by Sam Juliano
Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do?
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?
Well, why don’t you be just like you used to be?
How come you find so many faults with me?
Somebody’s changed so let me give you a clue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?
– Hank Williams Sr.
“the most important work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.”
The above quote by Paul D. Zinnemann of Newsweek is one of the most famous examples of critical hyperbole ever recorded, yet, 44 years later it still underscores the reputation of a movie classic and the director who bettered a literary classic in making a film that is arguably the finest by an American in the 1970’s. I first discovered it as a budding movie fan in the magazine section of my hometown library a short time after I turned seventeen in a section of wildly favorable capsules that not only included The Last Picture Show, by also Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. All three films were released in the final third of the year. Peter Bogdonovich would go on to direct some other fine films like Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? but he never again equaled the grand slam he achieved with his aching elegy of Anarene, Texas, a town doomed by technological advances. The 50’s were arguably the final decade where the movie theater held prominent sway in one’s social life, and in The Last Picture Show its importance is literal and thematic. Seventeen years later, the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore would traverse the same territory with Cinema Paradiso, though the approach was unadulterated wallowing in nostalgia. Bogdonovich manages to derive the same level of emotion in one of the most deeply-felt of all American films, but he does it without the aid of sentimentality and the unbridled lyricism of Ennio Morricone. Mind you, this writer is a huge fan of Cinema Paradiso, but is still willing to note the vast difference between directorial approaches.
Bogdonovich underscores his intentions by filming in high school yearbook styled monochrome at the urging of his friend Orson Welles, enlisting the renowned Robert Surtees, whose work here is as accomplished as in any American film. The proper mood and deep focus possibilities could only reach fruition with the use of black and white. The Last Picture Show opens brilliantly as the camera pans across shabby Main Street and a decaying cluster of buildings, with a ferocious wind swept howl providing audio embellishment. The camera eventually settles on a beat up pick up truck that belongs to high school buddies, one that blares out the Williams standard posted here above while sputtering before it starts up. The theater -the Royal- stands next to a minimalist pool hall and a cafe that remains open all hours. These are the only places that provide a modicum of activity in a town rife with ennui and adolescent alienation from parents they are always escaping from. Quiet despondency seems to run over two generations in this one-horse town. Bogdonovich brings an extraordinary visual sense to the themes examined by his screenwriter Larry McMurtry, whose acclaimed novel is the source for this searing evocation of a place that offers no opportunity or sense of identity – only an unchanging mode of existence that centers around sex. The main characters include two young men, Sonny and Duane, who during the course of the film fall in love with the same girl – the school’s ravishing beauty Jacy, but there are other relationships they indulge in that complicate what is on one level a stylized soap opera. McMurtry makes it clear enough that there s very little to do in this stagnant whistle-stop, and the various pursuits are exclusively hedonistic. The fact that we learn virtually nothing about our central characters’ home lives makes them symbols of a marked transformation of a culture, though with magnifying glass intensity McMurtry and Bogdonovich draw full bodied characters with powerfully observed intimacy. Sonny’s father is seen once at a dance hall – it is clear enough he’s got a drinking problem, and Duane’s mother is seen briefly at the front door of their home near the end.
These teenagers live their lives in used vehicles, a pick-up truck and a Mercury. As is the case with many teenagers in the 50’s, their wheels serve as both a refuge and an escape from domestic loneliness and family rows. In The Last Picture Show they are the preferred place for sexual activity. Sonny and Duane are part of one of an especially awful high school football team, and they are seemingly reminded of their embarrassing incompetence wherever they go around town. Even the team’s seemingly macho coach unwittingly sets Sonny off on a sexual affair with his wife Ruth, a sad sack of a homebody who is obviously living a lie in a shattered relationship. In the film’s running commentary on the DVD it is revealed that the coach is secretly a homosexual. There are reminders of what most are always thinking, even in the classroom where Sonny daydreams, looking out a window to watch two dogs humping. Sex is also the curse that caused a temporary riff with the town’s crusty but beloved patriarch and resident moral authority Sam the Lion, who is the owner of the cafe, pool hall and theater. When several of the teenagers admit they enlisted a prostitute to initiate the mentally compromised boy Billy (Sam’s son) who hangs in the pool hall, Sam tells them “I’ve been hanging around this kind of trashy behavior my entire life,” and his banishes them from his establishments. Billy was actually struck and bloodied when he ejaculated prematurely. A time later -the narrative arc of the film spans a calendar year spanning from the high school football season of one year to the next- Sonny accepts the offer of a free hamburger from the waitress Genevieve, who has a soft spot for him, but Sam barges in to discover his orders have been violated. Still, Sam can’t overlook Sonny’s genuine affection for Billy, and accepts his apology.
