The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Peter Bogdanovich & Larry McMurtry
Cinematographer: Robert Surtees
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid.

I was reading an article recently about The Last Picture Show that provided a retrospective look at the film, with interviews with all of the cast members and director. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including best picture, director, and nominations and wins for several of its cast members. Considered by many a classic and appearing on a lot of lists of best films ever made, I decided to give it a shot. My reaction is a little mixed, to tell the truth.

The film is set in 1951 in a very small, declining, rural Texas town. Everyone knows each other and, most importantly, knows each other’s business. If the football team plays poorly, it reflects in the same way on the town as a whole, and the citizens are not afraid to express their opinions when meeting the players on the street. The prettiest girl in town is dating the handsome football star with no future, but also keeps her options open with the richer kids in nearby areas. Other teenagers enter and exit relationships at whims, as teenagers do. But none of them seem to be having any fun, a patina of depression and melancholy colors the entire mood. It is not a chance that the movie was filmed in black and white. The adults are not any better off. Affairs, some with barely legal teens, permeate their lives. Regret and bitterness are all that inhabit this godforsaken town.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons I had a hard time fully appreciating this movie. The bleak story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The entire point seems to be that small town America began to erode long before we think it did, that unhappiness is as American as football and apple pie, that we’ve always been misanthropic and miserable, we just weren’t aware that everyone else was as well. Ennui is the pervading mood throughout, and that is a hard tone to connect with. Adding the fact that the film, while told in chronological order, skips ahead without much context, expecting the viewer to realize there has been a significant time jump on their own, and the film is not an easy thing to watch. We shift from fall to Christmas to spring without any warning. People pass away, relationships end, and we never really see it occur, nor is its aftermath examined. Silence and barely registered stares are all we are treated to.

If there is one incredible standout in the film, though, is my sudden appreciation and admiration for Cloris Leachman. I didn’t grow up watching the sitcoms that made her famous, and most of my awareness of her is based on her over the top performances as a crazy old lady in modern sitcoms like Malcolm in the Middle or Raising Hope. I’ve seen a couple of movies she’s been in, but these were also recent and had her do much of the same schtick. But boy is she awesome in this film. Leachman plays the football coach’s depressed and lonely wife, a plain woman whose existence is one of futility and isolation. She begins an affair with one of the teenage football players, and the layers of humanity and pain and underlying desperation she is able to evoke in a handful of scenes is definitely mesmerizing. I was blown away by this subtle and impressive performance. It is of absolutely no shock to me that she won the Oscar for this performance, and deservedly so.

There are other good performances, including Ellen Burstyn and Jeff Bridges, but they aren’t really given much of an arc or a showy scene to do much with. They just exist, like the town, in a constant state of stasis – the only real action being the wind, that coaxes the sand to and fro, but after it has settled, nothing has really changed at all.

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