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Film / The Last Picture Show

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The Last Picture Show is a 1971 American drama film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, adapted from a semi-autobiographical 1966 novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry (with a screenplay by McMurtry and Bogdanovich).

The film is set in Anarene, a tiny town on the north Texas plains, between November 1951 and October 1952 (the town is called Thalia in the novel). Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) is a high school senior, and leads a typical life for a teenage boy in his town: he plays on the school football team, goes to movies at the town's only theater, which, along with the town pool hall, is run by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), and pursues relationships with girls, accompanied by his best friend Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), the charismatic captain of the football team. Duane is currently dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd in her film debut), the school's homecoming queen, who is fiercely protected by her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) as she grooms her for adulthood.

But as Anarene's young people get ready to become adults, the town's adults lead unhappy lives, filled with bad marriages and affairs. Sonny gets drawn into this when he falls in love with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the shy wife of the school's athletic coach. Meanwhile, the Jacy/Duane relationship gets strained and Jacy and Sonny start seeing each other, which naturally puts a wedge between Sonny and Duane. But as life goes on the people of Anarene must learn to cope with unexpected losses and sweeping changes to their world.

With a stellar cast that also included Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Randy Quaid (in his film debut), and John Hillerman, it was shot in black and white for aesthetic and technical reasons, which was unusual for its time.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and four nominations for acting: Ben Johnson and Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor, and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman for Best Supporting Actress. It won two: Johnson and Leachman.

Bogdanovich and most of the cast reunited for the sequel Texasville in 1990.

This film provides examples of:

