The Last Picture Show

It’s 1951, and Duane (Jeff Bridges), Sonny (Sam Bottoms) and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) are enduring a clumsy sexual education in a small Texan town. As with almost any American film about the loss of virginity, we can probably look at it as a metaphor for the nation’s “end of innocence” – and boy does America have a lot of those. While Sonny conducts an affair with his football coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman), the aggressive Duane struggles to keep up with Jacy’s libidinous ways. The town’s teenagers engage in nude pool parties, cheap motel hook-ups, share the local prostitute and debate the motives behind a particularly odd child abduction. Local picture show proprietor Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) attempts to maintain the town’s social mores. Needless to say, he fails.

The Last Picture Show is indeed one of the greatest movies ever made (although I hardly think the scorekeepers were waiting for my vote to come in before they declared it such). It is based on Larry McMurty’s novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by McMurty, director Peter Bogdanovich and then-wife Polly Platt (who also designed the sets and supervised the costumes). Bogdanovich’s request to shoot the film in black-and-white (then unheard of) to better portray the period was embraced by revolutionary ‘New Hollywood’ film studio BBS (eager to recreate the auteur-driven success of Easy Rider).

The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show is, as Polly says in Peter Biskind’s essential chronicle of the period Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “the way the French would have made it, where these weird American sexual mores could be investigated.” Indeed, there is something awfully confronting about seeing a film so brazenly challenge the expectations of a period we are used to seeing conveyed so wholesomely on film. The gauche sexual advances and unflattering scenes of promiscuity between the teens remain just as shocking today and more realistic than in most modern pictures. In fact, not only does the film feature imagery and explore themes that were “hidden” at the time, they continue to be avoided in most films today. There is a disturbing avoidance of sexual discussion in 21st century Hollywood, leaving us with naive, sexist and completely clueless farces like The Ugly Truth. The Last Picture Show dives right into the grimy, gritty truth of it like nothing else.

NB: Shepherd was cast after being spotted by Platt on the cover of a magazine. Bogdanovich left Platt during the film’s production for the then-21-year-old starlet. America’s social mores were just as much in danger circa 1971 as they were in 1951.