When I embarked on watching and reviewing all of the AFI’s top 100 films, I was excited at the prospect of seeing a lot of the American films that I had not yet seen. It was the perfect excuse to get myself reacquainted with classics of American cinema. I haven’t studied American cinema since my cinema study days in university. After seeing number 95 on the AFI list I wondered why The Last Picture Show (1971) wasn’t introduced to me in class. This film would fit well in any syllabus for a course dealing with American cinema. It looks back longingly at a part of American cinema’s past; a part that was the turning point in both the culture and film industry as a whole. The films starts and ends with a shot of the local independent movie house in the town of Anarene, Texas owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). It is a meeting ground for local youths and the place to go to with your family. What we don’t realize is that the movie house is reaching its end much like the town itself. The first shot of the movie house pans over to show the deserted main street of Anarene. The only sounds you hear are the wind and the only thing you see is the dust moving in the wind. Although the film was made in the early 70’s it very much feels like a film made in the 50’s about the times. It is, however, a film looking nostalgically at the past. The fact that the film was shot in black and white when colour film was the norm is a prime example of this.
The film stars Timothy Bottoms as Sonny Crawford and Jeff Bridges and Duane Jackson, best friends coming of age in a small town. Sonny and Duane are in their senior year, play on the schools disgraced football team, frequent the movie house, and go on dates with their girlfriends. There is not much to their lives, but they are living out their last summer of boyhood and trying to hold on to something that is fading fast, the town, and their adolescence.
Director Peter Bogdanovich casts several newcomers along side established actors launching the careers of Cybill Shepherd, Bridges, and Bottoms. It resulted in clinching best supporting actor Oscars for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson. It’s an incrediblly well chosen cast. As a newbie, Bottoms brings a naiveté to the role of Sonny. Sonny is a boy growning up with no real authority figure and with no real direction. Bottoms captures this with a sense of innocence in facing the harsh realities of life for the first time. Bridges plays to character here that will define the roles he plays for most of his career. He is charming, reckless, and mischievous.When I see the rest of his career in relation to this film, I can see how sure of himself he seemed then and how natural acting is to him overall. Cybill Shepherd, with her stunning beauty, easily keeps up the role of “innocent” teenage vixen turned opportunist. She plays Jacy Farrow, the town beauty that all the boys are in love with. She is the beacon of light in the decaying town. The boys know that if they have her their lives will be better and things will be alright. What they don’t know is that she is no better than anyone else in the town. With one bat of her eyelashes she has all the boys and audience under her spell, then she eats you up and spits you out. The boys are left wondering what they did wrong and the audience is left despising her. It really is something.
Bogdanovich captures the isolation, frustration, and despondence the adult inhabitants of Anarene know all to well, and the youngsters are only beginning to see. With the performances of Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, Ellen Burstyn as Lois Farrow, and Ben Johnson, you see every facet of what this town has become. There is detachment and numbness in Ruth that only abandonment can bring about. Ruth finds some solace when she embarks on an affair with Sonny only to be abandoned by him for Jacy. In a time when everyone was moving away from the small town to bigger cities Ruth’s character reflects the outcome of this abandonment. With no one to take care of the town and nurture it, she and Anarene get left behind. In Farrow you see dissatisfaction and resentment. She sees what is happening to the town and is saddened by it. There is nothing left for her there, even her lover seems to have moved on. She wishes to leave but is unable to because of her family. Sam is the life and breath of Anarene. He owns most of the towns main street. He remembers it in its glory days and is the only thing keeping the town together. With his passing, the town continues in an almost suspended state, unable to fully move forward waiting for its own passing.
The 1950’s was a time when many things were starting to change.
“After the war, many Americans had enough money saved up to purchases homes and cars. Suburban housing sprang up, and many people now commuted to the city center” (Thompson and Bordwell 375). 1
American’s were becoming real consumers buying not just what they needed but what they wanted. The small town was on the decline and cities and suburbs were on the rise. This along with the invention of the television and the growth of leisure activities changed the moving habits of all Americans (Thompson and Bordwell 375). This is clearly pictured in the film in the decaying town with a thick layer of dust over it. It is also seen in Sam’s movie house. At the end of the film the movie house has its final screening as the old concessions lady Sam leaves the theater and is unable to keep it open. She says that with baseball in the summer and televisions in the homes people are just not going to the theater and if Sam had lived he could have kept it open. If Sam had lived it would have stayed open but there still would be no one left around to go to the movie house.
Everyone is either dying off, leaving or just holding on to what is left of Anarene. Those who remain will eventually come to the same fate of the town. Duane joins the military and in the end is sent to Korea with the knowledge that he may not come back. He leaves his car to Sonny to take care of saying to him “I will see you in a year or two if I don’t get shot”. Jacy moves while Sonny stays to take care of the pool hall Sam left him. Without anyone else to turn to he returns to Ruth to find her alone and angry. Knowing that she has no one else she lets him back in. The last we see of them they are sitting in her kitchen and she is reaching out for him.
This movie chronicles the passing of American culture from the small town to the cities. It shows that with that passing there is change. One can either accept the change and adapt or stay the same and get left behind. The film industry adapted to the changes the rise of the cities and television brought upon them. This is why we continue to have theatres to go to today. The people that left that decaying town prospered while those that stayed never really changed. It is easy to say that Sonny never fully matures to any potential that he may have had and Ruth will never rise above the cycle of abandonment. It is a truth that we have all have known and this film communicates beautifully.
* Cloris Leachman accepting the Best Supporting Actress Oscar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuYk6ypdBug
*Director Peter Bogdanovich Becomes A Leading Man at 74: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/director-peter-bogdanovich-becomes-a-659077
*Arthouse cinemas are facing their last picture show: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-blog/10433044/Arthouse-cinemas-are-facing-the-last-picture-show.html