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The Last Picture Show (1971)

December 16, 2010

7/10 Country Bumpkins

Sure is a lot of drama for such a boring place.

The Last Picture Show is about a handful of High School Seniors in the 1950s coming of age in a middle-of-nowhere, dead-end town where teenage hormones rage like wildfire, Hank Williams plays on the radio 24/7, everyone knows each other’s business and the only escape is a single-screen movie theater down the block. As flings blossom, hearts break and friendships are put to the test, these young adults quickly find themselves coming face-to-face with their own futures in a place that doesn’t provide a whole lot of options, never really has, and that’s just the way it is.

So I’m pretty sure that I’ve never been to Texas, but when it comes to growing up in a quiet town where nothing ever happens, I can give you the 411 like you wouldn’t believe. Didn’t have car, didn’t have a license, went to an all-boys High School, had zero game with the ladies, didn’t live close to any of my friends and the only form of entertainment outside of my fortress of solitude was a bowling alley that shut down four year prior. Luckily, High School itself was a damn good time and that complete lack of a social life got turned around like whoa as soon as I got to college, but lemme tell ya, thank God for that PS2. Don’t get me wrong, momma, it was a swell upbringing if there ever was one and the last thing I want to do is start a pity party for Aiden, but if any of this is sounding familiar, you can probably relate to goings-on in good ol’ Anarene, TX.

As dull and depressing as the town is, it’s actually a perfect place to set a coming-of-ager like this. Not only does it keep the story focused entirely on the characters and force them to continually interact with one another because there’s nothing else to do, but it’s one of those towns where you just feel like everyone is trapped and, try as they might, there’s nothing they can do about it. And maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but how many towns out there don’t seem like a black hole when you’re in High School?

And that’s Anarane: the inescapable town for the young and old alike.

Writer Larry McMurtry does a lot of things well, but aside from the mood he creates and the actions his characters take, what’s most surprising is how honest he is. Kids reaching second base in the back of a car (bare boobs and all), kids going skinny dipping at house parties (bare boobs and all), kids losing their virginity with the likeliest and unlikeliest of partners, kids driving down to Mexico to get drunk and get laid, pretty much everything that goes with kids growing up by trial and error. Not that my teen years were ever that exciting in the least, but coming from a late bloomer and certified pro in The Art of Looking Like an Ass, trial and error is the only way to learn anything about yourself or anyone else and that’s a big part of what makes this story stand out. Really mature and true to life in ways I wasn’t expecting and don’t often see.

But the cast here sure doesn’t hurt matters either.

Timothy Bottoms plays our lead country boy, Sonny; Jeff Bridges got one of his first big breaks here (and deservedly so) as Sonny’s best friend, Duane; Cybill Shepherd made her silver screen debut Duane’s main squeeze/bonafide hussy, Jacy; Western star Ben Johnson won an Oscar for his turn as town mentor and old soul, Sam the Lion; Cloris Leachman also won an Oscar for her turn as the lonely wife of Sonny’s football coach/Sonny’s older lover (yup, that Cloris Leachman), Ruth; and the great Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom. Two folks won Oscars, Bridges and Burstyn were also nominated, but it’s hard to single folks out with such a strong cast is this. But if there is anyone worth singling out, it’d be Bottoms if only because he was great here and his is the only career that tanked for reasons I don’t understand. Good looking kid, showed a lot of promise, if anyone would care to enlighten me, I’m all ears.

Also notable for showcasing Randy Quaid’s first acting gig. Not counting Cousin Eddy, I’d say things have turned out pretty well for the guy.

But it’s something to see them all play off each other, more so in terms of the characters they’re playing than their chops as actors. As naive, complicated and misguided as their choices and emotions are, it works because that’s usually how it seems to go. When you’re a kid, it’s easy to be reckless, it’s easy to live in the moment and attach yourself from one person or thing to another without thinking twice. But growing up, taking on wanted or unwanted responsibilities and realizing that you don’t even know what to do anymore, that’s the tough part, and this gang experiences it all from top to bottom.

The Last Picture Show is still pertinent and still makes a lasting impression nearly 40 years later, but it’s on the slow side, it’s a talking heads movie and it’s something you might need to be in the right mood for in order to appreciate all its subtle strengths. It’s a good movie, I can dig why a lot of folks consider it a classic, but it’s damn sad, too. It’s a bleak setting for a bleak, awkward period of self-discovery in any kid’s life that tends to get worse before it gets better…that is if it gets better. Nevertheless, that’s one of many aspects that drives it all home in the long run. If anything, it’s cool to see all these great actors doing their thing from such a different time in their careers than I’m used to.

Great poster, too. Sets the mood before it even starts.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 1:44 am

    Cybill is gorg.

  2. Pablo Chiste permalink
    December 16, 2010 11:54 am

    What a fantastic movie. Makes a great double feature with Bogdonavich’s other black and white masterpiece Paper Moon. They made a sequel to this called Texasville which I never saw. Is it any good?

    • December 16, 2010 11:57 am

      Embarrassed to say it, but I’ve never seen Paper Moon. It’s on Instant, it’s been on my queue for a while now, I don’t know what’s taking me. Will take care of that. Heard about Texasville, never seen it though.

  3. December 18, 2010 7:12 am

    yeah, Timothy Bottoms, funny one. great in Sneakers.
    always mix him up with Timothy Hutton, who is great in The Dark Half. and Beautiful Girls.
    Timothy Dalton.. great as Mr Pricklepants.

    • December 20, 2010 2:08 pm

      Haven’t seen any of the movies you mentioned, haven’t seen Bottoms in anything but this, but Hutton was damn good in Ordinary People if that counts for anything. No idea who Mr. Pricklepants is.

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