful closing scenes in cinematic history. As for the others, Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn are both in their 5th decade of Hollywood stardom and have each won Oscars. Eileen Brennan has a very memorable moment in this film where she shoots one of those filled-with-disgust glares at Jacy (Shepherd). It’s one of those looks that only exists between one woman and another. Ms. Brennan (who passed away earlier this year) was Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Private Benjamin (1980).
Equally fascinating are the stories of the creative forces behind the film. Peter Bogdanovich was a film historian and film critic when he broke into Hollywood as a bit actor and filmmaker. He later had some directorial success with such films as Paper Moon (1973) and Mask (1985), but he never again reached this level as a director (though very few do). In fact, much of his career has been spent as a supporting actor (including a psychiatrist in “The Sopranos”). Bogdanovich can be heard as the DJ on the radio during this film … a New Yorker giving his best impression of a Texan. Married to his artistic collaborator and (later) producer Polly Platt while filming this movie, he soon began a very public affair with young Cybill Shepherd. They made quite the high profile couple for a short while. You might remember the story of 1980 Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Paul Snider, and was the subject of Bob Fosse’s film Star 80. At the time of her death, Stratten was dating Bogdanovich. A few years later, Bogdanovich married Dorothy’s younger sister Louise. Even in Hollywood, this was greeted with raised eyebrows. Bogdanovich worshipped the films of Truffaut, Ford and his friend Orson Welles … the influence of each is visible in The Last Picture Show. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich was never able to re-capture the magic of this 1971 gem. Some blame his divorce from Polly Platt, while others claim it was writer Larry McMurtry’s input that helped make the film something special. In addition to this novel and screenplay, McMurtry is also known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove” (later an award winning TV mini-series), his novel “Terms of Endearment” (adapted into an Oscar winning movie), and his screenplay for Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain. Despite all the success, it’s The Last Picture Show that hits closest to home … it’s a semi-autobiographical rendering of his life in Archer City, Texas (renamed Anarene in the film). Even today, McMurtry is a book seller and frequent resident in Archer City. In 2011, he married the widow of author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). Lastly, cinematographer Robert Surtees captured the desolate landscape of Anarene through his horizontal pans of a landscape that never seems to change. Mr. Surtees was a 16 time Oscar nominee for such films as Oklahoma!, The Graduate, A Star is Born and one of his three wins came for the classic Ben-Hur. His son Bruce followed in his shoes and was Oscar nominated for his work on Lenny (1975)
There are a few other things I like to point out in regards to the film. The high school teacher reciting Keats’ “Truth and Beauty” to a class who couldn’t care less is John Hillerman (a native Texan), who went on to stardom in “Magnum P.I.” in the 1980’s. Randy Quaid received an Oscar nomination just two years later for his work in the great The Last Detail. Of course, he later went on to star as Cousin Eddie in the ‘Vacation’ movies. Clu Gulager plays town lothario Abilene. He is the son of vaudeville star John Gulager, who worked with George M Cohan. Clu has had a long career in TV and movies and even appeared in last year’s Piranha 3DD … at age 84! The music in the film corresponds closely to the story and much of it is the work of the great Hank Williams, Sr. Check out the two versions of “Cold, Cold Heart” as they are performed by both Williams and Tony Bennett. Now THAT’s how you use music in a flm! Cybill Shepherd became a star thanks to her work here, then in Taxi Driver, and in the hit TV show “Moonlighting” (with Bruce Willis), her own show “Cybill”, and the Showtime series “The L Word”. She continues her work in both TV and movies. As previously mentioned, she began a very public affair with director Peter Bogdanovich while filming this movie. What many don’t know is that she was actually seeing Elvis Presley at the time, and chose Bogdanovich over the King of Rock and Roll.
In 1990, director Bogdanovich revisited Anarene and caught up with the characters 30 years later in the sequel Texasville. While it’s based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name, Mr. McMurtry was not involved in the production and Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay himself. Many of the original cast reprised their roles, but the film was not well received either critically or at the box office. On the bright side, The Last Picture Show was selected to become part of The National Film Registry in 1998. Maybe the film deserved a happy ending after all.