Almost at the exact midway point of the film, Sam takes Billy and Sonny on a fishing trip that ignites acute memories. The location is at a reservoir on land Johnson once owned. Sam offers Sonny tobacco to fashion a rolled up cigarette as he tends to his own. In one of the cinema’s most arresting passages and perhaps the most unforgettable scene in the film – Sam delivers a doleful monologue as Surtees negotiates a close-up zoom that wrings every bit of emotion as Sam reflects on love and loss with a keen sense of memory and a faraway look that recreates his past foray of undisciplined behavior during his own intimate rendition of nude bathing. Johnson reveals what are surely the most painful of remembrances with the admission that his wife had a mental breakdown and he lost some children. His brief fling was with a new brand of crazy, whom Johnson says is married. Bogdonovich is content to shoot Johnson in mid-range until the dialogue gets romantic, at which points he moves on a slow zoom. After Johnson admits the failure of the relationship Bogdonovich pulls back. In a film fueled by bravura direction, this one sequence is a flawlessly executed.
A pool party is later engineered, mainly because the specifications are that everyone strip down, in what is a subversive take on the small town Americana seen in the pool party in Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. But Capra is hardly Bogdonovich’s prime interest: The Last Picture Show pays homage to Ford and Hawks, the director’s two favorites. Reportedly, it was Ford’s intervention that convinced a reluctant Ben Jonson to accept the role of Sam the Lion, when the actor repeatedly told Bogdonovich there was far too much dialogue to interest him. The director told the actor with clairvoyant certainty that the role would bring Johnson an Academy Award, and that pretty much sealed the deal when combined with his long time mentor Ford’s prodding.
The cast in general is one of the most impressive ever assembled. As Sonny, Timothy Bottoms with his puppy dog eyes, curly hair and good guy demeanor is the film’s anchor. Bottoms plays a young man who isn’t sure what he wants or who to turn to, yet he is capable of quiet compassion, taking a liking to Billy (Sam Bottoms, Timothy’s real-life brother) whom he affectionately disciplines by turning his cap backwards every time he sees him. Jeff Bridges burst upon the acting scene with a dynamic performance as the hot-headed and unprincipled Duane, the latest in a family dynasty, playing the macho teen, who suddenly is unable to get it up with Jacy, driving her to have sex with her mother’s lover. Shepherd is seductive as the manipulating blonde sexpot who seems to inject her own measure of poison in every relationship. As her world-weary mother Ellen Burstyn delivers a bravura turn as a sage matriarch, Lois who both knows the corruptible power of sex and how it is almost always performed in a loveless vacuum. Her wistful reflection of Sam the Lion, who she does love, is one of the film’s most moving passages. Near the film’s conclusion she confidently tells a victimized Sonny he’d be way better off with Ruth Popper. And as Ruth, the jilted coach’s wife, Cloris Leachman is extraordinary in her own Oscar winning performance as the sex partner of a boy more than half her age. Leachman movingly registers the shame and anguish of rejection as she sadly waits for the boyfriend who will not come, knowing well it is mostly attributable to her own folly. In a role Jonson fought against accepting because it involved too much “talking” the actor is a veritable scene stealer, playing the only character in the film who doesn’t wallow in aimlessness. Still, his sad eyes fail to conceal his prior heartbreak. The stunning Cybil Shepherd as Jacy follows in the footsteps of her cocktease mother, manipulating boyfriends with sexual magnetism that leaves her hormonal partners too smitten to back away. Not even Bogdonovich himself could resist her, and started up an affair with her that effectively ended what was once a stable marriage to his wife. As the waitress Genevieve, Eileen Brennan is street smart and perceptive; her long and fiery stare of Jacy outside the cafe is classic.
