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The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

Bogdanovich's second feature, co-scripted with novelist Larry McMurtry, digs deep into both the setting and the characters of the small, dusty, dying Texas oiltown of Anarene in 1951/2. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are best friends and senior football players on the high school's lousy team, but the only times they have to look forward to are dates at the town's movie theater and hanging out at the local pool hall/cafe. Both establishments are run by Sam the Lion (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ben Johnson) who serves as a Father Figure to the friends, as well as their mute friend Billy (Sam Bottoms). Duane's girl is the prettiest teenager in town, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), but she's well aware of how to use her looks to control boys and get what she wants.

*Ben Johnson turned down the role three times because he said it had "too many words". After speaking with John Ford and getting assurance from Bogdanovich that an Oscar would be in his future, he finally signed on for the film. In-joke: There's a movie poster in this film's Royal Theater of Ford's Wagon Master (1950), a film which gave Johnson his first lead role.

Although told in an episodic fashion, the film progresses chronogically from the ending of 1951's football season to the beginning of 1952's football season. Sonny begins an affair with the lonely wife (Cloris Leachman, who nabbed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role) of his football/basketball coach, and there's an honest sharing and communication between the two characters. Jacy not only tries to get Duane jealous over geeky Lester (Randy Quaid) but Sonny himself. We also come to know about Jacy's worldly-wise mom Lois (Ellen Burstyn) and Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the big-hearted waitress who works for Sam.

Aside from the complex characters and wonderful performances, probably the most-memorable thing about The Last Picture Show is how real it seems. Bruce Surtees' black-and-white cinematography really makes you feel as if you're back in the early '50s in the middle of Nowheresville. The sets are stripped-down and almost austerely believeable for a place populated by mostly poor people who have either already missed out on their chance at life or may well end up going to the Korean War to find their ultimate destiny. If I'm painting what appears to be a harsh picture, I don't really want to go overboard. The film is liberally sprinkled with witty dialogue and situations, and the soundtrack is overflowing with popular tunes of the day, including those by Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray. There is also quite a bit of sex and nudity (if that floats your... boat). It all adds up to a powerful motion picture experience.