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Screen classics: The Last Picture Show

Screen classics: The Last Picture Show

"The Last Picture Show"

In this first edition of our new Screen Classics series The MALESTROM’s Danny Taggart reflects on Peter Bogdanovic’s timeless classic, The Last Picture Show. Released 46 years ago, this lesser known gem also has a back-story involving cast and crew that is almost as intriguing as the plot-lines in the film.

After catching the movie Hell or High Water (and loving Jeff Bridges role), on a recent flight, and discussing it with a friend who had long been championing it, we got onto one of my pet movie-buff hypotheses, “Jeff Bridges has never made a bad film.” Think about it … Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Jagged Edge, Tron, The Fisher King, Seabiscuit, Crazy Heart, True Grit, and of course The Big Lebowski.

Okay, maybe I’ll give you R.I.P.D. but even then his presence is more saving grace than problem at hand, in my humble opinion. Contemplating his celluloid career got me reminiscing about one of his very first feature films, and his break-out role – The Last Picture Show (1971, Dir. Peter Bogdanovic) – one of my all-time favourite films, and widely acknowledged as a modern classic.

This film had a profound effect on me when I first saw it as a teenager, despite watching it on an old black and white portable television in my bedroom. I guess back then I may not have even realised that it was actually shot in black and white, despite being released in 1971, it just looked ‘right’.

The second time I watched was as part of Alex Cox’s excellent late-night ‘Moviedrome’ TV series, where he introduced British audiences to several of his personal favourites, or films that had inspired him as a film-maker. These were best categorised as ‘genre movies’ but the collection was very eclectic – horror, cult, avant-garde, or simply forgotten treasures. With each viewing of The Last Picture Show I discover something new; a visual detail, a nuance in a performance, a piece of dialogue previously overlooked. It continues to enthral five decades on.

Based upon the novel by Larry McMurty, the film is ostensibly a coming of age movie, centred on introvert Sonny Crawford, played by Timothy Bottoms, his best friend Duane Jackson (Bridges), and the town’s prissy, attention-seeking glamour girl, Jacy Farrow, played by screen debutant Cybil Shepherd.  They play graduating high-school seniors starting out on the transition from school to adult life, in the fictional north Texas town of Anarene in the early 50’s. Anarene is a typical rural Texan ‘one road’ town, where little happens other than dust and tumbleweed blowing through, a metaphor perhaps for life moving from one place to another, yet speeding through Anarene without stopping.

Sonny, Duane & Jacy

The titular Picture Show refers to the town’s movie theatre, The Royal, where the kids take their sweethearts to idly make out on the back row, desperately trying to get to the ‘next base’. The movie theatre is closing due to lack of regular use and the advent of television – another symbol of life changing around the young protagonists.

Not only was this the breakout movie for the three young stars – Bridges and Shepherd were 20, Bottoms just 19, but it was also the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovic, formerly a movie writer/historian, and sometime actor.  Bogdanovic got the ultimate accolade when the Newsweek review described The Last Picture Show as, “the most impressive work by a young director since Citizen Kane.”

The three young stars are supported by a dazzling array of supporting talent, including John Ford stalwart Ben Thompson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid and Eileen Brennan. Thompson aside, none of these co-stars had really made their mark in film prior to The Last Picture Show, some were actually appearing in their first movie, but all went on to find greater fame thereafter.

A character from film The Last Picture Show Sam the Lion looks into camera. He wears a white cowboy hat
Sam the Lion

Timothy Bottoms’ character Sonny is the beating heart of the film. His restrained, perfectly pitched performance (Sonny’s doleful looks make your heart ache), plays perfectly against the more robust Duane, and the cruel but desperate behaviour of Jacy. Sonny’s quiet remorse regarding his part in the misguided abuse of simple, mute, Billy (played by his real-life kid brother, Sam Bottoms) and at letting Billy and his idol Sam the Lion down, is palpable. Their reconciliation scene in the diner is another poignant, perfectly played moment.

