“I’ve been around that trashy behavior all my life; I’m gettin’ tired of puttin’ up with it. ” — Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion
Even if “The Last Picture Show ” (1971), a sociocultural study of angst, romantic disillusion and cultural disintegration told amidst the windswept dirt of a small North Texas town, were director Peter Bogdanovich’s only movie, his legacy as an inventive, soul-searching filmmaker would be assured. Sharing screenwriting credits with Larry McMurtry, scribe of Western sagas extraordinaire, Bogdanovich taps into a foretelling rudiment of today’s small-town mores and folkways.
One generation from the dire exigencies of the Dust Bowl, the cluster of folks who comprise the economically despairing Anarene, Texas, circa 1951, share no collective plan, let alone a goal.
For the most part uneducated, their ethos doesn’t go beyond the bare realities of survival — success being judged by an adherence to a provincialism so ingrained that thoughts of loftier horizons are rarely more imaginative than simply moving to the big city.
Here, there is little luxury of higher thought, and whether by design, an acknowledgement to the numerical odds or convenient oversight, there is no discernible dedication to the commonweal.
Rather, and to buffer any inclination for pre-tribal, dog-eat-dog competition, an emphasis on personal relationships permeates the society: i.e., Everyone knows everyone’s business. But, for want of any explanation more ambitious than the basic tenets of the least funny Mr. Marx, it’s all about the Benjamins.
Which is why many of the males in Anarene about to graduate high school, apprehensively wafting between youth and manhood, sure would like to win the hand of Cybil Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow. Her oil mogul daddy, representing the only visible wealth or source of employment for miles around, would ensure a secure future for the right son-in-law.
We certainly hope this doesn’t cause a bone of contention between best friends Sonny Crawford and Duane Johnson, superbly portrayed by Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, respectively. Both favorites of Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion, who owns the town luncheonette, pool hall and the of-late failing title movie house, the story centers around their unmistakable bond and their devotion to Sam, surrogate dad, man’s man and Anarene’s tacitly acknowledged moral conscience.
However, while it is the optimistic inkling that Sonny could actualize his greater inner potential — if only the stars would cooperate — that wins our greatest focus, there are few films that possess such a rich panoply of absorbingly magnetic character studies. Ben Johnson’s Oscar-winning portrait of the heroic mentor is the epitome of down-home integrity and horse sense. And, at the other end of the self-worth spectrum, Cloris Leachman’s love-starved wife of a neglectful gym teacher, also gifted a statuette by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, painfully dabs the quintessence of isolation.
Less severe in nature but nonetheless indispensable to the tangling and unraveling of the group dynamics so absorbingly wrought by the ensemble cast of veterans and ingenues alike, Ellen Burstyn is spot-on as the sexy realist who made a certain hubby become rich. Whereas Jacy, the beautiful daughter she attempts to dissuade from the impractical notions of love and passion, is exacted with vixenish threat in Shepherd’s first movie role.
But there’s a bittersweet secret within that dynamic that warms the cockles of your heart, causes you a tear, and groks the philosophical tenderness that lies one spiritual layer of dust beneath Bogdanovich’s brilliant decision to film his masterpiece in black and white. Doubtless, no seminar in American cinema would be complete without a discussion analyzing how much of “The Last Picture Show’s” success is owed to the wasteland effect the bold choice realizes.
It’s as atmospheric as all get out, the cowpoke heritage, an occasional tumbling tumbleweed ruffling the dust, and the quiet desperation of lonely hearts emoted through the melodic knowing of country music favorites you’d be apt to hear on that little Philco in 1951. Yet, for all the adult themes set against this backdrop of fatalism and resignation, sure as a tree grows in Brooklyn, a coming of age tale in rural Texas won’t be denied its albeit brief day in the sun.
Sonny and Duane laugh, squabble, dare to allow fleeting dreams and, in an economy class observance of the rites of passage, do all the hormonally inspired incautions one files for fond recollection, regret and misty second-guessing. Ah, youth, you say as they as they are about to jaunt to Mexico for the weekend in Sonny’s jalopy of a pickup: two emerging men in search of emotional El Dorado.
With Sam the Lion bidding them bon voyage at the curb, generously asking if they’re fixed OK for cash, vague longing in his eyes for those salad days affirm the sanctity of such undertakings. And the teenager in you wants to go with them … oh how you’d like to go with them.
“The Last Picture Show, ” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Ben Johnson, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd. Running time: 118 minutes
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