The Last Picture Show (1971)
Written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
We continue our “The World is Hell” series with this look at decaying rural life in an increasingly industrialized and inhuman America. Peter Bogdanovich has directed one movie, Targets (1966), and was searching for his next film. One day waiting in line at the grocery store checkout, he spied a paperback copy of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Reading the back cover, he noted it was kids growing up in Texas and didn’t really feel any immediate connection and put it back. Weeks later, actor Sal Mineo shared a copy of the book with Bogdanovich’s then-wife Polly Platt and the director wondered if he wasn’t being led to do something with this text. McMurtry would come on board to help with the screenplay, and the film was shot in his hometown of Archer City in north-central Texas. The combination of this profoundly New York filmmaker and a story of the loss of innocence in Texas would be a perfect match.
The Last Picture Show is the story of three young adults: Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy (Cybil Shepherd). They all live in early 1950s Anarene, a small town that is kept on life support by the oil fields that employ so many. The main street in town has become almost lifeless, save for a bit of activity at the pool hall, the diner, and the movie theater. All three are owned by Sam (Ben Johnson), who’s mentally disabled son Billy is watched over by Sonny. Sonny becomes deeply interested in the world of the adults, listening as they share stories of better days and lament those happier times. Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) is the only waitress left at the diner who has a soft heart for these kids. Lois (Ellen Burstyn) is Jacy’s mother who worries over her daughter following the same path of mistakes she made. And then there’s Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the wife of the high school coach, who ends up having an affair with the naive Sonny.
The structure of The Last Picture Show is incredibly meandering, like a series of interconnected short stories. There is an emotional climax, and eventually, the threads are pulled together, but there are vignettes that could be watched in isolation and provide a complete story. The overall piece is focused on showing how society was going through a cultural shift, the roots of what would become the major overhaul of the 1960s. The Korean War was just beginning, continuing America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, leading to Vietnam. Young people were exploring their sexuality more, though still having to hide it due to the mores of the time. Our characters face down the last few months of their high school education with an uncertain future ahead. Jacy’s middle-class upbringing almost guarantees her a spot at a university in Dallas, but for Sonny & Duane, they are a little more limited. Sonny’s father is entirely absent, addicted to pills and floating in and out of consciousness.
Sonny possesses a great love for Anarene, hanging on every word when the grown-ups start to reflect on their glory days. He ultimately has nothing material keeping him there, but Sonny feels increasingly responsible for preserving something of this place as people pass away and leave. That becomes a burden, weighing the young man down as he contemplates what such a future would entail. There are substantial implications that the coach is a closeted gay man, which is why Ruth, his wife, is childless and lonely. She finds comfort in Sonny and he in her, but by the end of the picture, the twisted relationship they have doesn’t have joy left in it. This is just something they do to soothe their wounds for a bit longer. The elation she found at first with Sonny has become a comfortableness they both settle into.
Coming of age stories often have melancholy bits but overall tell stories about young people coming to understand the complexity of life. This is relatively brutal in comparison. Every adult in Anarene lives with a dark cloud over them, and the kids become very aware of this fact. Sonny, Jacy, and Duane are looking into mirrors that show them their own possible future. For Jacy and Duane, this signals that it’s time to flee, one to the military and the other to college. When you become aware of the larger world as a young person, it is challenging to sit back and be content with what you’ve experienced every day of your life. Sonny’s decision to stay reflects his feeling that if he were to go, like waking from a dream, Anarene would vanish.
The growing migrations out of town lead to almost every business on the main street closing. The theater plays the titular final show, a John Wayne western, because everyone in Anarene is buying televisions. They don’t come to the theater anymore. Despite the media doing their best to spread propaganda, America has been decimated by COVID-19, and so many small businesses have had to close. Like the oil fields, the big corporations are flourishing, but movie theaters and restaurants that were both newly opened or passed down through the generations have found themselves unable to stay afloat. The world has to change due to what has happened; some people will move on and never look back, while others will feel an obligation to try and hold on to whatever is left of that old world. In that constant flux and dissolution of what we know is a beautiful sadness, hopelessness that speaks to such profound truths of being alive.
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