It would be disingenuous of me to not mention one of the most infamous scenes in the film (and perhaps if I am honest, one of the key reasons that first teenage viewing stuck in my mind so much!), where Jacy is initiated at a rich-kid’s skinny-dipping pool party, by being made to strip down on the diving board to her panties and beyond. There are few devotees who won’t immediately mentally reference that scene when they hear mention of the film.

Sex is a theme that runs through the film. The teenagers who are ‘desperate to get some,’ Jacy who is on a mission to lose her virginity (with no shortage of volunteers to help her), and uses her sexuality to get whatever she wants. The quiet desperation and sexual frustration of Lois Farrow and Ruth Popper, brilliantly played by Burstyn and Leachman respectively.

The latter being driven to a detached yet devastatingly moving coupling with Sonny (a scene in which Bottoms refused to fully disrobe). As Ben Johnson wonderfully put it when initially declining the role “It’s kind of a dirty picture and I couldn’t show it to my mother!”

Shepherd & Bridges

Johnson has his own wonderful, slightly more romantic, scene where his character Sam the Lion reminisces of the lost love of his youth (Lois Farrow as it turns out). That scene filmed by ‘the tank’ (water hole) is memorable in so many ways, but perhaps particularly for the lighting, as dark cloud suddenly becomes brilliant sunshine; as Bogdanovic put it “An accident, if I’d asked for the sun to come out at a particular point, it would have been then.”

So what makes The Last Picture Show so special? Hard to quite put your finger on it, but it just has ‘something’. For a start the film just perfectly evokes the period it is set in. I recall being amazed to find out it was filmed in the early 70’s, possibly something to do with the black and white film, but it certainly wasn’t just that.

A great film doesn’t happen by accident – McMurty and Bogdanovic’s script, Bogdanovic’s direction, Robert Surtees’ cinematography, Polly Platt’s production design (more of her later), and of course the stellar performances – each component plays its part, and the sum of those parts produces an alchemy that simply works magically. On watching it again recently, it struck me how episodic the film feels, each scene playing out like an artistic vignette, serene on the surface, yet with underlying and understated drama packed throughout the two hour running time.

Sonny & Duane stand by the jukebox in a scene from The Last Picture Show
Sonny & Duane by the jukebox

The town itself, based upon Archer City, Texas, near McMurty’s home town of Wichita Falls, plays a huge part in the tone of the piece.  The still, long lingering shots with the wind rattling the shutters of the pool hall, tumbleweeds and dust whistling through the empty streets. Background scenes of groups of old men sitting and chatting, huddled against the cold, lives spent and nothing left to do other than chew tobacco and tut about the terrible performances of the High School football team, captained by Duane.

The Last Picture Show perfectly emotes that feeling of small town desolation. For its inhabitants Anarene represents a never-ending limbo of broken dreams and failing marriage; no-hope futures and insular outlooks. This is the life laid out for these two young friends, and something surely to be avoided at all costs – even if doing so means going off to fight in the Korean War as in Duane’s case.

The film also features a wonderful soundtrack featuring Hank Williams, Frankie Laine and other contemporary artists.  Bogdanovic was keen that The Last Picture Show was one of the first feature films to feature contemporary music ‘in situ’– the sounds of the time emanating from jukeboxes, wireless sets etc.

The sexual tensions mentioned earlier weren’t confined to the storyline. Shepherd and Bridges had a brief fling at the start of filming, but after Bridges took a week’s break as part of his military service, he returned to find that Bogdanovic, ten years her senior, had started an intense affair with Shepherd. This caused some awkwardness with Bridges, but much more so with Bogdanovic’s wife Polly Platt, who was the hugely popular production designer on the film, and had just given birth to their child!

In Q&A conversations since, Timothy Bottoms still appears to be somewhat irked by the upset that the affair caused, and the way in which Polly was treated. Shepherd and Bogdanovic kept up their affair for several years – she was in a number of his films – but not long after shooting finished, Memphis native Shepherd also had an affair with the King himself … Elvis Presley.

