Ben Johnson, Timothy Bottoms and Sam Bottoms in The Last Picture Show (Photo: Columbia)
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)
★★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Peter Bogdanovich
STARS Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges
Peter Bogdanovich has long faded from view as a filmmaker who matters; these days, he’s mainly known as a film historian, spinning anecdotal material on DVDs containing classic motion pictures by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks (all of whom he befriended during his early years as a movie critic and MOMA film curator). But for a brief period during the 1970s, he was one of the hottest directors in the land, considered part of the elite gang that also included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin.
Bogdanovich already had the excellent 1968 Boris Karloff drama Targets under his belt, but it was 1971’s The Last Picture Show that announced his arrival as a major new talent, a standing that he wasn’t able to sustain for long. But for this title, it’s a deserving designation, as The Last Picture Show is an American classic in every sense. Working from a brilliant screenplay he co-wrote with future Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry (adapting his own novel), Bogdanovich takes a leisurely, loving look at the residents of a tiny Texas town in the 1950s.
Filmed in black and white (at the suggestion of Welles) by Robert Surtees, the picture mixes its sense of nostalgia for a bygone era with its clear-eyed depiction of the sheer boredom that can penetrate the lives of small-town folks with few options available to them. The younger generation is represented by the sensitive Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), his cocky best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Duane’s self-centered girlfriend Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her film debut), while the older set is repped by the sensible and respected Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), Jacy’s restless mom Lois (Ellen Burstyn), lonely coach’s wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman), and wise waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan). In Bogdanovich’s capable hands, the soap-opera elements — Sonny has an affair with Ruth, Jacy chases (among other boys) Sonny, Jacy ends up sleeping with her mom’s lover, etc. — never become maudlin or sordid; instead, they provide insight into how these recognizably flawed characters combat their daily despair.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and supporting bids for Bridges and Burstyn), this box office hit captured statues for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Best Supporting Actress (Leachman).
Bogdanovich followed The Last Picture Show with two more resounding successes — 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and 1973’s Paper Moon — before helming a string of gargantuan bombs that effectively ended his career (although he had one more moderate hit with 1985’s Mask). Since the 1970s, he’s only directed eight theatrical features over a 40-year span, with the rest of his output consisting of a pair of documentaries (one of which was 2018’s excellent The Great Buster: A Celebration, reviewed here) and various TV projects.