The Last Picture Show (US 1971)

Timothy Bottoms as Sonny with Ben Johnson as Sam (in the hat). Sam Bottoms as Billy is in the background.

Timothy Bottoms as Sonny with Ben Johnson as Sam (in the hat). Sam Bottoms as Billy is in the background.

In 2006 I ran an evening class looking at the films that influenced Brokeback Mountain – or in some way helped to inform how Ang Lee’s ‘Western romance’ might be read by audiences. One of these films was The Last Picture Show and the following notes have been re-worked for this blog. I’m particularly interested in the concept of the ‘Twilight Western‘ but I was prompted to post this now as the idea of ‘left behind communities’ seems so important in UK and US politics at the moment. See also my previous post on Inland Sea.

It is often argued that the brief period between the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s and the re-birth of commercial Hollywood with Jaws and Star Wars in the mid 1970s was the best of all times in terms of the quality of the films produced. In 1971 The Last Picture Show, competing against A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, McCabe and Mrs Miller and Klute amongst others, was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two for Supporting Actors, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Perhaps because of its Oscars, I saw the film in March 1972 on release in the UK at the most prestigious art cinema in London, the Curzon. 

Forty-four years later, The Last Picture Show stands up very well and it isn’t surprising that Ang Lee took it as his most important starting point for the tone and ‘feel’ of Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation co-scripted by Larry McMurtry, arguably the most prominent writer in portraying rural Texas. McMurtry writes about the West – in history and in contemporary life. As one reviewer has put it:

No other author has so thoroughly and delightfully debunked the ill-advised romanticism of the American West. McMurtry’s immense talent punctures the cowboy mythology with such finesse that the reader never feels the prick; we just joyfully go along for the ride of a lifetime. (Jami Edwards on http://bookreporter.com)

The Last Picture Show is a melodrama involving a small group of characters with close personal relationships who are all involved in the changing world of a small Texan town. The time is the early 1950s and the decline of the ‘old ways’ of the town is represented by the threatened closure of the local cinema. The Last Picture Show followed an earlier novel, Horseman Pass By, filmed as Hud with Paul Newman in 1963. Searching for a location for the 1950s Texas depicted in The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich eventually turned to McMurtry’s home town of Archer City – a journey that Ang Lee also took some thirty plus years later. Bogdanovich in 1971 was a film critic turned filmmaker with minimal experience but plenty of chutzpah. He asked Orson Welles for advice on shooting the film and decided on black and white in order to be able to shoot scenes with great depth of field and characters close to the camera dominating the frame (as in Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, another film about the past). Robert Surtees seemingly provides exactly what Bogdanovich was looking for.

Bogdanovich had interviewed both Howard Hawks and John Ford. This partly explains the choice of Hawks’ Red River (1948) as the last film to be shown in the picture house and the long struggle to get Ben Johnson to play the role of ‘Sam the Lion’. Johnson, a real cowboy and rodeo rider, made his name as part of John Ford’s Western ensemble in films like Wagonmaster (1950) (a poster for the film is seen in the cinema lobby in The Last Picture Show) and then worked for Sam Peckinpah. For Western fans, Johnson is an iconic figure. Bogdanovich reportedly told Johnson that he would win an Oscar in the role and he did.

Eileen Brennan as Genevieve the waitress in the café

The Last Picture Show has a remarkable cast. The young characters are each played by stars in the making in 1971. Jeff Bridges, the son of action star Lloyd Bridges, went on to become one of the major ‘character stars’ in Hollywood Cinema. Timothy Bottoms had a strong early career in the 1970s, but Cybill Shepherd, a ‘supermodel’ in 1970 when Bogdanovich saw her on the cover of a magazine, began an affair with the director which proved disastrous for both herself and Bogdanovich. The real strength of the film is in the supporting cast. Alongside Johnson are three women with reputations mostly forged in television – Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn – and Clu Gulager, another television actor with a memorable performance alongside Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).

Bogdanovich made several other decisions about staging the story. Perhaps most important was the precise dating of the events, covering a period from November 1951 to a year later in 1952 (or from the start of one football season through to the start of the next). The music playing on the radios in the film is authentic for the period (especially Hank Williams, who was the major force in country music at the time).

The timing enables Bogdanovich to send Duane (Bridges) off to Korea and to date precisely the period when the community in a small Texas town began to turn away from the cinema and towards the television set. The film draws on a number of genre repertoires, in particular the ‘youth picture’/‘coming of age’ story of the three young leads, the melodrama of small town life and, crucially, the ‘twilight Western’ – the ‘end of the West’ story.

