The Last Picture Show was a favorite at the 1971 Academy Awards, and certainly it deserved its eight nominations. But I suspect that much of what the Academy loved about this movie that year are exactly what I perceived as weaknesses on my recent, first-ever viewing. The use of a character with intellectual disabilities as a one-dimensional symbol of innocence and as yardstick for characters’ emotional development, for example, is a trope beloved by the Academy [see: Forrest Gump], but which irks me both personally and aesthetically. Nostalgia for Old Hollywood—one way to interpret this film’s self-reflexive relation to cinema—is, likewise, an Oscar-baiting hobby horse.
If certain touches give The Last Picture Show an identifiable layer of Oscar schmaltz, these are outweighed by both its dramatic restraint and its formal ambition. The low-budget film is beautiful to look at; director Peter Bogdanovich and veteran cinematographer Robert Surtees create images of a dusty, fablistic Texas that are at once realistic and expressive, literal and symbolic. Bogdanovich melds the formal excesses of the then-current New Waves with a more conservative approach to narrative, afraid neither of smash cuts and unusual camera movements nor of traditional shot-reverse shot sequences and linear dramatic development.
The moments that will stick with me in the film are those in which middle-aged villagers—the town is populated only by teenagers and the middle-aged, who have in common boredom and sexual malaise, even if they stem from different sources—wax nostalgic about life in the village. Both Sam the Lion [Ben Johnson] and Genevieve [Eileen Brennan] have long soliloquies that begin as conversations with Sonny [Timothy Bottoms]. As they begin to tell their stories, the camera tracks forward, past the listening teenagers, and frames the older villager as they dreamily off into space, as if they were alone. Everyone in town is at the center of their own movie, these slow, heart-wrenching shots imply.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Each of the characters—with the exceptions of Billy [Sam Bottoms] and the one-note Charlene [Sharon Taggart]—is distinct and fully inhabited. You truly get the sense from their dispositions that they have all lived together in their one-cinema Texas village for their entire lives. The performances of supporting players like Ellen Burstyn’s Lois lend depth and believability to the world. In the case of Lois in particular, Burstyn walks a very fine line: her worldly, frank, sexually liberated woman never becomes a mere pastiche or archetype, but is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who probably belongs somewhere else. [A less charitable reading of her character, of course, would point out that she does represent a kind of “bewitching womanly wiles” stereotype.]
To me, though, the best and most intriguing performance is given by Timothy Bottoms as the film’s main cipher, Sonny. Sonny isn’t given the film’s meatiest dramatic material until its very conclusion, and even at that point Cloris Leachman as his erstwhile older lover Ruth steals the show. Throughout the film, Sonny remains an enigma in several significant ways: we never see his family—except a clearly awkward encounter with his father at the Christmas sock-hop—and for the most part, he doesn’t seem to care about the things the other villagers care about [e.g., football], and his emotions are usually subdued or only hinted at. He has a mysterious disaffection, a tender kind of melancholy in his attitude that can’t be pinned to a problem or motivation. Bottoms plays this with just enough glimmer of real feeling that we can sympathize and identify with Sonny’s largely detached attitude.
Perhaps it is the unnamed town itself that is affecting Sonny’s mood. But if so, why does he stay? At the end of the film, he has a chance to escape, but he turns around before he even crosses the border. In fact, the film is full of moments where people leave town—anything that really happens seems to happen in Wichita or Mexico—but they always come back. Even Duane [Jeff Bridges], on his way to Korea, departs with the words, “See you in a year or two, assuming I don’t get shot.” To me, this repeated, unexplainable, almost poetic return to the dusty, dilapidated town, is what makes The Last Picture Show so captivating.
The town in The Last Picture Show is the center of a certain tension in the film, a thematic tension that is ultimately what makes the movie work. On the one hand, this film is about the end or absence of the West, an ideal that doesn’t exist, at least not any more. The only cinema in town seems to only play Westerns like Winchester ‘73 , movies that imagined the American West as the stuff of myth, movement, and action. The excited yelps of the cowboys in Red River —the film characters watch toward the end of The Last Picture Show, on which Ben Johnson worked as a stuntman—are not something you would hear from the denizens of this village.
And yet, the town is decidedly cinematic: leaves and dust blow constantly through the air, creating stirring, vibrant images even as the town lies dormant; the radio is constantly playing the musical cues of the characters’ emotional lives; the sturdy Sam, a bastion of Old-West valiance, stands tall on the street to defend the defenseless. For people like Sonny, a mysterious loner in this colorless Western village, the cinema is an escape, a fantasy land. But it is also a mirror, one that magnifies the dreary tribulations of life, giving them epic proportions. The Last Picture Show retains its power not just because it’s about the human condition or the American Experience, but because it’s also about the role of art—specifically the cinema—in that experience.