Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Written by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry; adapted from McMurtry’s novel

Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson

In small town Anarene, Texas, life is bleak for everyone.

For the high school seniors, sporting the worst football season in the town’s history (“Don’t you boys know how to tackle?”), there isn’t much to look forward to besides oil work – unless you’re a Wichita Falls country club kid bound for college in Dallas.  And for the townsfolk themselves, any hope they once had of realizing their dreams has since faded.

Graduating seniors Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) are half-brothers, Sonny in a relationship so mundane and pointless the anniversary present he gave himself was a break up, and Duane smitten hopelessly with Jacy (newcomer model-turned-actress Shepherd), who herself is just concerned about losing her virginity.

These young actors represent the new generation of this drama, set in the late 1950s, and contend and mingle with the older generation of lost youth and forgotten promises.  The latter consists of Ben Johnson’s Dan the Lion, who owns the picture show, pool hall and diner that the young folk propagate, and Cloris Leachman, an ill and unhappily married housewife who begins an affair with Sonny.

Johnson put his tough-guy, Wild Bunch-style bad company bandit persona to the side to strongly play a man yearning heavily for his past, watching with sadness the town’s youths living their lives without a care while he can only sit back and reminisce fleeting romances and missed opportunities.  His picture show is the only source of solitude for the young Sonny, whose own sadness and uncertainty carries the film as its main character, watching the world around him crumble as his life takes turns to nowhere.

Underneath the small town’s depressing and interconnecting lives is an undercurrent of sex, where nearly everyone shares someone’s bed.  Slightly dumb Duane doesn’t realize the only reason Jacy kept him around was for him to take her virginity, maybe then allowing her to join the upper crust inner circle of her social peers that frown at such prudishness.  When he fails at this, Jacy takes the lover of her disenfranchised, unphased mother – played by a frosty Ellen Burstyn – and realizes that apparently there is more to life than worrying about sex.  Eager to be loved again, Jacy cons the naive Sonny into leaving pitiable Cloris Leachman for her, but loses interest during their brief elopement.

Sonny meets up with Duane again before Duane leaves for Korea, their first meeting following a fight over Jacy that left Sonny with a broken bottle to the head.  The local theater is playing one last movie before its close – due to lack of interest from local kids – and Sonny takes Duane to it.

Red River is the last picture show, that beautiful Mutiny on the Bounty – Western parable with Montgomery Clift as the kind son to father John Wayne’s ruthless cattle baron.  Following Duane’s bus in the morning, a tragedy causes Sonny to speed out of town before coming back to visit the spurned Cloris Leachman, who reveals how much she loved him but how she has already “turned the corner” and he’s too late.

Gentle panning over the desolate, closed shops of Amarene’s main street towards the decayed movie theater ends the film, and we’re left feeling the choking sadness that plagued the film’s characters, young or old, throughout the picture.

The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Academy Awards, populating the supporting actor categories with Bridges and Johnson, and Leachman and Burstyn in their respective groups, with Bottoms inexplicably absent in the Best Actor category.  Johnson and Leachman won their categories, Leachman’s performance to me being the most powerful, that of a haunted, insignificant housewife falling for a young boy and then being jilted for a younger, more beautiful girl.  Her ending outburst –cum- affection is my favorite scene in the movie.

Images courtesy of washingtonpost.com and acephotos.org, respectively.

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