“People can’t sneeze in this town without someone offering him a handkerchief” – Eileen Brennan as Genevieve
Always the compelling raconteur, among his plethora of yarns, Peter Bogdanovich can be heard telling the one about how he was first introduced to his source material. If the legend holds, he found Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show browsing through the paperbacks in a drugstore. Later, his buddy Sal Mineo coincidentally suggested he should make it into a movie, and there you have the auspicious beginnings of his landmark film.
It seems almost prescient he would pick the book up in a drugstore — maybe this scene was far more common in the 60s and 70s — but for perceptive viewers, Brandon de Wilde does the very same thing in Hud. And if there was ever a film or a world that The Last Picture Show shares it would be Paul Newman’s from 1963. In such a podunk town in rural Texas, you get the sense that the West lives on. The twanging country tunes are ubiquitous and Hank Williams is still on the top of the charts.
Of course, with such an environment on hand, you have a bevy of small-town dynamics, all the familiar trademarks. The local high school football team is about all the entertainment there is on a Friday evening, and they are derided by the whole town for their lack of tackling prowess.
The boys themselves don’t seem to take it too badly. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), in particular, are best buddies and with families all but fractured, having one another is all they really care about; that and girls.
Another typical form of entertainment is at the movie house. One such evening Sonny can be found there with his girlfriend, watching the immaculate Elizabeth Taylor in Father of The Bride, as they pull out their chewing gum to do some necking in the dark. All the locals agree, however, Duane has the real catch in Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town.
What becomes instantly apparent about Anarene, Texas is the prevailing plain, ordinary ugliness of the place. It’s a run-of-the-mill doldrums of a town where there isn’t much to do but feel sorry for oneself and gossip about everyone else’s indiscretions. One character notes “everything’s flat and empty.” They’re not wrong. However, it goes beyond basic monotony. The slumbering rancor stirred up in the town is this unacknowledged undercurrent of callousness. No sympathy or authentic community of any kind is available.
Instead, people go on living lies or make every attempt to cover up the blemishes they know full-well everyone is talking about behind their backs. One primary example is Ellen Burstyn, Jacy’s attractive mother, who’s had more than a few flings with guys, including a local Hud-like rascal (Clu Gulager). One looks at Jacy’s own forays in love and you realize just how innocent she is. Her mother feels like a hero, but Mrs. Farrow has lived long enough to understand what regrets are.
Meanwhile, Cloris Leachman is the coach’s wife trapped in a loveless marriage of perpetual loneliness. When Sonny comes by as a favor to his coach, to take Mrs. Popper to a doctor’s appointment, she reaches out to the only person who pays her any heed. Otherwise, she’ll all but suffocate.
With the older generation of women, although they are now set in their ways, there is this hint of was is not there and what might have been there before. For instance, friendships might have existed in a different time before life got in the way. Eileen Brennan as the seasoned waitress at the burger joint admits these facts even as she dotes over Sonny a bit like a surrogate mother. She knows what happens to people as they slowly drift apart.
Though not necessarily miscreants, you have a town full of maladjusted lonely people, rogues, meretricious sex fiends, and brusque masculinity. Plenty of fodder for a cottage industry of rural scandal and public recreation.
The younger generations are trying to grow up in such a toxic environment, no wonder they have their own set of issues, all but inherited from their elders. On one occasion Jacy finds herself at a swim party in the nude, and there’s further trashy behavior and indecency on any given evening. One is reminded of the idle antics that boys get up to with nothing to do. It’s either girls or messing with the uncle’s heifer.
In the end, they prey on the local mute Billy (Sam Bottoms) who would never hurt a fly. He becomes a symbol of how simple goodness is all but trampled in such a town. It cannot survive in such a pernicious environment. More on that later.
However, if there was one character who reflects a stalwart strength of character it would be Sam The Lion. And his name precedes him just as the man who plays him is the epitome of such a role. Ben Johnson though hesitant about such a “wordy” part, nevertheless brings so much candor and an uncoached authenticity to the man. He even gets a nod to his starring turn in John Ford’s Wagon Train, seen on a theater placard.
Sam is the owner of the local pool hall and the picture show. More than that, he is the one true strain of straight, unadulterated decency in an otherwise miserable town. He is the only word of conscience imparted on these boys for their apathy. His abrupt departure is yet another blow.
As high school rolls on, Jacy keeps Duane jealous flaunting her sexuality and then retreating, coaxing him and then trying to push him away. It’s true she doesn’t know what she wants or who she wants for that matter. On the whole, she’s totally manipulative and yet it’s hard to hold it against her. She’s as lost as all of her peers (and their parents).
Like all the preeminent coming of age tales that have been canonized forevermore, The Last Picture Show simultaneously captures its setting so impeccably while denoting the inevitable passage of time. It’s not so much a nostalgic tale as it is one that carves out a certain time and place. Replicating both the unadorned dusty sensibilities in black and white, through the Hank Williams dominated soundtrack, and certainly the characterizations.
Robert Surtees is certainly the MVP because he really does create an extension of James Wong Howe’s world in Hud where you have these stark totally horizontal visuals that do so much to evoke a very specific environment — to the point it is becoming its own entity — another character that remains a part of this broader narrative.
As they sit in the movies watching Red River (1948), there is this sense of the end of something, even as it is the beginning of something else. The town as an environ might look the same but our sense of the place is different. People are gone now. Some by choice, others were killed or closer still ground down by the town itself. Life marches onward. It’s the reality.
Duane takes what might have been the same bus in Hud out of town so he can ship off to Korea. Jacy has gone away to Dallas. Maybe to college or because of another eligible suitor. We don’t know exactly. Still, the wheels keep on turning. To come to terms with it can be painful and yet we must. Wounds heal eventually.
Jeff Bridges has his soon-to-be typical grinning charisma augmented by a ducktail and a strong personality making his character overwhelmingly likable to the very last iota. Jacy, as portrayed so essentially by Shepherd, is the belle of the ball — the girl who wreaks havoc on all the boys — and never really knows what she wants with life. There’s nothing dedicated about any of her whims; it keeps her constantly changing her fancies superficially. We both envy and pity her.
Timothy Bottoms’ performance, in particular, is quietly powerful because so much of it is reactionary. He is our everyman who reflects this town back to us. We see through his pained expression and in his helplessness or through his increasing despondency at what goes on. Even the mundane, everyday behaviors he commits to, provide a sense of what life here is like. He makes it real and palpable for us, supplementing all the performances around him.
For all his personal hangups, Peter Bogdanovich as a nascent director proved himself among many of his compatriots of the New Hollywood generation. He handles the material assuredly and balances a certain sense of recognizable realism that we can relate to on a universal level with this still overtly cinematic quality. He had a major hand in opting for diegetic sound emanating from the world as opposed to a score, and he also cut with the camera like his revered forefathers such as John Ford had done.
One perfect summation of this sense of heightened reality comes in the climactic scuffle between Sonny and Duane. We know the image is being manipulated but far from breaking the illusion, it reinforces the experience by grabbing hold of all the emotion within the frames.
There are smutty scenes captured with the insinuation of Hitchcock and tragic ones not allowed to grow stale with overacting. In fact, one of the director’s finest decisions is to leave room for magic, oftentimes staying with the first take whether it is Leachman’s heartbreaking dissolution or Bottom’s own tearful confrontation of the hard-hearted old boys around him.
These are the moment that hit deep and hard with core resonance. We go to movies for such lightning strikes of humanity fortuitously captured on celluloid. There’s little contesting the fact The Last Picture Show is timeless cinema. It comes bearing deep reservoirs of truth, and truth doesn’t have an expiration date.