The novel

The Last Picture Show is Larry McMurtry's stark and poignant quasi-autobiographical novel about life in a small Texas town during the 1950s. First published in 1966, it is the origin of what would later become a trilogy of books, including Texasville (1987) and Duane's Depressed (1999). The series features the same characters, and follows the events of their lives over some thirty-odd years.

The novel is a sad and thoughtful depiction of the modern degeneration of the myth of the American West. Its story surrounds three dispossessed teenagers: Duane Moore, his girlfriend Jacy Farrow, and his best friend Sonny Crawford. Set in the fictional one-stoplight town of Thalia, Texas (McMurtry's home town of Archer City in real life) from one football season to the next, The Last Picture Show is a tale of adolescent awakenings, sexual misadventures, teen angst and adult desperation. Thalia is a dying town, and its inhabitants are all caught up in a struggle between clinging to the past and accepting a bleak and uncertain future. The closing of the local movie house is the source of the book's title, and represents a major turning point in the lives of the story's characters.

A large part of what makes this novel so enjoyable is how real and believable the characters are. McMurtry's gift for character expostion shines here, as he paints a convincing portrait of the town he grew up in and the people who live there. The characters' dialogue is raw, honest and quite moving — even funny at many points. What surprised me the most about this book is how prurient it is, filled with sexual episodes of every description: awkward teen sex, adultery, bestiality, sex with prostitutes, even closeted homosexuality. It might not be a pleasant read for the timid or morally conservative. Still, it is a story where people act like simple human beings, trying to find lessons in life through their hard-won experiences and, in most cases, failing.

McMurtry's talents as a writer of romantic fiction and a sharp observer of human nature are beautifully demonstrated in The Last Picture Show. It is one of his finest novels, ranking among Terms of Endearment (1975) and Lonesome Dove (1985), which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

The film

So much has been written over the years about Peter Bogdanovich's modern classic The Last Picture Show (Columbia Pictures, 1971) that I was amazed to find relatively nothing about it on E2. While I first saw this magnificent cinematic effort back in film school, I recently purchased it on DVD (released in 1999 on Columbia Tri-Star Home Video) and was reminded of what a landmark film it truly is. That being said, this film is not for everyone. Many classics aren't. Read on, and decide for yourself if this historic work of American cinema is something worth your while.

Lauded by Newsweek magazine as "the most important work by a young American director since Citizen Kane," The Last Picture Show is based on Larry McMurtry's novel, and the author co-wrote the film's script with director Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich (What's Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Mask) happened upon the book at some point during the late 1960s while in a checkout line at a drug store. He found the title interesting, but upon reading on the back cover that it was a story about small-town kids in 1950s Texas, he put it back on the shelf and thought little more about it. A few months later, his friend Sal Mineo sent him a copy, suggesting that it would make a good film.

And what a film it made. Nominated in 1972 for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium), it won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Ben Johnson) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cloris Leachman). Featured at the New York Film Festival in 1971, it garnered five Golden Globe nominations in 1972 (with Ben Johnson taking the Best Supporting Actor award), and numerous accolades from The National Board of Review, The National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle, among others.

While an outline of the story's plot would normally be in order for a writeup such as this, The Last Picture Show isn't really that kind of story. While the film provides exposition and complication at numerous points throughout its 126-minute run time (for the Director's Cut, 119 minutes for the original theatrical release), there are numerous points of climax during the film, but no real resolution at all. Like McMurtry's novel, it is a character study, focusing on the raw humanity of a small town that is dying, and the lessons in life that are learned over the course of one short year. I could give you a synopsis, but that would cheat you out of a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience. You really need to see this film in order to understand and appreciate it.

That being said, this film is a showcase of brilliant acting. Bogdanovich had to beg Ben Johnson (Mighty Joe Young, Rio Grande, Shane) to take the role of Sam the Lion, and only after coercion from director John Ford did he reluctantly agree. "There's too many words," he protested to Bogdanovich, who assured him that if he took the role, he would at the very least be nominated for the Academy Award. This film is unquestionably Johnson's finest performance as an actor. Veteran actresses Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan give extraordinary performances as tired, broken, middle-aged women who yearn for something, anything, to free them from their small-town lives. Leachman in particular shows her dramatic gifts in the portrayal of the plain and desperate Ruth Popper, who engages young Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) in a sexual affair to stave off the boredom and restlessness she feels being married to a closeted homosexual. The climactic final scene between these two characters has got to be one of American cinema's greatest moments. Kudos go again to Bogdanovich: it was filmed in one take.