Shepherd & Bogdanovic

The film quite rightly received widespread critical acclaim. Ben Thompson and Cloris Leachman received supporting role Oscars for their performances; Burstyn, Bridges, Bogdanovic, Surtees (cinematography), McMurty/Bogdanovic (screenplay) also received nominations, as did the film itself in the ‘Best Picture’ category.

Ben Thompson, a stalwart of John Ford / John Wayne movies such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, as well as The Wild Bunch and Shane, actually had to be coerced into joining the cast by John Ford, a personal favour to Bogdanovic. Ben, who had been offered the part three times (the role was originally discussed with James Stewart, but Bogdanovic felt he was ‘too famous’ for the role) stated plaintively, “There are too many words.” Ford called him and said, “What do you want to do, play Duke’s sidekick your whole life?!”  It worked, and as they say, the rest is history.  Another footnote to this story is that Thompson’s role as Sam the Lion still holds the record for shortest amount of screen-time for an Oscar winner in the Best Supporting Actor category with a total of just 9 minutes and 54 seconds.

Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman in “The Last Picture Show.”

Cloris Leachman’s remarkable last scene in the movie was done in one take, the first, and without any rehearsal. She wanted to rehearse the scene but Bogdanovic thought it would ruin the scene if she did so. Cloris wasn’t convinced she had done it justice either – “No, Peter wait, we have to do it again. The first part I didn’t do right … I can do it better.” Bogdanovic replied, “No. You can’t. You just won the Oscar.” His instincts were once again correct.

Bogdanovic never quite reach the same directorial heights again, though he did score hits with What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon (for which 10 year old Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar). Some attribute the dimming of his star to his parting of the ways from Production Designer Polly Platt (his estranged wife) after Paper Moon, who it was felt held a fairly significant artistic influence on his early work.

His private life continued to make headlines too. His affair with Cybil Shepherd endured for a number of years, finally ending in 1978 and he continued to cast her in lead roles during their relationship, though not to the benefit of either, movies Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975) were particularly savaged by critics.

Dorothy Stratten & Peter Bogdanovic

Tragedy and scandal hit him in the early 80’s. After casting Playboy ‘Playmate of the Year’ Dorothy Stratten in his 1981 film They All Laughed, a low budget comedy bankrolled by Hugh Heffner (and with an unlikely star in Audrey Hepburn), Bogdanovic perhaps predictably fell in love with Stratten. Stratten however was estranged from an emotionally unstable hustler called Paul Snyder, who upon hearing that Dorothy was leaving him for Bogdanovic shot and killed her, allegedly sodomizing her corpse before turning the gun on himself.

Due to the press around the murder the film could not find distribution and Bogdanovic ended up ploughing millions of dollars into the film to get it released, ultimately driving himself into bankruptcy. Not only that, but he went on to marry Dorothy’s 19 year old kid sister Louise Stratten, 29 years his junior. Their marriage lasted for 13 years, though amidst background gossip of those who suspected he was trying to mould her in the image of her late sister. Bogdanovic, now 77, continues to direct as well as act in numerous films and TV shows. Sopranos aficionados may remember his recurring turn as psychiatrist Dr Elliot Kupferberg.

Bogdanovic reunited a number of the cast for the 1990 film sequel Texasville, again based upon a McMurty novel, picking up the story of the cast of The Last Picture Show thirty-two years on. Bogdanovic once again took up screenwriting and directing duties, the film starred Bridges and Shepherd, with Bottoms, Leachman, Randy Quaid and Eileen Brennan once again in supporting roles.

It met with what’s best described as ‘mixed reviews’. In my opinion it’s not a bad movie, a little haphazard and frenetic maybe, but certainly lacks the unique atmosphere and charm of the first film. Nonetheless it’s a diverting insight into the later lives of those characters who entranced and intrigued decades before.

That said, I am not sure I really ever wanted to know what happened to Duane, Sonny, Jacy & co. outside of my own imagination – something like the fear of discovering a childhood sweetheart years later on Facebook and being disappointed. Sometimes those who warmed the heart in years gone by are best left within the frame of that last memory in the hope that, as The Last Picture Show’s tagline puts it, nothing much has changed.

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