So, here goes. I can’t keep this up if I don’t get any requests, so if you have one, email me or list it in the comments.
In my brief year-and-a-half as a film major in the early 70s, a few films stood out as ones I wished I’d made. The Last Picture Show was one of them. I knew far too little about Bogdanovich’s love of John Ford and Howard Hawks … to me, he’d sprung full grown, and when I wanted to find antecedents to the movie, I looked not to Red River or Wagon Master, but instead to Targets, Bogdanovich’s first feature. What appealed to me so much back then was what I thought was the realistic portrait of everyday life.
That seems funny, now, because The Last Picture Show rarely strives for realism. Throughout, Bogdanovich shows his love of movies, and many of the characters are “types” that used to turn up in old movies (more than one critic referred to Ellen Burstyn as playing the “Dorothy Malone part”). He works hard to create a sheen of realism (in that odd way that black-and-white seems more “real” than color, even though the world is colorful). But Ben Johnson’s “Sam the Lion” isn’t a “real” person … he’s an icon. Burstyn is the dame who’s been around the block, Eileen Brennan is the woman who makes cheeseburgers at the café (and has been around the block), Cloris Leachman is the mousy middle-aged woman waiting to blossom, Cybill Shepherd is the high-school prick teaser.
Yet somehow, Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay) makes all of these characters seem like people you know from your daily life, instead of people you know from a thousand melodramas. And he is mostly respectful of them … he doesn’t condescend to them for living in a small town, he understands why they are still there, and he feels their pain and their occasional joy. And while the movie’s central character, Sonny, is a new high-school grad, and while his best friend Duane is the second lead, Bogdanovich gives most of his sympathy to the middle-aged women who are various levels of stuck in Anarene. Shepherd’s bitchy rich kid is the most unlikable of the characters, it is true, but I find it interesting that a movie that is in most ways so clearly a “guy” film nonetheless attaches itself to Burstyn, Brennan, and Leachman.
And, of course, Ben Johnson. Bogdanovich was 32 when he made The Last Picture Show. It came from the same production company that produced Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. But Bogdanovich’s film seems like it came from an older, more traditional director. He wasn’t trying to break new ground. He was trying to recreate the glory days of Hawks and Ford. So perhaps it makes sense that the older actors are the ones who come off best. Bogdanovich fought hard to get Ben Johnson to accept the role of Sam the Lion, telling him he’d win an Oscar if he played the part (which he did).
Someone (I want to say Bill James, but I can’t find the quote) once said that most Americans had a narrow, false view of small town American life. They blamed it on The Last Picture Show, where Anarene was so desolate, so lacking in anything interesting or worthwhile, that no one would want to live there. Small towns in the Midwest had much to offer, they claimed, but no one believed it … we all thought Anarene was everywhere. Perhaps they’re right. But I grew up in a town of 15,000 that wasn’t as stark as the Anarene of The Last Picture Show, and I wanted to escape, and I identified with the characters in the movie, but I didn’t think it meant that the Midwest was boring. I thought it meant that small towns were boring. Which, now that I think of it, may be just another version of what Bill James (or someone else) said, so perhaps he’s right.
Here is Ben Johnson’s best scene … it’s ironic that he didn’t want to make the picture because his part had “too many words".