The Last Picture Show - The ultimate rite of passage

Forty years on, Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show is still a moving portrayal of teenage life in small-town America, says Geoffrey Macnab
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's hard to overestimate the influence of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971) (re-released next month) on all those other elegiac movies about lost youth and crumbling dreams in small American towns that followed it in such huge numbers. We know the storylines, which never vary much. Boy meets girl. They fall in love and think their relationship will last forever but war/adulthood/pregnancy intervenes. Old school friends spend a last summer of high jinks together. They vow eternal loyalty to one another but then the autumn rolls in and their lives drag them off in very different directions. The visual clichés are familiar, too: by the final reel, the once teeming street is empty, with wind blowing the dust, or the old café where the friends used to meet is boarded up.

Forty years on, The Last Picture Show has an added poignance because of the toll that age has taken on the filmmakers and their actors. They, themselves, have grown old and their careers have pulled them in very different directions too. Jeff Bridges, who played the teenage jack-the-lad Duane, is still on screen but today, he is playing down-at-heel country singers or mumbling, one-eyed US marshals: the juvenile lead has metamorphosed into a craggy, weatherbitten old soak. His co-star Timothy Bottoms (who plays Sonny), is now a jobbing actor and producer while his brother Sam Bottoms, who played the silent, mentally handicapped boy in the cap, the holy innocent forever sweeping the pool hall, died three years ago, aged only 53. The beautiful young Cybill Shepherd, who became the brightest star in the Hollywood firmament largely thanks to her role as the teenage temptress Jacy, is now middle-aged and reduced to playing Martha Stewart in TV movies.

George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973), John Milius's Big Wednesday (1978), Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983), and Rob Reiner's Stand By Me (1986) are just some of the nostalgia-steeped movies about adolescence and broken dreams that owe a debt to The Last Picture Show.

What made The Last Picture Show so distinctive was the unlikely mixture of influences behind it. The movie was nothing if not contradictory. This was an arthouse project directed by a sophisticated New Yorker and shot self-consciously in black and white, but set in a roughhouse, provincial town in Texas. It was one of a number of films made in the wake of the success of Easy Rider (1969), whose success had opened up opportunities for a new generation of rebellious and freewheeling film-makers – the likes of Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Dennis Hopper. However, the mood of The Last Picture Show was more sombre than confrontational, taking its tempo from the lugubrious country music that features on the soundtrack.

Larry McMurtry's wonderful 1966 novel, from which it is adapted, has a bawdy, comic undertow that the film successfully captures. "The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town," McMurtry writes at the start of his book. However, if this is a love letter to Archer City (which he calls Thalia in the novel), it is a very barbed one. The Texan town he depicts is a dull and oppressive place with cold winters and baking summers. The only recreations for Sonny and Duane are either necking with their girlfriends in the back of the movie theatre or shooting pool in Sam the Lion's bar. The girls calculate to the minute and the inch how much license they allow when it comes to the boys groping them and unhooking their bras. The town has its share of alcoholics. Almost everybody is dirt poor. And everybody knows everybody else's business. There are invisible connections stretching back many years between the most unlikely characters. The town has a hidden history of illicit relationships and business partnerships gone sour. "One thing I know for sure is that a person can't sneeze in this town without somebody offering him a handkerchief... it's an awful small town for any kind of carrying on," the all-night waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) warns Sonny after he begins an affair with Mrs Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his high school football coach.

What the book – and the film it inspired – demonstrate is that provincial adolescence is pretty much the same everywhere. There are always the same characters: the soulful, introspective types like Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the duck-quiffed would-be rebels like Duane and the high school femmes fatales like Jacy. We encounter very similar protagonists in many of the other films that came after The Last Picture Show. There is the same bravado – children getting drunk and daring themselves to go as far as they can with the opposite sex. The "pecker in the popcorn" scene in Diner, in which Mickey Rourke bears his genitals in a movie theatre to win a bet, is echoed by the scene in The Last Picture Show in which Cybill Shepherd strips during the naked swimming party. The ingenuous, trusting quality that Sonny has in The Last Picture Show is matched by that of Matt Dillon's Rusty James in Rumblefish, who trusts so implicitly in his brother, The Motorcyle Boy.

Often, in rites-of-passage movies, the sex is played for comic effect. The difference about The Last Picture Show is that the sex scenes are among the saddest and most sharply observed moments. It's the little details that register most strongly. When Sonny makes love to Mrs Popper for the first time, the bed creaks in excruciating fashion while the camera trains on Popper's tear-stained face. Equally affecting, and not played for laughs at all, is the scene in which Jacy and Duane first sleep together. He can't get it up. She is impatient and dismissive but then lies to her friends about the magic of the moment.

Just as so many of the fictional characters in the film have an ill-fated obsession with Jacy, several of those involved in the movie seemed similarly besotted by Shepherd, the actress who played her. Bogdanovich had spotted her when she was still a model on the cover of a glossy magazine which he had seen at a supermarket check-out counter. He left his wife (and key collaborator), Polly Platt, for Shepherd after beginning an affair with her during production. Shepherd became his muse although the subsequent films they made together were not successful. Timothy Bottoms later revealed he had a crush on the actress that wasn't reciprocated.

Four decades on, the astonishing scene in which Mrs Popper breaks down in front of Sonny, hurling the coffee pot, shrieking at him for his betrayal of her, remains as harrowing to watch as ever. Leachman plays her more like a character in a Greek tragedy than a philandering wife in a teen movie. The scene, which ends with her taking Sonny's hands and holding them tearfully to her face, has a rawness and emotional intensity that is rarely found in even the best of the rites of passage movies that followed The Last Picture Show.

When Bogdanovich revisited Thalia with a belated sequel, Texasville, in 1990, the results were mixed at best. What had made the original so distinctive was the youth of the characters played by Shepherd, Bottoms and Bridges – their curiosity, innocence and their sense of yearning. Witnessing their travails in middle age simply didn't have the same impact. The real follow-up to The Last Picture Show wasn't Texasville but the films that were made – and are still being made today – in its mould.

'The Last Picture Show' is re-released on 15 April