  • The '50s: Small-town Texas in the early 1950s where the teenagers listen to pop and country (Rock and Roll wasn't yet mainstream) and where the teenagers watch Father of the Bride (1950) starring Elizabeth Taylor.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The novel's Duane Moore becomes Duane Jackson.
  • Affectionate Gesture to the Head: Sonny often shows his affection towards Billy by taking his cap off and putting it back on.
  • Awful Wedded Life: A huge theme of the story.
    Sonny: Is being married always so miserable?
    Sam the Lion: Not really. About eighty percent of the time, I guess.
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • For Sonny, Charlene Duggs is Betty and Jacy Farrow is Veronica, but after he breaks up with Charlene, he admits that they didn't really like each other anyway.
    • At first blush, it seems like Jacy has a male version with Sonny as Betty and Duane as Veronica, but her Veronica ends up being Bobby Sheen, the handsome rich kid who holds the swim parties, but who rejects her because she's a virgin.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sonny loses Jacy, who honestly was really not that interested in the first place and used him as a tool to piss off her parents. Duane leaves for the army. The Dying Town gets that much closer to dead as the movie theater closes. And poor Billy is struck and killed in the street by a truck. The only thing that leavens the ending somewhat is the reconciliation between Sonny and Ruth at the end, with her taking his hand and saying "Never you mind."
  • Book Ends: The film closes with a reverse of the pan shot seen in the opening.
  • Celebrity Paradox: A poster for the film Wagon Master, which starred Ben Johnson, is seen at the theatre. Johnson also worked as a stuntman on Red River, which ends up being the actual "last picture show."
  • Coming of Age Story: Sonny leaving childish things behind, as he and the other kids graduate from high school and have to start the adult world.
  • Cool Old Guy: Sam the Lion, who acts a mentor to the boys and doesn't talk down to them.
  • Cool Shades: Lois wears them. Abilene's aviator shades are also worth mentioning, though for a Texas oil driller they're more functional than a fashion choice.
  • Creator Cameo: That's Peter Bodganovich's voice as the radio DJ.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The football game played the night before the story starts was a hugely humiliating loss for the Anarene team. The basketball team doesn't fare much better, losing one game by a score of 121-14!
  • Deadpan Snarker: Sam the Lion, and Genevieve the waitress.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: It was something of a Trope Maker for the artistic use of this after color finally became the Hollywood default. Upon selecting the town of Archer City, Texas, as a filming location, production designer Polly Platt and Bogdanovich decided that the town should have a bleak, colorless look about it. After considering several options, such as painting all the buildings gray, Platt and Bogdanovich consulted close friend Orson Welles about the viability of shooting the film in black and white. Welles simply said, "Of COURSE you'll shoot it in black and white!"
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: A major set piece early in the film takes place at a big community Christmas party.
  • Dying Town: Anarene, Texas; changed from Thalia, Texas in the novel.
  • Fille Fatale: Jacy, "the only pretty girl in town" according to Genevieve, is no stranger to using her looks to manipulate the males in her life.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Almost the case with Jacy and Sonny. Seemed to be the right thing to do in The '50s.
  • Glass Eye: Sonny ends up with one after Duane hits him with a beer bottle in a fight
  • Hangover Sensitivity: Duane comes back in rough shape after he and Sonny went on a spree in Mexico.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Averted. Jimmie Sue, the drive-in restaurant owner who moonlights as the town hooker, is probably the single most loathsome character, for her downright rude treatment of Billy.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Sam coughs a bit in the opening scene, then later dies from a stroke.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals: It takes place on the dusty Texas plains, so this gets averted.
  • The Last Title: It's called The Last Picture Show because the movie theater is forced to close due to lack of business after Sam dies.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Happens to Duane when he first tries to deflower Jacy.
  • Love Dodecahedron: There's the core triangle of Duane/Jacy/Sonny, then things branch far and wide from there.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Abilene and Jacy, on a snooker table.
  • Melodrama: In a lot of ways, the film is a Deconstruction of the classic melodramas of The '50s. The ingredients are all there — sexual shenanigans in a small town, a love triangle, a married woman engages in a forbidden romance, more than one tragic death — but it's all played in a very naturalistic, non-sensational way. And in contrast to the Technicolor cinematography of the classic melodramas, this is done in stark monochrome.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Sonny starts a relationship with Ruth Popper, the 40-year-old wife of the high school football/basketball coach. It's also implied that Jacy's mother Lois might be attracted to him (in the novel they do in fact have a sexual encounter on the way back from Oklahoma).
  • New Old West: Though the film doesn't deal with a lot of the classic themes and plot elements of The Western, it was clearly influenced by the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford. Having familiar Western character actors in the cast like Ben Johnson (Sam) and Clu Gulager (Abilene) also adds to this feel.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: McMurtry was very upfront that Thalia (in the novel)/Anarene (in the film) is a fictionalized version of his hometown Archer City, which is also where the film was made.
  • Nothing but Hits: This was a Trope Maker for using hit songs as a way to establish a period feel in a film, but there's an admirably eclectic choice of pop and Country Music hits from the early 1950s, ranging from ballads to uptempo numbers to novelty songs.
  • The One That Got Away: When he goes fishing with Sonny, Sam the Lion reminisces about an old lover, who he used to go skinny-dipping with, regretting that they couldn't stay together because they were both married. Later, comments made by Lois to Sonny reveal that she was the woman, and that she gave him the nickname "the Lion".
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: The film has no score, but lots of songs from The '50s played on radios and record players, with Hank Williams as the dominant artist.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ruth gives one of these to Sonny at the end.
  • Re-Cut: Columbia Pictures mandated that the film had to be under two hours in its original release (it ended up as 118 minutes). In The '90s Peter Bogdanovich did a director's cut with eight additional minutes, which is the version that currently circulates
  • Running Gag: The townsfolk ribbing the guys for their inability to tackle during football games.
  • Sequel: Texasville, McMurtry's sequel to the original novel, was itself adapted for the screen by Bogdanovich in 1990. Bridges, Shepherd, Leachman, Bottoms, Quaid, and Brennan all reprised their roles.
  • Serious Business: Pool, for the men in town, but especially Abilene, who has his own custom-made cue.
  • Sex Is Liberation: Heavily deconstructed. Almost all the film's sexual pairings end up complicating things for the people involved, though Ruth, who's very shy and uptight before her affair with Sonny, is close to a straight example.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The two main characters watch Red River during the titular "last picture show" at the town's soon-to-be-closing cinema.
    • Another film advertised earlier on the cinema marquee is Winchester '73, starring James Stewart, who, as noted on the Trivia page, was Bogdanovich's first choice to play Sam the Lion.
    • Opening the film with a silent white-on-black title card was a nod to Citizen Kane, as was the frequent use of deep focus shots.
  • Signature Move: For Sam the Lion, rolling cigarettes.
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: On the border of 3 and 4. The main characters and storylines all unfold largely the same way in the both the novel and the film, but the film was forced to allude to a lot of things about the characters that the novel spells out in more detail. The major scene in the novel that didn't make the film is the class going on a senior trip to San Francisco, although the attempts of Duane and Jacy to have sex on the trip did make it into the film in a different context. The novel also has a long sequence depicting the misadventures of Sonny and Duane in Mexico.
  • Small Town Boredom: Anarene has a little over 1,000 people, and the only real economy in town is the dying oil industry. The teens and the adults live restless lives. As summed up by Roger Ebert, it's a story "about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression."
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The intense final scene with Sonny and Ruth has the goofy comedy record "It's in the Book" playing in the background.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Used to devastating effect toward the end, with Sonny exploding over how callous people are acting about Billy's death, then in the final scene where Ruth lets her frustration with Sonny boil over.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Lester Marlow is a self-absorbed rich kid from Wichita Falls who hangs out in Anarene mainly to pursue Jacy.
  • Video Credits: All main characters are shown with face and name in the closing credits.
  • Virgin-Shaming: Jacy and Billy are both recipients of this.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Ruth lets Sonny have an earful of rage after he'd abandoned her for months. At the end, she realizes he's at his Despair Event Horizon too and lets him off the hook, saying, "Never you mind, honey, never you mind."
  • The Voiceless: Billy never says a word throughout the film.