Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich                              Writers: Peter Bogdanovich & Larry McMurtry
Music: Patrick Williams                                     Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Ben Johnson

It occurred to me recently while watching an interview with the late Sydney Pollack, who had essentially backed into directing with no previous interest in it, that Peter Bogdanovich is almost the opposite. He became obsessed with film, and directors in particular, even before he went into acting, programming films for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His primary interest then was film criticism but, like his French idols, he moved himself into directing, first with Roger Corman in creating the minor masterpiece Targets and two films later with the critically acclaimed The Last Picture Show. This is clearly Bogdanovich’s own version of a French new wave film, and he couldn’t have picked a better subject than Larry McMurtry’s coming of age story with its lack of meaningful dialogue, abundance of sex, and minimal plot. As such, he’s able to focus all the audience’s attention on intimate stories of humanity that fit perfectly into the European cinematic sensibility.

The film opens on the empty street of a small, wind blown Texas town with one stoplight. Ben Johnson is the owner of the pool hall, the restaurant, and the movie theater at the edge of the mostly vacant downtown. Timothy Bottoms is a high school senior going with Sharon Ullrick but breaks up with her out of boredom. Meanwhile his best friend, Jeff Bridges, is going out with Cybill Shepherd and she seems far more enticing to Bottoms. At a Christmas party Shepherd skips out with Randy Quaid for a skinny dipping party at a rich kid’s house at a nearby town and boy, Gary Brockette, whose parents are out of town, tells her to come back when she’s no longer a virgin. So Shepherd sets out to lose her virginity, with mixed results. While all of this drives Bridges to distraction, Bottoms winds up in bed with the high school coach’s wife, Cloris Leachman but he also has eyes for waitress Eileen Brenan at the restaurant. But ultimately graduation sets things in motion that, as they always do, send people in different directions.

Bogdanovich assembled some young talent and matched them up with Hollywood veterans for a perfect ensemble. After an impressive performance in his first film, Johnny Got His Gun, Timothy Bottoms displayed the introspection and vulnerability that propelled him into near greatness, following up this film with a definitive performance in The Paper Chase, but then inexplicably falling off the radar. Jeff Bridges had worked with his dad on television and guested on other shows, but this was also only his second film, though his performance was not as distinctive as Bottoms’. For Cybill Shepherd this was her first film and she’s terrific as the richest kid in town, which isn’t saying much, but at the hands of her mother, Ellen Burstyn, she becomes incredibly dangerous in her manipulation of the guys in town. Supporting roles by Ben Johnson, Clu Gulager and Randy Quaid are also spot on.

The film really is remarkable, not only for the fact that is almost anti-Hollywood in a way, but that it received so many critical raves on its release. Like the French films of Bresson and Truffaut, Bogdanovich elected to go with black and white when that palate had already gone by the wayside by 1970. Another brilliant facet of the film is the soundtrack. Bogdanovich used Hank Williams tunes exclusively and the haunting quality of his vocals is the perfect background, especially considering he died during the time period the film was set and this adds a particularly poignant though unacknowledged aspect to the story. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in all of the major categories except best actress and best actor. The snub of Timothy Bottoms in not at least being nominated is particularly perplexing considering the mediocre quality of the performances that year. Supporting actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, however, were deservingly awarded Oscars. Bogdanovich never achieved such heights again, though he has done some great films like Paper Moon and Mask, but that doesn’t diminish the monumental accomplishment that The Last Picture Show is and always will be.

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