By Scott Ross
Following a remarkable writing/directing debut which very few people saw (Targets, 1967/1968)* Peter Bogdanovich, on the advice of his then-wife Polly Platt and working with the author, adapted Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, one of the best brief “coming of age” books by an American writer. Shooting on location in Archer City, Texas (McMurtry’s hometown), in black-and-white, with a cast of actors who might be familiar but were certainly not (or not yet) stars, and on a modest $1.3 million budget, Bogdanovich delivered a small masterpiece detailing the dreariness, and the extreme anomie, of a small, windswept Texas town in the early 1950s that can, of course, stand as emblematic of any community, then or now, in which hope dies pretty much at birth, and the only things that hold people — especially young people — together are drink, meaningless sex, and the tiny incidental pleasure of the movies they see that in no way reflect their own lives or experience.
There is scarcely a character in The Last Picture Show who is not either seeking sex, having it off with someone else’s spouse, or who has not done so in the past, sometimes from lust or even genuine love but (for the adults anyway) largely out of sheer boredom. The only exceptions that come to mind are Eileen Brennan’s Genevieve, the mother-figure toiling as a waitress due to her off-screen husband’s illness, and the smiling, mute and backwards boy Billy (Sam Bottoms) — and even he is initiated, in a disastrous encounter with a fat middle-aged whore (Helena Humann), courtesy of a few teenagers looking for something, anything, to do on a Saturday night. (We are at least spared the sequence in the novel in which the boys take turns humping a poor blind heifer, although in the movie they consider it.) I don’t wish to seem critical of these people for their erotic obsessions; half the characters in the movie, after all, are adolescent, and thus naturally preoccupied with sex; anyone who says otherwise about his or her own teenage years is either lying, a Pentecostal, or both. But there appears to be, in Anarene/Archer City, no other activity that can engage them, aside perhaps from billiards or high school athletics. And it’s telling that the only book we see in the movie is a well-thumbed paperback of I, the Jury being surreptitiously passed from one masculine hand to another in a high school classroom. Perhaps the Coach (Bill Thurman) is right when he complains that the boys on his basketball team might be better shooters if they practiced more and jacked off less.
It is the Coach’s request that Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to her physician that sets The Last Picture Show’s most important chain of events in motion, and it is there too that McMurtry and Bogdanovich commit a curious omission. In the former’s novel, Coach Popper is known for bedding certain of his players on out-of-town trips in which he contrives to get his current favorite to share his hotel room, and that he has had only the most perfunctory conjugal relations with his wife. The screenwriters elide over this detail in their movie; thus when Ruth, weeping, says to Sonny, “You really don’t know, do you?” she seems to be referring, not to his ignorance of her husband’s furtive sexuality, but to a general naïveté in the boy’s personality. Since Genevieve warns Sonny, “One thing I know for sure. A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief,” we can be sure that in Anarene the Coach’s “secret” is clandestine only in his own guilty brain. It seems accepted, the way the teenagers in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys accept their teacher’s expected groping of their groins when he takes them home on his motorcycle — with a shrug and, maybe, a curious, virginal thrill.
It’s been several years since I read The Last Picture Show, so I no longer recall whether the Coach acts as a kind of procurer, sending Sonny to Ruth in the hope that he’ll satisfy her, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, the relationship between Sonny and Ruth is, along with the lingering love Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) feels for a girl he once romanced, the movie’s heart, and it is to the point that it is in no way sentimentalized. Their first sexual congress is, on Sonny’s part, oddly tentative and, on Ruth’s, so emotional her tearful gratitude is quietly agonizing. Even at the picture’s climax, when she confronts Sonny with his caddish selfishness with white-hot fury, she is pathetically incapable of not needing him. As Bottoms sits at her kitchen table, devastated by a death he probably could have prevented and by his guilt over that and his treatment of Ruth, she holds his hand to her face, beaming tearfully. It’s a shattering moment, filmed by Bogdanovich with his customary grace and measure and his laudable avoidance of the overly emphatic.
It became fashionable to knock Bogdanovich in the 1970s, for — in the eyes of his (possibly envious?) former fellow critics, anyway — making nothing but hommages to his favorite filmmakers. Ford and Hawks were the two most often cited, but if those reviewers had really been paying attention they might have noticed that if there was a true referent in Bogdanovich it was Orson Welles. Not the Welles of busy tracking sequences and kinetic editing but the Welles who made The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello: The Welles who pulled off extensive scenes without an edit while not calling your attention to his having done so, and whose concerns were more with the small and revealing moments between people, and with limning their loneliness and loss of innocence — to borrow from Thoreau, their quiet desperation — than in dazzling your eyes, although only a fool would fail to note that he did that as well. As with the idea of a young man’s falling into a bass viol during a drunken serenade having, ultimately, tragic repercussions in Ambersons, the memory of a man and a young married woman carrying on a long-ago affair, the girl lacking the courage to break with convention or her own need for security becomes heartbreaking by the end of The Last Picture Show.
