Saturday 9 June 2012

Movie Review: The Last Picture Show (1971)

The lives and loves of the residents of a small Texas town in the early 1950s, The Last Picture Show is monumentally winsome. Peter Bogdanovich creates a memorable set of complex characters who take a life of their own, and live on in movie folklore despite the irreversible fading away of their town.

High school seniors and friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are facing an uncertain future. Sonny is sensitive and caring, and always looks after the mute Billy the street sweeper (Sam Bottoms). Duane is brash and confident, and more aggressively seeks a path to a better life. Their town of Anarene is dusty, windy, and exists solely to support nearby oil fields. The town's unofficial leader is Sam "the Lion" (Ben Johnson), who attempts to be a positive influence on the lives of the local teenagers and owns the movie theatre, pool hall, and cafe, where waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) works.

Sonny does not much care for his girlfriend, and is soon having an affair with the much older Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), with the semi-tacit approval of her husband, the High School athletics coach. Duane very much likes his girlfriend, town beauty Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd). But Jacy's mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) thinks that Duane is not worthy of her daughter. Lois herself is not satisfied with her husband and seeks the affection of oilman Abilene (Clu Gulager).

Jacy uses Duane to lose her virginity and dumps him, turning her attention to older men and richer boys, including the oleaginous Lester (Randy Quaid). A shock awaits Sonny and Duane when they return from an impromptu trip to Mexico, and their lives are set on a nasty collision path involving Jacy. The teenagers need to become men in a hurry, as the destiny of the movie theatre and Anarene itself look ever more bleak.

Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay with Marty McMurtry, the author of the semi-autobiographical book, and filmed The Last Picture Show in brilliant black and white. The stark contrasts enhance the film's overall mood of an era of innocence ending, and a town crawling to a dusty death. Bogdanovich cajoles mature performances from a relatively inexperienced cast, Bottoms, Bridges and Shepherd creating characters desperately seeking better futures while struggling through a mundane present.

Timothy Bottoms gives Sonny a somewhat resigned persona as someone who makes the most out of opportunities that come to him rather than creating his own path in life. Sonny's relationship with Ruth is arranged by the coach; he unexpectedly inherits a business; and his relationship with Jacy is very much instigated at her initiative. Meanwhile Bridges portrays Duane as a scrapper who will have to fight for everything in life, and who will therefore lose most of what he values and hurt those who care for him.

Cybill Shepherd effortlessly provides Jacy with a dangerous innocence that becomes increasingly formidable the more she listens to her mother. Openly using sex as a siren to lure men, Jacy's means of escaping the drudgery of life in Anarene is to test drive lovers, with her mother's encouragement, until she finds the one who offers the best chance of easier riches. Jacy and Lois are a daunting mother / daughter couple and make for compelling viewing while representing a harsh indictment of some women's mores in small town Texas.

The countryside is wide open, the roads narrow and bumpy, the cars and trucks are battered, the paint on the walls is peeling, the old men are weathered, and the adults wear an expression of being in a constant battle for economic survival. And the ever present howling wind blows incessantly through Anarene, almost insisting that the town be blown off the map.

Only Billy the street sweeper appears to have the optimism to fight on for the future of the town, tirelessly sweeping the streets, until he too is forced to give up. The Last Picture Show is never more poignant than when the last cheerful light is turned off.

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