Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Texas, the 1950s. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are growing up in
the small town of Anarene, and are finding life confining. They are desperate for something
more, but what? Sonny starts an affair with a lonely older woman (Cloris Leachman), while
Duane begins to see Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), but their relationship is not destined to
be an easy one.
The Last Picture Show is about the end of an era, symbolised by the death of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the owner of the pool hall where Sonny, Duane and their friends congregate, and by the closing of the only cinema in town. It's a study of small-town life and desperation, and quite a downbeat picture it is too. It's not a film that offers easy answers, but observes real characters in complex situations.
The film was based on a novel by Texan author Larry McMurtry, who collaborated with Peter Bogdanovich on the screenplay. McMurtry's other novels include Horseman, Pass By (filmed as Hud), Lonesome Dove and, rather bizarrely in this context, Terms Of Endearment. Bogdanovich was a former critic steeped in the history of Hollywood. In this, his second and best film, he adopted a classic character-led form though added contemporary levels of permissiveness with regard to sexual content and nudity. The Last Picture Show was the first major studio production since 1967 to be shot in black and white, and Robert Surtees' camerawork is a standout: nostalgic, but at the same time grittily realistic and bleak. Most of the cast were newcomers, though the acting honours went to the older ones, John Ford veteran Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, the only Oscar winners from eight nominations.
As with Bogdanovich's friend and mentor Orson Welles, the only way after this was down. Paper Moon and What's Up Doc? certainly have their moments but a string of box office turkeys brought Bogdanovich low and his talent has sparked only intermittently in the last 20 years. Some critics (such as Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) have dated the start of his decline from when he left his production-designer wife Polly Platt for Cybill Shepherd. He returned to his greatest success by filming in 1990 McMurtry's own sequel novel, Texasville, which revisited the characters 30 years later. That was a very leisurely film, not without its pleasures, but one that looked completely anachronistic in 1990. By contrast, The Last Picture Show is a character-led film that takes its time, and will undoubtedly seem slow to some people. But stay with it, and be rewarded: this is a key American film of the 1970s.
The Last Picture Show was first released at 118 minutes. The version available on DVD is an extended and definitive cut prepared by Bogdanovich in 1990, which is eight minutes longer (126 minutes at 24 frames per second - 121 with PAL speed-up). The picture is anamorphically enhanced and the sound is the original mono. The extras include a 64-minute documentary The Last Picture Show: A Look Back, a six-minute featurette about the cinema reissue, the trailer and filmographies.