If Bogdanovich took from Welles (or Ford, or Hawks) any particular stylistic or pictorial cues, it was those Old Masters’ penchants for long, sustained sequences played in full before a static camera lens. It is, pace Martin (“Look at Me!”) Scorsese, the richest and most assured form of motion picture photography, requiring, as Welles told Bogdanovich, “much more confidence from the director, and a great more skill, and presence, from the actors,” to pull off. Bogdanovich was defeated in this technique only once during The Last Picture Show, and crucially, when due to the clouds overhead and to Timothy Bottoms’ actorly pauses he was forced to make what looks like an extraneous cut to the foreground near the end of the otherwise beautifully sustained dialogue between Sonny and Sam the Lion as the latter reminisces about his one great love affair.
Bogdanovich’s director of photography on The Last Picture Show was the excellent Robert Surtees, whose career stretched back decades and who was responsible for the look of a number of superbly-shot movies: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Ford’s lush Mogambo (1953), the exquisitely mounted Oklahoma! (1955), Ben-Hur (1959), The Graduate (1967), the gorgeous Sweet Charity (1969) for Bob Fosse, William Wyler’s criminally under-seen and underrated The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), The Cowboys (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Turning Point (1977). The look of the movie is almost more Depression-era Texas than the headiness of post-War, oil-boom 1951; if there were tumbleweeds in Anarene, they’d be blowing down the un-paved streets. But that, it seems to me, is the point; Anarene is one of those places in America, if you have any sense or push, you run from as soon as you can.
I once had a woman friend who referred to Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in the picture as a girl “who gives bitches a bad name.” Yet even she is explicable, if perhaps the furthest thing from admirable. Jacy is that emptiest of small-town miracles, the wealthy beauty with no brains and nowhere (and no one) on whom to truly focus her desires, which are in any case so vague and diffused they are only a nagging overall sense of futility she can neither name nor dismiss, much less escape from. In her first acting role, and at 21, the former model is not only strikingly lovely but remarkably assured. You can see, observing her, why her director fell in love with her. And even when Jacy is cavalierly playing with people’s lives, she’s almost impossible to hate, although you’d rather she was more like her unhappy mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who at least has developed some poise — although we suspect she’s always had it, and by the end proves it — and a clear vision of what she cannot change, regardless of how much she drinks or how many lovers she takes on to ameliorate her essential loneliness. “Everything gets old,” she warns Jacy, “if you do it often enough.”
I see I have scarcely begun to limn the beauty of Bogdanovich’s great ensemble cast, which includes the always-splendid Jeff Bridges as Duane, Sonny’s best friend and Jacy’s doomed squire; Timothy Bottoms’ gentle, if Callow, Sonny; his younger brother Sam’s sweet, docile Billy who loves as, in my experience anyway, only a retarded individual can, and cannot be made to hate even when he’s the unwitting butt of misguided adolescent cruelty; Eileen Brennan’s warm, sad and maternal Genevieve; Leachman’s achingly needy Ruth; and Johnson’s simple, understated Sam the Lion. Sam was a role Welles badly wanted — he knew it would win the actor who played it an Academy Award ™ — but Bogdanovich was correct in going for Johnson, who was vaguely familiar, mostly to Western movie habitués, and that Welles would have over-balanced the part. The director was also convinced that Ruth Popper was a certain Oscar-winner, and both he and Welles were right, as Johnson and Leachman took home the Supporting Actor and Actress trophies in early 1972. For Leachman it’s the role in toto, and the raw vulnerability with which she plays it. For Johnson, I suspect, it was that long monologue about the perfect love of his past that did it.
It’s interesting to note that although she praised the movie Pauline Kael (whose spurious essay “Raising Kane” Bogdanovich would blast the following year in Esquire) also found Bogdanovich’s rise as a filmmaker troubling and wrote that “even Nixon could like The Last Picture Show.” This is as bone-headed a view as those of critics a couple of years later who thought American Graffiti an exercise in nostalgia. The people in Bogdanovich and McMurtry’s picture are no less desperate than the kids in George Lucas’. If you have axes to grind, or when you see only what you want to, you miss the big picture. Speaking of which, The Last Picture Show does hold a certain nostalgic reference for me, as I first saw it in the mid-1980s when it was the final booking at a local art-house just before, like Sam’s Anarene movie house in the picture, it closed its doors for good. But McMurtry and Bogdanovich differ on that ultimate offering: In Bogdanovich’s movie it’s the 1948 Red River, clearly a special booking (and by a woman who confesses she doesn’t know how to run the place.) In McMurtry’s novel, it’s a standard 1951 “B” oater, one presumably chosen months in advance.
I suppose the director couldn’t resist making an affirmative statement in the picture he chose to run clips from. But I prefer McMurtry’s solution — it’s just another undistinguished movie, for a town that probably doesn’t merit anything better, and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
*Bogdanovich also, under the pseudonym Derek Thomas, directed something called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) for Roger Corman, who gave him the opportunity to make Targets.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross