Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stubs - The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show (1971) Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Sharon Taggart. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Screenplay by Larry McMurtry, Peter Bogdanovich. Based on the novel The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry (New York, 1966). Produced by Stephen J. Friedman. USA Run time: 118 minutes. Black and White. Drama

Sometimes films that have gotten big praise don’t always live up to it when you finally see them. Such was the case with Five Easy Pieces and I can now add The Last Picture Show to that list. I wasn’t really planning to watch the film, though I had hoped to possibly record it for future viewing when it was recently on TCM. However, at the last minute, I caught the film in progress, and while I was able to go back to the beginning, I couldn’t record it, so I, along with my family, had to watch it.

This is one of those films that I wasn’t able to see when it first came out since I was too young at the time for an R rating. And somehow, through the years I only seemed to catch the film already in progress. So, for 49 years, I had missed seeing this film.

The story goes that Sal Mineo brought the book to Bogdanovich’s attention, saying he would have wanted to be in the film if he wasn’t already too old. Working with author Larry McMurty, Bogdanovich adapted the book for the movies, making some minor changes along the way, including renaming the town from Thalia, Texas to Anarene. In reality, the book is based on McMurty’s upbringing in Archer City, which is where the film was mostly shot. While residents weren’t happy with McMurty’s take on their town, many locals found their way into the film.

Anarene, Texas is a dying small town.

The film opens one morning in November 1951. Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), co-captains of the dismal high school football team in Anarene, TX, shrug off insults about the team’s last game of the season. More than one local asks them if they’ve ever heard of tackling, and another is amazed that they can actually catch something.

Sonny seeks refuge in the pool hall owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the aging but still vital cowboy who owns the pool hall, as well as the small town’s café and movie theater. Also, there is Sam’s ward, the mute, gentle Billy (Sam Bottoms). Billy has a penchant for sweeping, including outside in the street in the wind.

Sam (Ben Johnson) runs some small businesses in town, including the pool hall.

Sonny and Duane have breakfast at the café, run by salty-tongued waitress Genevieve (Ellen Burstyn), and discuss their usual Saturday night plans of seeing the “picture show” and necking with their girlfriends in the pickup they apparently jointly own.

Sonny goes to work in the oilfields and that night, while Duane and his girlfriend, Jacy Farrow (Cybil Sheppard), take the first turn in the pickup, Sonny joins his girl, Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart), in the theater. Charlene complains that Sonny has forgotten their one-year anniversary, but Sonny is more interested in watching Jacy, the most beautiful and wealthy girl in town, as she and Duane come into the theater and begin to kiss right in front of them.

Later, Sonny and Charlene then take their turn in the pickup, but the frustrated Sonny, longing to do more than fondle Charlene’s breasts, ends their stale relationship when she becomes petulant. Later at the café, Genevieve comforts Sonny and wonders why both he and Duane live in a boardinghouse rather than with their parents.

Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy (Cybil Shepherd) in class. Looks are everything.

At basketball practice one afternoon, Coach Popper (Bill Thurman) offers to get Sonny excused from class the next day if he will drive the coach’s wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to her doctor’s appointment, and Sonny agrees.

Lois (Ellen Burstyn) doesn't want Jacy (Cybil Shepherd) to marry Duane.

That night, Jacy is confronted by her alcoholic mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who does not want her daughter to marry Duane and waste her youth like she did. She advises her to instead sleep with him to learn that there is “nothing magic about it.” Jacy is shocked or at least pretends to be.

Then the next day, Sonny arrives at Coach’s home to pick up Ruth. The woman is disappointed that her husband has not come for her himself. During the return trip, Ruth starts to cry, although she tells him that there is nothing seriously wrong with her. Afraid to be alone, Ruth invites Sonny in for a soda, but her continuing sobs unsettle him even more, although he timidly tries to comfort her.

Fast forward to the town’s Christmas dance, Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid), one of Jacy’s country club friends, asks her to come to a midnight swimming party at the home of wealthy Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette) in Wichita Falls. He tells her that there will probably be nude swimming, as Bobby’s parents are out of town.

Eager for excitement, Jacy consents, and then schemes on how to end her date with Duane. Perturbed to see Lois dancing with Abilene (Clu Gulager), the oil driller with whom Lois is having an affair, Jacy lures Duane to the pickup. There, Duane gives Jacy his Christmas present, a watch, and Jacy, hoping to distract him, places his hand under her skirt before announcing that her mother had ordered her to attend the swimming party with Lester. Duane is not too pleased about the situation and confronts Lester about it. Their fight is broken up and Lester escapes with Jacy.

Sonny and Ruth (Cloris Leachman) share a moment at the Christmas dance.

Meanwhile, Sonny helps Ruth clean up and while they are outside, they engage in a passionate kiss and he agrees to take her to the doctor the next week.

In Wichita Falls, Lester introduces Jacy to Bobby and his crowd of sexually adventurous friends. Jacy is told that as part of an initiation, newcomers have to strip on the diving board for all to see. Jacy, eager to attract Bobby’s attention, willingly strips. Jumping into the pool, she too late realizes that she’s ruined Duane’s gift but shrugs it off.

Apparently, Duane's Christmas present isn't waterproof, but Jacy doesn't seem to care.

Back at Anarene, the boys are looking for something to do. Duane suggests that they buy a hooker for Billy so that he will not die a virgin. Sonny tries to stop them but soon Billy is in the back seat of a car with a local waitress, Jimmie Sue (Helena Humann). She gets angered by Billy’s fumbling and bloodies his nose when he prematurely ejaculates on her.

When the group returns Billy to Sam’s pool hall, Sam questions them while Duane hides. Upon hearing what the boys have done, Sam condemns their “trashy behavior” and bans them from entering his businesses. Duane pretends to have fallen asleep in the car, and as the weeks pass, continues to patronize Sam’s establishments. Sonny is forced to stay away and is obviously lonesome for Sam, whom he deeply admires, as well as Billy and Genevieve. He will later cruise by the establishments just to see them.

In the meantime, Sonny begins an affair with Ruth, although during their first encounter, Ruth is so horrified by the loud squeaking of the bedsprings that she cannot enjoy herself.

Several weeks later, Sonny enters the café and Genevieve, while reprimanding him for his treatment of Billy, allows him to stay and makes him a hamburger. She also attempts to caution him about his affair with Ruth, which is common knowledge, but Sonny remains silent. Things get tense when Sam and Billy enter, but after Billy joyfully greets his friend, Sam forgives Sonny and allows him to stay.

Sam (Ben Johnson) takes Sonny and Billy (Sam Bottoms) fishing.

Later, Sam takes Sonny and Billy fishing and reminisces about a time twenty years earlier when he brought a young lady friend swimming at the same spot. Although they were in love, she was already married and Sam lost her.

Meanwhile, in Wichita Falls, Jacy attends another party at Bobby’s. Once again, she is with Lester, but instead of swimming, it’s a make-out session. She grows tired of Lester’s bumbling with her buttons and goes off to the kitchen, looking for Bobby. He reaches for her crotch and asks if she is a virgin. When Jacy admits that she is, Bobby tells her to come back when she’s not.

Back in town, a bored Sonny and Duane decide to go to Mexico for the weekend. They stop at Sam’s pool hall and he wishes he could go with them and gives them some money, just in case.

Duane and Sonny learn that Sam has died while they were in Mexico.

When they return, tired and hungover, they find the café and pool hall both closed, which is highly unusual. They soon learn that Sam has died from a stroke on New Year’s Eve. In his will, Sam leaves the movie theater to Miss Jessie Mosey (Jessie Lee Fulton), who runs the theater's concession counter, the café to Genevieve and the pool hall to Sonny, which stuns the young man.

Jacy wants Duane to take her virginity.

Later, in the spring, the senior class attends their class picnic in Wichita Falls and Jacy plans a rendezvous with Duane so that she can be rid of her virginity. The excitement and pressure make Duane impotent, although he is successful upon their second attempt after graduation.

Duane is successful with Jacy the second time they try to have sex.

Ruth has blossomed under Sonny’s attention and fallen in love with him. As a graduation gift, she gives Sonny a wallet. Meanwhile, Jacy breaks up with Duane, telling him that she would rather be with Bobby.

Ruth seems to blossom while having an affair with Sonny.

Heartbroken, Duane leaves town for an oil-drilling job in Odessa. Jacy’s plans, however, go awry, when after Bobby has sex with her, he marries another of his girlfriends.

One night, bored and lonely, Jacy is sitting at home when Abilene arrives to see Lois. Flirting outrageously, Jacy asks Abilene to take her to the pool hall with him. Even though it is after hours, Abilene has his own key and lets them in. Alone, he has sex with Jacy on a pool table. Upon their return, however, Abilene treats Jacy coldly, and when she sees her mother, Jacy breaks into tears.

Lois doesn’t seem to be bothered by Jacy’s liaison with her lover. While she is comforting her daughter, Lois mentions Ruth and Sonny’s relationship, and Jacy, who was unaware of Sonny’s liaison, is suddenly intrigued with him. She is also aware of Sonny’s longtime crush on her. Jacy becomes determined to win Sonny away from Ruth and begins to date him, promising that eventually they will spend the night together. Intoxicated, Sonny lets Ruth wait for him and goes off with Jacy.

The summer passes until one day, Duane comes home for a visit and questions Sonny about Jacy. Sonny admits that they have been dating and as the confrontation grows more heated, Sonny reveals that Jacy told him about Duane’s impotence, which makes him furious. Duane smashes his beer bottle against Sonny’s temple, nearly blinding him. While he is in the hospital, Sonny refuses to see Ruth and Duane leaves town again and joins the army.

Sonny and Jacy drive off to get married.

Later, when Sonny returns home, Jacy, who is thrilled to be the center of attention due to the fight over her, tells him they should elope. Eagerly anticipating having sex with Jacy, Sonny acquiesces, but after they are married and are driving home, Jacy reveals that she left a note for her parents detailing their plans. Sonny is crushed when they are stopped by a patrolman and Jacy is driven home by her furious father, who arranges for the marriage to be annulled. Jacy, who wanted only to heighten her notoriety, is pleased.

State Troopers pull Sonny and Jacy over right after their marriage.

A resigned Lois drives Sonny back to Anarene. From the way she talks, Sonny realizes she is the woman Sam had spoken about and she admits that she was the woman with whom Sam had the affair twenty years earlier.

Joe Bob Blanton (Barc Doyle), the preacher’s kid, is always shown as being withdrawn and awkward. However, we find out that he is also a pedophile when he kidnaps a young girl. He apparently doesn’t molest her but he is tracked down, arrested and sent to jail.

In the fall, Sonny watches the school football team play and learns that Duane is home on leave. Both dreading and needing to see his friend before he ships out for Korea, Sonny finds Duane and asks if he wants to attend the picture show, as Miss Mosey is being forced to close it due to lack of business and her own lack of business acumen. Duane agrees and the boys spend that evening watching the last movie to be shown at the theater, Red River.

In the morning, Duane admits that if he had married Jacy, her father would have forced them to get an annulment, too. Duane gives Sonny his car to take care of while he’s away. Soon after Duane leaves, Sonny is in the pool hall when he hears the screech of brakes in the street and rushes outside to discover that Billy has been hit and killed by a trucker who did not see him. Billy had been sweeping in the street as usual. While the townspeople who gather talk about Billy as a simpleton, Sonny drags his friend’s body to the sidewalk, where he carefully covers him.

Grief-stricken, Sonny then drives to Ruth’s. She lets him in but tells him off, breaking her heart. Although Ruth tells Sonny that he has ruined what there was between them when he tenderly takes one of her hands, she caresses him in return and tells him, “Never you mind, honey, never you mind.”

Ben Johnson won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

The film received some very glowing reviews, including one in Newsweek that declared: “It is not merely the best American movie of a rather dreary year; it is the most impressive work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.” High praise indeed, especially considering Bogdanovich’s friendship and respect for Orson Welles. Both Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively, and the film received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress (Burstyn) and Best Supporting Actor (Bridges).

Having been set in small-town Texas in 1951, there is a lot of Hank Williams music and surprisingly a lot of nudity. It should come as no surprise in the pre-rock and roll era being depicted that there would be lots of country music on the radio. That’s what the kids are listening to. The soundtrack is filled with songs from this time, about a third of which are Williams’ classics sung by him and Tony Bennett. The songs appear to be there to set the mood and not propel the story forward.

The nudity might come as a surprise, though I think its Hollywood films themselves that have set my expectations. The Production Code that was in place until 1968 forbade nudity, so when you watch a film from that time, set in that time, you get the feeling that the whole world was somehow more chaste than it really was. These were teenage boys and girls and they’ve been having sex as long as there have been teenaged boys and girls. It was sort of like the first time I saw Patton, I didn’t realize they cursed in the 1940s until then.

There are a few things that the movie apparently changes from the book. Besides the town’s name, there is also the sexual preference of the basketball coach, who in the book is a homosexual, explaining perhaps why his wife is crying and looking for love from Sonny. This for some reason is omitted from the movie. Perhaps it is one subplot too many but it would have helped explain things a little better.

The acting is pretty good all around, though most of these are really very one-dimensional characters and a lot of what we learn about them is through exposition, which can be somewhat forgiven, especially with the story about Sam the Bull and Lois. I think Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson were good in their roles but they seem to be the ones who show the most change and emotion in the film. Ruth goes from a desperate wife to a satisfied lover and Sam is sort of the behind-the-scenes lynchpin that is holding the town and the story together.

Even though Jacy is pretty much a single-minded character, Cybil Shepherd does well in her first acting turn. You can always tell when she’s scheming, actually trying to use her sexuality to get a better social status or at least notoriety.

Jeff Bridges, as Duane, is also good but again, it’s like there is a switch and he goes from friendly to angry at the drop of a hat. He comes across as a little bipolar in that respect. It’s good in that case that he’s not the center of the film. That belongs to Timothy Bottoms as Sonny.

Everything pretty much happens in and around Sonny in the film. There are very few frames that Bottoms is not in and when he’s not on screen, the chances are pretty good that someone is waiting for him. But even then, he keeps a lot inside. The only time we really seem him get emotional is when Billy is killed at the end of the film. Otherwise, he’s a pretty cool customer moving from relationship to relationship throughout but as when he runs into his father, not really confronting his feelings. Sonny is a bit of an anti-hero, in that he never really seems to do anything or even take charge of his life. His earlier relationship with Charlene is already dead on arrival when the film starts, so breaking up seems inevitable. He’s almost a drifter in his own story, going where the winds blow him.

There is a real art house quality to the film, starting with its black and white cinematography, somewhat of a rarity when the film was made. It adds to the nostalgic quality of the film and reminiscent of the films that were made at the time this film takes place. It’s like looking back at the past at someone’s black and white photos. The photography also adds to the bleakness of Anarene, a town that seems like it’s on the verge of dying.

Then there is the almost non-Hollywood ending. Billy’s needless death is a real down note and the scene with Sonny and Ruth leaves the film with an ambiguous ending. Is there a real future in this relationship? These are the kinds of things film reviewers were looking for in films at this time. Films were growing free of the shackles of the Production Code and the old way of doing things. So, I think the praise it received when it was released is a reflection of the time as much as anything else.

However, times have changed and the film is rather an unsatisfying way to spend nearly two hours. Hollywood, for all the criticism for being formulaic, knew how to tell a film and keep it moving forward. The pace of this film is sort of slow and the characters aren’t really all that appealing. If you knew them, you probably wouldn’t want to spend this much time with them if you could avoid it. The best way to avoid them is to not watch The Last Picture Show.

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