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Peter Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is a quiet reflective film with flares of wonderful irony and humor. Its style is a dead-on throwback to the 1950s drama, but presents a 1970s freedom to its material. As a sad meditation on the crumbling American small tows, the story can be bleak, but it never loses all hope… or does it? Like great art, the film is open to interpretation.
Based on the Larry McMurtry novel, this coming of age tale is set in the tiny Texas town of Anarene. Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms, THE PAPER CHASE) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS) are best friends. They play for their town’s lousy high school football team, for which they constantly receive ridiculed for from the townsfolk. Sonny is jealous of Duane because his friend is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, TV’s MOONIGHTING), the prettiest girl in town, while he’s stuck with the trashy tease Charlene (Sharon Taggart, TEXASVILLE). Jacy’s mom Lois (Ellen Burstyn, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) warns her that her roughneck boyfriend is a one-way ticket to getting stuck in their flat and boring town. Jacy professes her love for Duane, but isn’t shy to play the field just to stir up some excitement in her life. Eventually, Sonny starts an affair of his own with 40-something Ruth (Cloris Leachman, SPANGLISH), the sad wife of his coach. The heart of the town is Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, THE WILD BUNCH), a kind man who runs three key businesses— the pool hall, the café, and the picture house.
Both Sonny and Jeff come from poor families and have few options in life. Their parents are non-existent in their lives, as well as the film. They’re desperately searching for an out from a zombie-like future, some kind of hope. They both look for it in “perfect” Jacy, who puts on a sunny face, but she’s cynical in her young age. She plays one boy over another, toying with Duane while using geeky rich boy Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid, INDEPENDENCE DAY) to get closer to Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette, THE ICE PIRATES), a rich boy from a bigger town who throws skinny-dipping pool parties at his parents’ house. However, she doesn’t learn from her mother’s mistakes. Lois is in a stagnant marriage and having a fairly open affair with the town lothario Abilene (Clu Gulager, 1964’s THE KILLERS). There’s lots of sex in the film, but none of it is tender or erotic, just the awkward fumblings of bored people. Ironically, the adults often remember back sadly on lost youthful joy, while the kids, oblivious to what the adults say, desperately want to jump into adult lives like they’ll find some kind of happiness there.
Around the actions of these desperate people, over the course of a year, the town falls further apart. The film ends with the last show at the movie theatre, a former thriving business murdered by the boob tube in every home. As the town slowly dies, it begins to lose its soul. The men of town have become emotionless robots, while the women do whatever they can to feel alive. Sam the Lion seems to be the last caring man in town. He punishes the kids when they’re cruel to the mentally challenged kid Billy (Sam Bottoms, APOCALYPSE NOW) and supports the town as much as he can, even betting on the town’s football team when he knows they don’t have a chance to win.
With its flat pans and old-fashioned cut away shots, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW feels like a film from 1951. However, the matter of fact and less than glamorous approach to the sex lives of its characters is of a more enlightened age. It’s also painfully honest. Looking back over this review, the film sounds like a downer, but the irony of the story is often humorous. That’s why I believe the final scene can be seen two ways — a character has either accepted his emotionally empty future, or has decided that happiness may not come in the fanciest packages. Sonny and Duane are just trying to survive in a place that has lost its soul without losing theirs in the process.
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