Sonny and Jacey (Cybill Shepherd)

Sonny and Jacey (Cybill Shepherd)

The three genres come together through the relationships that Sonny (Tim Bottoms) has with Duane, Sam, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) and Ruth (‘the Coach’s wife’ played by Cloris Leachman.) Sonny and Duane are the future, the heirs to Sam’s legacy. They represent the dual figure at the centre of many of the stories about the end of the West: two men, one resigned to the soul-destroying work of modern capitalist America, the other trapped in a way of life that is clearly dying and which offers no viable future. These two characters have a strong bond of friendship, one that will be tested to destruction in the narrative.

Sam represents the honourable past of the Western philosophy. He runs the last three ‘social facilities’ in town, the café, the pool hall and the cinema. These provide the possibility of a ‘community’ and refer back to the ‘civilising’ of the West in classic Westerns such as My Darling Clementine – as distinct from the anti-community ethos of television. Sam recognises that Sonny is his heir. He is, in some ways, Sonny’s surrogate father (Sonny’s real father is glimpsed briefly in the Christmas scene).

Jacey with Duane (Jeff Bridges)

Jacey with Duane (Jeff Bridges)

Duane is the cowboy who adapts to work as an oil rigger and then as a marine, off to Korea. Jacy is the girl who comes between the two central characters, but she too has choices to make. She doesn’t listen to her mother or take much notice of the other older women in the community, all of whom have tales to tell and warnings to give. Jacy doesn’t know what her role in small town Texas might be and her experiments with men don’t fill us with hope for the future. Another Bogdanovich decision, to show Sonny in the cinema watching a young Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950), is perhaps a reference to films like Giant (1956) and the disruption that a woman with the presence of Shepherd/Taylor could cause in a small Texas community. Sonny is with Charlene when Duane and Jacy arrive and the difference between the promise of Jacy and the reality of Charlene is underlined when Sonny reacts to being told that he and Charlene have been ‘going steady’ for a year with a weary “Seems like a lot longer”.

Anarene, Texas is presented as a dying town with a population of disappointed people. The central characters are all single or in relationships which are not functional. We learn little about the family background of Sonny or Duane and Billy (Sam Bottoms) is presented as an archetypal character, found in any small town. In one sense, the narrative involves an older generation ‘passing on’ its own disappointments to a younger generation, but there is still a suggestion that something was there in the past (Sam’s references to his time with Jacy’s mother). It isn’t there now and change must take place. At the end of the film, the heavy symbolism sees harmless Billy killed by a truck full of cattle – literally killed by the mechanised West which has replaced the romantic nostalgia of Sam and the cowboy pictures he showed in the Royal Cinema.

The Last Picture Show might seem at first glance like an unlikely model for Brokeback Mountain, but dig deeper and the links between the films begins to emerge. Aesthetically one is mostly enclosed in a windswept town and the other presents characters in a magnificent landscape, but in both the camera is used to bring the characters into the foreground in close-up, so that we enter a character study but recognise the importance of the environment in the background. In both films, we get a strong sense of a conservative community with individuals desperate to find a happiness that seems to evade them and we get a running commentary from the country music soundtrack. The Last Picture Show is more of a melodrama in its interrelationships within the community, but its two young men look forward to Jack and Ennis in the later film (and back to the heroes of ‘end of the West’ films such as Randolph Scott and Joel McRea in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). Ang Lee, without the detailed knowledge of the West, wanted a model for how to achieve an effortless authenticity for characters and setting and he found it in The Last Picture Show.

McMurtry wrote two further novels about the characters of The Last Picture Show, Texasville (1987) and Duane’s Depressed (1999). His biggest successes were the novel Tears of Endearment (1975) – later a successful film melodrama – and the long historical novel Lonesome Dove (1985) which became the basis for one of the most successful mini-series in US television history.

After The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich had two further hits with What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) before a series of disasters, starting with Cybill Shepherd as Daisy Miller (1974). He also directed the film of Texasville (1990) which sees the younger cast members of The Last Picture Show some thirty years later. The film was not a success. Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow provides the link between both films and Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays the agent who hires Jack and Ennis.

A detailed description of The Last Picture Show with explanations for the numerous references to American popular culture can be found on Tim Dirks’ ‘Greatest Films’ website at http://www.filmsite.org/lastp.html.

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