Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Last Great Picture Show: So Good It was Banned in Phoenix!

by Pa Rock
Film Fan

This past Christmas Day I gave myself a treat – I sat down and watched a truly classic film:  The Last Picture Show.  It is one of those rare movies that just gets better and better with age.  The 1971 movie was directed by a very young Peter Bogdanovich and had an ensemble cast of some of Hollywood’s finest, several of whom were also very young.

The movie was based on a 1966 novel by Larry McMurtry, himself an American treasure.  McMurtry and Bogdanovich collaborated on the screen play, and the director handled most of the casting himself.

The true star of the movie was the small, desolate Texas town that served as the backdrop for all of the action.  The fictional Anarene (McMurtry called it Thalia in the book) was actually Archer City, Texas, the hometown of McMurtry.    The movie was shot in black-and-white which added to the desolate feel of the town and the movie, and that lonesome Texas wind forever whined in the background.  The town was a bleak shell of buildings which all looked to be bound together by desperation, with only the movie theatre, The Royal, adding a glimmer of something bright and exciting to the bleak setting.  The traffic was almost non-existent, leaving one mentally challenged young man basically free to walk about the streets unhindered with his broom, sweeping through the blowing Texas dust and tumbleweeds.

Bogdanovich had the unerringly good instinct to film the movie in the actual town of Archer City.

Larry McMurtry, who graduated from Archer City High School at about the time the Korean War was starting, focused his story on a group of students who were also graduating from the small town high school just as the Korean War was starting.  The two lead characters, Sonny and Duane, had just finished a losing football season and were focused on other manly arts, primarily scoring with the ladies and partying, for the remainder of their senior year.

Sonny Crawford, portrayed by Timothy Bottoms, broke up with his dull high school girlfriend early in the film and then fell into an affair with an older woman, Cloris Leachman who played Ruth Popper, the coach’s wife.  Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), Sonny’s best friend, was dating the beautiful and rich Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), who was led astray by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid).    Lester enticed Jacy to come with him to Wichita Falls where they joined a group of young people at a skinny-dipping party.  Jacy met a boy with more promise than Duane at the party, but he wasn’t interested in her as long as she maintained her virginity. 

But poor Jacy was not the only virgin in Anarene.  Billy (Sam Bottoms), the young mentally-challenged street sweeper, was thrown into the backseat of a car with the local whore who had orders to deflower him for the bargain price of a buck-fifty.  She failed, Billy was traumatized, and his adult protector was enraged at his teen tormentors and barred them from his several town businesses.

Oh, the small town drama, the angst!

And that was just the young folks.

The older generation was focused on Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) who, in addition to being Billy’s protector, owned the local café, pool hall, and the Royal Theater.   Sam had been around, in every sense of the word, and was once the love interest of Jacy’s mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn).    Meanwhile Lois was involved in an extra-marital affair with Abilene (Clu Gulager) who also managed to have a quick encounter with Jacy on a pool table.  Eileen Brennan gave a stellar performance as Genevieve, the waitress and cook at the local café who was quick to befriend the local kids, especially Sonny.

And while it all sounds like a tawdry soap opera, the movie tells a coming-of-age tale that feels surprisingly real.   As the film ages and the stars become older, its authenticity seems destined to keep increasing.   Watching a young, oh-so-young, Jeff Bridges play his way through team sports and love while knowing that this mere sprout of a boy will someday morph into “The Dude” and Rooster Cogburn, makes viewers feel as though they are truly looking through a magic mirror into their own deep past.

The Last Picture Show was deemed so immoral by the city fathers of Phoenix, Arizona (probably due to the skinny-dipping scene), that they banned it from their community.  The roots of stupidity and hypocrisy in the desert run deep and true!

Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson each won best-supporting actor Oscars for their work in this movie.  Both were amazing and earned those statuettes!  The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

(Note:  Prolific author and screenwriter Larry McCurtry currently lives in Archer City, Texas, with his bride, Faye (Ken Kesey’s widow) where they own and operate one of his several bookstores.   He continues to enthrall America by writing that of which he knows.)

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