‘The Last Picture Show’ 50The First and Last Movie Of Its Type

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Last month marked 50 years of The Last Picture Show. This title either floods your mind with memories or makes it seem like you’re saying something. “oh yeah, I’ve heard that’s supposed to be good. Should I watch it?”

If you are in the second camp (or, no shame, haven’t heard of it at all), I am here to tell you that, yes, you absolutely should watch this movie. And despite its advanced age (with a visual, black-and-white style that deliberately makes it look even more olde timey), it’s a tale that will always be relevant. Moreover, it’s fun—it’s mostly just hot young famous people being naked all the time. (Aha! (Aha!

Let’s break this down.

Cloris Leachman won the 1972 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Last Picture Show.Photo by Everett Collection

WHO: The Last Picture Show was the film that propelled the wunderkind film dweeb Peter Bogdanovich from critic/scholar/programmer to King of Hollywood. (Yes, he’d already made Targets but that wasn’t nominated for eight Academy Awards.) Bogdanovich would have been the perfect guy to have if the online movie culture of today existed in 1971. He was famously friends with John Ford and Orson Wees. “stans.” (Considering his later supporting role on the ever-popular series The Sopranos, as Dr. Melfi’s therapist Dr. Kupferberg, maybe he does.)

Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with the semi-autobiographical book’s author, Larry McMurtry, whose other works were adapted into the films Hud, Terms of Endearment, and the miniseries Lonesome Dove.

The film’s lead, high school kid Sonny Crawford, is played by Timothy Bottoms, who isn’t exactly a household name, but is just terrific here. His co-stars are Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid (in the film’s first role), Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennen (from Clue! There are a few surprises we need to discuss.

For classic cinephiles, it’s all about Ben Johnson, legendary cowboy actor and John Wayne sidekick whose credits date to the late 1930s. The emotional heart of this film is Sam the Lion’s performance as the wise and brokenhearted older statesman who runs the town’s pool hall, diner and movie theater. Johnson, who was better known for his actions than for his actual performances. “acting”He had to be twisted to star in a movie full of dialogue. Bogdanovich pleaded with him, suggesting that if he took the part he’d win the Academy Award. He was right.

Comedy fans might be a little confused when they see Ruth Popper playing the lonely and sad Ruth Popper. Yes, that is Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein. Cloris Leachman, later on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is remarkable as the housewife who seduces Timothy Bottoms. She also won an Academy Award.

But then there’s the appearance you can’t not talk about, Cybill Shepherd in her first film. Director Bogdanovich, Robert Surtees the cinematographer, and Polly Platt, the costume designer (more about her in a bit), all knew they had lightning inside a bottle. The only reasonable thing to say about Shepherd in The Last Picture Show is she’s the reason God invented cameras.

Photo: Everett Collection

WHAT: It’s 1951 and we’re in a Texas oil town outside Wichita Falls. There’s nothing to do but grouse about the poor school football team and sleep with your neighbors.

Yes, that is true “prestige picture” is just about one of the horniest movies you’ll ever see. It’s wall to wall coupling, and in ways you may not immediately predict. There are many themes that resonate about loneliness, hypocrisy, and social facades. But the movie is essentially about getting it done.

WHERE: We’re in hardcore Texas, flat Texas, dry Texas, with tumbleweeds and high winds and absolutely nothing going on. (Hence the activity above.

The Last Picture Show made a leap from fiction to reality in the moment that Bogdanovich, a 31-year-old filmmaker, became intimate with Cybill Shepherd, a 20-year-old star. (He first saw her on the cover for Glamour magazine.

Director Peter Bogdanovich whispering direction. Or maybe some sweet nothings? Director Peter Bogdanovich whispering direction (or maybe some sweet nothings?) at Cybill Shepherd, 1971.Photo: Everett Collection

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, was on set the whole time, working as production designer (and wearing other hats). The two continued to work together on follow-up films What’s Up Doc? Paper Moon and the rest of Hollywood in the 1970s was a wild land.

WHEN: Released in 1971 at the height rebellious “New Hollywood”It has the look of a younger generation embedded in its DNA (think Taxi Driver or Easy Rider). It’s shot in black and white, with uncharacteristic-for-the-movement longer takes without much camera movement, and on as many real locations as possible. There’s a grit to what they are shooting, but that doesn’t mean the framing isn’t gorgeous. Add the nudity and salty language, it creates a disquieting effect. You feel like you are really watching something from the early 1950s, but it isn’t like any other movie in that setting before or since.

WHY: Why watch it? Okay, enough joking around about the racy scenes—what lingers are the characters. It’s a remarkable portrait of a group of desperate people each searching for happiness when they know there’s nothing waiting for them over the next hill. There are no hills in this part Texas! This movie is bleak as hell, at least for me, but it isn’t depressing, and it certainly isn’t looking down at these people. It is caring. It’s a film that doesn’t really have any true villains, just people who make mistakes.

It is still a curiosity fifty years later. It’s rare to find movies that basically in a category of one. The Last Picture Show was first and last of its kind.

Where can I stream The Last Picture Show?

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