The Last Picture Show (1971)
I have been known to insist that anyone with six-and-a-half hours and plenty of tissues to spare should watch the 1989 miniseries, Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry's epic tale of two former Texas Rangers on a cattle drive from south Texas to Montana. The other film I get pushy about is Paper Moon (1973), Peter Bogdanovich's lyrical adaptation of a Depression-Era novel about an orphan's friendship with a con-man who is probably her father. The talents of these two great storytellers come together in The Last Picture Show, a beautifully composed, (mostly) quiet
tale of small town Texas life in the early 1950s.
Anarene, Texas (McMurtry's actual hometown of Archer) is an oil town past its prime. It boasts a dying movie house, a dilapidated billiard parlor, and a pretty decent cafe, all owned by Sam "The Lion" (Ben Johnson) and all of which are the frequent haunts of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), high school seniors and best friends. They co-captain the school's terrible football team, which is such a disappointment that no citizen of Anarene will let that fact go unmentioned in their presence.
Duane goes steady with Jacy, the town beauty (a beguiling Cybill Shepherd in her screen debut) and Sonny halfheartedly takes out Charlene (Sharon Taggart) until they both get so bored with each other they quit. Everyone is going about the routine exercise of getting rid of their virginity, either through marriage or sport. Their efforts are unromantic and perfunctory in that way teenagers can have about hurrying into adulthood; no one is having an especially good time. Jacy in particular is anxious for excitement. She's already aware that her beauty has power, a fact her mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), a vivacious looker herself, is trying to help her navigate. Lois is my favorite. I can't imagine anyone not falling at least a little bit in love with Lois.
One day, the football coach, a terrible man who uses a spit cup, asks Sonny to take his wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman), to the lady doctor in another town. We never do find out what's wrong with her medically, but she is desperately lonely and unhappy. She and Sonny begin an affair, which starts out bumbling and uncomfortable -- because he's a CHILD and she's a married forty-something -- but which turns into a tender romance that makes Ruth blossom. A fact everyone notices.
The boys and their friends get the town prostitute to sleep with Billy, a mentally challenged kid who doesn't speak. Sonny usually treats Billy kindly, almost like a brother, so when Billy gets a bloody nose from the prostitute, Sam bans the boys from his businesses for treating the boy so badly. Sonny, whose father is the town drunk and whose mother we don't hear about at all, is deeply upset at himself for disappointing his father figure. Sam relents after a bit and the two make up.
Meanwhile, Jacy is flirting with the country club set. She attends a risque pool party and sets her cap for the richest boy there. He will have nothing to do with virgins, so she finally lets Duane go "all the way" (after a false start). Jacy is unimpressed on several levels and breaks up with Duane, who decides to join the Army to drown his sorrows. The rich boy Jacy wanted runs off and gets married, which was totally not the plan, so she seduces her mother's boyfriend, Abilene, in Sam's pool hall. But Abilene is a grown-ass man who does not play games. Except pool, apparently; he has his own cue. Lois is disappointed, but more on Jacy's behalf than in her lover's inconstancy.*
But a bored Jacy is a dangerous Jacy. She sets her cap for Sonny, who has always had a thing for her. Sonny takes the bait and drops Ruth without a word. Jacy thinks it would be exciting to elope, which they do, and immediately regrets it. She secretly calls her parents to waylay the two and have the marriage annulled. Eventually, Jacy is whisked off to college, leaving Sonny to take a hard look at his actions.
Everyone has an opinion about Sonny's behavior. Especially Duane, who, back on leave, beats the crap out of him for dating Jacy, nearly blinding him with a beer bottle. They make up right before Duane ships off to Korea and take a trip to Mexico to blow off some steam. When they come back with the world's biggest hangovers, they learn that Sam the Lion has died, leaving Sonny the pool hall.
I realize I've spoiled most of the picture and it's nearly over, but I won't ruin the ending, except to say that it's sad and strange and includes the scene that probably won Cloris Leachman the Academy Award that year for Best Supporting Actress. Bogdanovich's direction and Robert Surtees' gorgeous black-and-white cinematography make this one of the best coming of age films out there. My only complaint is that the soundtrack -- although fantastic: Hank Williams, Jo Stafford, etc. -- often comes through louder than the dialog. I don't remember it being that way on the big screen, so it may be an unfortunate feature of the digital rendering. The movie is so beautifully and necessarily quiet otherwise; it does not seem like the director's choice.
Still. The Last Picture Show is a wonderful film about lost love, friendship, and the families we make.
* Lois is great.
This post is my entry for the Texas Blogathon, hosted by the Midnite Drive-In.
Lots of great writers bloggin' about great pitchers and such.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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