The Last Picture Show (1971)

The Last Picture Show (1971) movie poster

director Peter Bogdanovich
viewed: 03/02/2014

Of all the movies that I’ve meant to see but had never seen, The Last Picture Show is possibly one of the biggest blank spots on my list.  A long time back, I had seen the beginning of the film with my father, who called it one of his favorite films of all time.  And after having watched Paper Moon (1973) again recently with my kids, I was again reminded how effective a filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich once was.  As I’ve been pushing through a lot of major films that I’ve never seen this year, it is as apt a movie to watch as possible.

And it’s indeed a very fine film.  Shot in luminous black and white by Robert Surtees, the film takes Larry McMurtry’s novel about growing up in a small Texas town in the early 1950’s and gives it a more honest look than a film of the 1950’s could have, with a frankness about sex that the 1950’s seemed to like to pretend didn’t exist.

I can easily see why my dad liked it.  Though he was a few years younger than McMurtry, I think this small town America could be easily read over in any number of 1950’s life, peppered heavily with the music of Hank Williams and others.

The film won Oscars for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, but also features great performances by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Eileen Brennan, and Ellen Burstyn.  You’ve probably never seen all these people look as young as they do here.  The casting is impeccable.  The feeling of time and place is amazingly evocative.

It’s funny about Bogdanovich, because he made this amazing film at the age of 31, and though he’d made a couple of quickie films for Roger Corman, little suggested what he ultimately could do.  He had a run with his then wife and collaborator Polly Platt, with The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and then Paper Moon (1973)…I’ve been meaning to re-watch What’s Up, Doc? for some time.  I remember liking it a lot as a kid.  But then it kind of goes awry for him.  I think I recall reading in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Biskind attributed Bogdanovich’s downfall being his breaking of partnership (and marriage) to Platt.

Who knows?  He’s a very interesting guy who met and interviewed a lot of Hollywood greats.  He’s as much a great film historian as Martin Scorsese.

And he made at least a couple of excellent, timeless films.

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