Several famous actors made their film debuts in The Last Picture Show, including Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. Newcomers Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms (Johnny Got His Gun) give exceptional performances as well, which propelled their careers into the spotlight. Shepherd would later become involved in a close relationship with director Bogdanovich which fed the Hollywood rumor mill for several years following the film's release.

The Last Picture Show is contemporary film noir, in a sense. It was shot in glorious black and white, with a startling depth of field that could never have been achieved using color film. Bogdanovich hadn't even considered using black and white until it was suggested to him by his friend and mentor Orson Welles over breakfast one morning. When he asked the studio for permission to shoot the film in monochrome (in an era where films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Easy Rider were challenging the norms and conventions of Hollywood filmmaking), his unconventional request was surprisingly met with approval. It is truly Bogdanovich's good fortune that Columbia agreed to this, as few critics would dispute the fact that this film would not be what it is had it been done in color. The same can be said of more contemporary films like Schindler's List. It's rare for a film studio to agree to black and white these days, but can you even imagine how shooting these films in color would have diminished their visual impact and emotional power? It's fascinating to contemplate.

Another unique aspect of The Last Picture Show is its soundtrack (or lack thereof). Bogdanovich decided that a regular musical score wouldn't really work for this film; instead, he chose to feature the popular music of the period as the background to the story. It comes into play throughout the film, over tinny radios and coffee shop juke boxes, mostly featuring the songs of Hank Williams prior to 1953. It is yet another authentic touch to a film which bleeds realism with every frame.

There are many more remarkable qualities to this film that I have not mentioned here. In all honesty, I just don't want to spoil it for you. If you like films that make you really feel for the characters deep down in your bones; films that make you sad for days; films that make you want to watch them again and again, go rent The Last Picture Show. It is Peter Bogdanovich's greatest film, and probably always will be. The comparisons with Welles' magnum opus Citizen Kane are both ironic and justified.

Bogdanovich tells the story of a conversation he had one time with Welles, where the great director was rhapsodizing over the late Greta Garbo, of whom he was a tremendous fan. Bogdanovich remarked, "You know, I agree with you, but isn't it too bad that she only made two really, really good pictures?" And Welles looked at Bogdanovich for a long time, finally replying, "Well, you only need one."

The Last Picture Show was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998.

Primary cast

Timothy Bottoms . . . . . . Sonny Crawford
Jeff Bridges . . . . . . Duane Moore
Cybill Shepherd . . . . . . Jacy Farrow
Ben Johnson . . . . . . Sam the Lion
Cloris Leachman . . . . . . Ruth Popper
Ellen Burstyn . . . . . . Lois Farrow
Eileen Brennan . . . . . . Genevieve
Clu Gulager . . . . . . Abilene
Sam Bottoms . . . . . . Billy

Selected supporting cast

Sharon Ullrick . . . . . . Charlene Duggs
Randy Quaid . . . . . . Lester Marlow
Gary Brockette . . . . . . Bobby Sheen
Noble Willingham . . . . . . Chester
Frank Marshall . . . . . . Tommy Logan
Joe Heathcock . . . . . . The Sheriff
Bill Thurman . . . . . . Coach Popper
John Hillerman . . . . . . Teacher


Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Produced by Steven J. Friedman
Written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
Executive producers: Burt Schneider and Harold Schneider
Director of cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editor: Donn Cambern is credited, but Bogdanovich actually did all the editing
Production designer: Polly Platt
Location manager: Frank Marshall
Art director: Walter Scott Herndon
Costumes designed by Nancy McArdle and Mickey Sherrard
Non-original music by Hank Williams and John Philip Sousa

MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality, nudity and language)
UK: 15, Germany: 12, Finland: K-16, Italy: T, Sweden: 11

Source information:

The Columbia Tri-Star DVD of The Last Picture Show, ©1971 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., ©1999 Columbia Tri-Star Home Video

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