Saturday, July 12, 2008

'The Last Picture Show'

Some movies stay with you long after the lights go up, rattle around in your head for days, make you think about life and love, the agony and the ecstasy and how the weather was.

So it is with "The Last Picture Show," Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 masterpiece, based on the Larry McMurtry novel. Watched it last night after reading McMurtry's new novel, "When the Light Goes," which returns to the town -- and to some of the characters -- featured in the film.

Although Duane Moore (called Duane Jackson in the movie) became the focus of both McMurtry's 3 sequels and the 1990 film sequel "Texasville," "Picture Show" is really Sonny Crawford's story. He's Duane's best buddy and they both come of age, with a few bumps and bruises, in the small West Texas town of Anarene (called Thalia in the novel and based on McMurtry's hometown of Archer City) in the early 1950s.

Sonny (brilliantly played by the underrated Timothy Bottoms) is a somewhat tragic figure, stifled by the rigid confines of his hometown, unsure of where he's headed. Duane (Jeff Bridges) is his cocky, somewhat unlikable best friend. They're both in love with Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut), the flippant rich girl in town.

When they aren't playing football or making out with girls at the picture show, the boys hang out at the pool hall owned by town patriarch Sam the Lion (the late, great Ben Johnson). Johnson won an Academy Award for this role; it is the finest of his distinguished career. The scene where he's talking with Sonny at the water tank about a long-ago romance is one of American cinema's finest moments.

Anyway, Sonny has an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the high school coach's wife; Jacy gets Duane to sleep with her long enough to lose her virginity so she can impress a local rich boy; Duane and Sonny split over Jacy -- and on it goes. This sounds like "Peyton Place," but in actuality is the most realistic portrait of small town life ever put to film.

Bogdanovich wisely shot in black-and-white and used no score; instead, he peppers the film with music from the period, especially Hank Williams tunes. It carries with it a stark, documentary feel.

I don't know why I love this film as much as I do. It had to be controversial for its time, given the nudity and the frank portrayal of what kids do together when they're alone.

But it's honest, it's sad, it comments on the despair that lies below the surface of many human lives. More than that, it's an homage to the ending of an era, a good-bye if you will, to the golden age of American cinema.

Bogdanovich was a movie critic before he became a director and was obviously influenced by Orson Welles, John Ford and some others. The last picture show of the title, shown the night the town's movie house closes, is Howard Hawks' "Red River," ironic because that film also portrays the ending of an era.

The cast is superb. Bottoms gives the performance of his life. Bridges somehow manages to make Duane likable. I've already told you about Ben Johnson. And Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan nearly steal the movie as the three older women of the picture. Shepherd is the weak link, although is very much the sultry temptress here, perfect for her unlikable character. Randy Quaid makes his film debut here and Clu Gulager has a fine supporting role as the older town stud.

It's one you have to see to understand, although I must tell you that whatever is at play here once caused me to drive all the way to Archer City, Texas, to see the filming location. Sad to say, the real picture show burned. The building now has a gaping hole in its side.

Which, somehow, is a fitting epitaph.

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