The period detail and use of Hank Williams bring the film an aching authenticity. The lonely Texaco gas station is right out of Edward Hopper; the town is situated on a land so flat it accentuates an endless sky. The superlative production design is by Bogdonovich’s then wife Polly Platt. The town’s name of Anarene was chosen by Bogdonovich after the cow-town of Abilene in Red River. Throughout the film there is pervading sentiment that there are secrets that may never be revealed, though in a broad sense a small town is not the ideal place for anything to remain under lock and key. One comes out in a matter of fact way on the ride back from Oklahoma with Jacy’s mother after the aborted marriage between Sonny and Jacy as a result of the latter’s devious machinations. Sonny tells Lois that “things aren’t the same since Sam the Lion died.” Lois sadly reflects in accord, and Sonny tells her about Sam’s fishing trip monologue. The crazy girl he loved, who was trapped in a loveless marriage was none other than Lois, and her tearful admission of deep affection does its part in bringing the narrative full circle. Of course The Last Picture Show isn’t about plot, but about the characters who live and interact in the vacuum of a dying town. With hardly an exception these are fascinating, sympathetic characters, flawed, vain, unfaithful, mired in boredom and invariably caught in webs of deceit and prior recriminations. You are always rooting for their paths to cross, and in good measure they do and are followed by alluring dramatic fireworks.
The Last Picture Show fails to settle on a single happy resolution. Duane and Sonny head off to Mexico, but not before Sam hands them some money and offers encouragement. Sam tells them if he were younger he’d join them, but there is something disconcerting about his valedictory address that suggests on first viewing that Sam will never be seen again. While the trip happens off-screen, we see the boys’ return in an inebriated state. They learn the unconscionable news that Sam died. “Keeled over one of the snooker tables. Had a stroke,” they are told by a local. He adds Young Billy is killed by a truck while sweeping in the street (“He was sweeping you sons of bitches, he was sweeping!, screams out a shattered Sonny in one of the film’s most unforgettable lines) The Royal, left by Sam to the woman who ran the concession stand is forced to close after business peters out, right after a showing of Hawks’ Red River for the only patrons in attendance – Sonny and Duane. (The pool hall is left to Sonny, while the cafe is passed on to Genevieve). Duane enlisted to fight in Korea and this screening was his final activity before departure. Though Ruth forgives Sonny for dumping her, there can never be a resumption of their sexual relationship. Indeed, shortly after Sonny arrives after Billy’s death Ruth performs her own measure of Oscar fireworks, tossing a coffee pot violently against a wall and regaling her former lover with a scathing soliloquy:
What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I always apologizing to you, you little bastard? Three months I’ve spent apologizing to you without you even being here. I haven’t done anything wrong. Why can’t I quit apologizing? You’re the one ought to be sorry. I wouldn’t still be in my bathrobe. I would’ve had my clothes on hours ago. It’s because of you I quit caring if I got dressed or not. I guess because your friend got killed you want me to forget what you did and make it alright. I’m not sorry for you. You’d have left Billy too just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn’t treat a dog that way. I guess I was so old and ugly it didn’t matter how you treated me — you didn’t love me.”
Ruth calms herself shortly thereafter and pulls Sonny’s hand to her across the table with the rhetorical equivalent of a peace branch, though the opportunity for the resumption of a relationship is gone: “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind,” she says. The seemingly innocuous words give The Last Picture Show a surge of emotion in what is surely one of the most unforgettable final scenes in the American cinema. In this elegiac film that also embraces a searing realism it all comes down to the many small moments that provide temporary pleasure. In this dust bowl of a town whose inhabitants often seem to be in hiding, there isn’t any level of social continuity – people use each other and then move on. Anarene, like the characters who live within its borders is no longer a haven of innocence – it has been long corrupted, yes with the vast changes in the culture its very existance is now permanently altered, with the closing of the picture house. The cattle drive in Red River makes an inescapable thematic point as does the wind swept tumbleweed that serves to underscore the passing of a town. The Last Picture Show, simplistically categorized as a coming of age drama of sexual awakening is actually a film with far more sociological significance – it is a mournful goodbye to an era.