Movie Project #24: The Last Picture Show [1971]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

The Last Picture Show [1971]
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Genre: Drama
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn
Runtime: 118 minutes

“Nothing much has changed…”

I grew up in a small town, one with a population of roughly 200 people. I could not leave it fast enough. It seemed like so many people there were stuck in a rut. They lived their lives, worked menial jobs, then proceeded to have kids who in turn fell into the same endless cycle. While not always the case, many of them rarely left their seemingly comfortable surroundings. That wasn’t me. I had to get out, and that’s how I ended up in Chicago, the polar opposite of my hometown.

The Last Picture Show takes place in the 1950s in a small town in West Texas. Its denizens are people exactly like those I knew grewing up.

There’s Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior who is dating a slightly overweight girl whom he is not in love with. Ambivalent about the prospects of life after school, he drifts aimlessly. His best friend is Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), a good-looking and popular fellow senior who is more interested in girls than thinking about the future. He is in a relationship with Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), a sex-crazed girl who comes from a rich family.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

On the adult side of things, there is Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the depressed housewife of the local football coach. There’s a man known best as Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the owner of the town’s cafe, movie theater and pool hall — basically the only sources of entertainment in the area — who acts as a sort of father figure to the two seniors. We are also introduced to Jacy’s mother, Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), who is struggling as a single parent.

For 118 minutes, we are immersed in the world of this small dying town in Texas. Part character study, part coming of age, all hopelessly stagnant.

When I say “immersed” in this town, I am not overstating this at all. Director Peter Bogdanovich *nailed* the movie’s setting. The bleak, dusty, wind-torn town is captured in all its decaying glory, beat-up pickup trucks and all. The movie was wisely filmed in black-and-white (thanks to a suggestion from Orson Welles), making it feel like we are watching something plucked right from the 50s. Seriously, I felt like I was there.

What doesn’t feel like a 50s film is the gratuitous sex featured on screen, complete with a generous amount of nudity. With raging hormones and little else to do in town, it’s easy to see why its members rely on promiscuity to pass the time. It’s not just the high school kids who are hooking up — it’s the adults, too, including some who are breaking the bounds of marriage.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

It’s impossible to look back at The Last Picture Show forty years later and not be amazed at its cast. Many would go on to long and prosperous careers, including the very young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Miss Shepherd, in particular, is absolutely stunning — it’s easy to see why every guy in town is in love with her. Ben Johnson, as the aging cowboy Sam the Lion, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Cloris Leachman, absolutely fantastic in her role as the despondent housewife, won Best Supporting Actress. The only major star who didn’t make it as big as the rest is Timothy Bottoms, which is a shame because he is one of the true highlights in this film.

The Last Picture Show also received six other Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

When people discuss the greatest films of the 1970s, I rarely hear The Last Picture Show mentioned near the top. The film certainly has a high amount of critical acclaim, but it seems to get overlooked amongst the Godfathers and Taxi Drivers of the world. That’s a shame, because this is a fantastic effort all-around, and it is one that perfectly encapsulates the setting it takes place in. Some may find this to be too melancholy and others may struggle with its characters, but to me, this reminds me of home, for better or for worse.


23 thoughts on “Movie Project #24: The Last Picture Show [1971]

    • Eric says:

      Thanks, Michael. I have been working my way through the Criterion BBS Story box set, and this movie has been the biggest highlight by far.

  1. svartnoir says:

    I remember this as a very good film that, like you mention, really captures the feeling of a small town and growing up. Jeff Bridges is wonderful and so is most of cast. A nice little movie in other words. By the way, it’s a nice blog you have here and I’m going to follow it since you seem to write about many good movies!

    • Eric says:

      Hi svartnoir, thanks for the kind words! This is definitely one of the better films I have seen that shows what life in a small town is like. It really is an amazing movie, and one that is unfortunately overlooked by many.

  2. Chris says:

    I haven’t watched The Last Picture Show in ages…You really loved it!
    Yes, black and whitedoes take us back in time, I agree. I heard the director say the decision of b/w is also because color was “too pretty for a dreary town”

  3. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric and company:

    ‘The Last Picture Show’ may not have put Jeff Bridges on the map, but it surely did get him noticed. Great cast in an equally great film that had to be in B&W.

    Also nice to know that Peter Bogdanovich started out under the tutelage of Roger Corman with ‘Targets’. Rumor has it that Bogdanovich got some serious advice from Orson Welles on his decision on using B&W in ‘The Last Picture Show’.

    • Eric says:

      Hi Jack, that’s an interesting tidbit about Corman. Didn’t know that. And you’re absolutely right about this film needing to be in B&W — it wouldn’t have had nearly the same effect otherwise. Glad to hear you’re a fan as well.

  4. ruth says:

    Oh look at that young Jeff Bridges! He’s kinda cute 😀 I actually don’t know much about The Last Picture Show, perhaps like you said it got unfairly overshadowed by others. Makes me want to check it out now, sometimes the underrated ones turn out better than what the more celebrated films.

    • Eric says:

      Haha yep, it was fun to see an early role from Bridges. I highly recommend checking this one out, Ruth. It blew away any expectations I had beforehand.

  5. moviehodgepodge says:

    Great look at this film. I remember hearing Peter Bogdanovich speak one time at my school where he showed clips from The Last Picture Show and it was so entertaining. He sure knows his stuff.

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