The Last Picture Show

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USA, 1971

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Production: BBS Production and Last Picture Show Productions; black and white, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released 1971 by Columbia-Warner. Filmed in Texas.

Producer: Stephen F. Friedman; executive producer: Burt Schneider; screenplay: Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich, from the novel by Larry McMurtry; photography: Robert Surtees; editor: Don Cambern; sound: Tom Overton; production designer: Polly Platt;art director: Walter Scott Herndon; music: Hank Williams, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Fisher, Phil Harris, Pee Wee King, Hank Snow, Tony Bennett, Lefty Frizzell, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Johnny Strindley, Kay Starr, Hank Thompson, Webb Pierce, and Jo Stafford.

Cast: Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford); Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson); Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow); Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion); Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper); Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow); Eileen Brennan (Genevieve); Clu Gulager (Abilene); Sam Bottoms (Billy); Sharon Taggart (Charlene Dugs); Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow); Joe Heathcock (Sheriff); Bill Thurman (Coach Popper); Barc Doyle (Joe Bob Blanton); Jessie Lee Fulton (Miss Mosey); Gary Brockette (Bobby Sheen); John Hillerman (Teacher); Helena Humann (Jimmie Sue); Loyd Catlett (Leroy); Robert Glenn (Gene Farrow); Janice O'Malley (Mrs. Craig); Floyd Mahaney (Policeman); Kimberley Hyde (Annie Martin); Noble Willingham (Chester); Pamela Kelier (Jackie Lee French); Gordon Hurst (Monroe); Mike Hosford (Johnny); Charlie Seybert (Any Fanner); Grover Lewis (Mr. Crawford); Rebecca Ulrick (Marlene); Merrill Shephard (Agnes); Buddy Wood (Bud); Leon Brown (Cowboy in the cafe).

Awards: Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Best Supporting Actress (Leachman), 1971; New York Film Critics awards for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson), Best Supporting Actress (Burstyn), and Best Screenwriting (tied with Sunday Bloody Sunday), 1971.



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* * *

The Last Picture Show is director Peter Bogdanovich's painful and moving look at life in a small Texan town. Adapted by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry from McMurtry's novel, the film chronicles the coming of age of two young men in an era that saw the final fadeout of the American frontier.

Underlying the film's story is its haunting theme of lost hopes and half-forgotten dreams. Bogdanovich captures the mood of desolation and boredom that grips the town of Anarene, contrasting it with the frustrated energy of the local teenagers as they struggle toward a future which holds only the emptiness they see in the lives of the adults around them. The end of their youth will bring death of their belief in a brighter life ahead, just as the passage of time has brought about the disappearance of the Old West and left a bleak, dying town in its place. Sam the Lion, the theatre and poolhall owner who had been a cowboy in his youth, is the story's link to an earlier time. His wisdom and innate dignity provide a role model for the boys, and his death marks the close of a chapter in their lives as well as the severing of the town's past and present.

The Last Picture Show is also a film about the decline of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood moviemaking. Set in 1951, it presents a culture on the verge of change, as the arrival of television signals the end of the studio system. The "last picture show" to play the local movie house before lack of business closes it down is Howard Hawks's Red River, one of the final epics of frontier life. Bogdanovich, a former film critic and the author of books on John Ford and Orson Welles, pays tribute in the film to the work of the legendary directors he admires. The style he adopts is reminiscent of the classic "invisible" approach to filmmaking favored by such directors as Ford and Hawks, whose camera remains an unobtrusive observer of the story. Like Ford, he makes use of occasional sweeping long shots, although here the shots record only the deserted, dusty streets of the town, providing a sad coda to Ford's majestic Western landscapes.

In 1970, Bogdanovich's decision to shoot his film in black and white was a somewhat radical choice. By the end of the 1960s, black and white photography had all but vanished from American feature films. Yet the powerful dramatic possibilities of the format, as well as the contrasts and shadings it offers, are ideally suited to the film's subject matter, and Robert Surtees's cinematography achieves a documentary-like realism.

This illusion is enhanced by the film's soundtrack of 1950s pop and country-western tunes and by the remarkable naturalism of its performers. From Cloris Leachman as the lonely affection-starved coach's wife to Cybill Shepherd as the beautiful, self-centred Jacy, the film is an example of ensemble playing at its finest. Particularly memorable among the strong performances is veteran character actor Ben Johnson's portrayal of Sam the Lion. Johnson, who received an Academy Award for his work, embodies the independence and strength of character which are the hallmarks of the heritage the town has lost.

The Last Picture Show is a film rich in both style and substance. Bogdanovich recaptures the atmosphere of his 1950s setting with careful attention to detail, and creates a moving portrait of a town slowly dying as America moves into a new age.

—Janet E. Lorenz