The Last Picture Show (1971): Movie Review

The Last Picture Show: A Classic Movie ReviewGuest blogger Simon Columb writes:

“Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old” – Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson)

Introduction

“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…” is the tag line attached to the poster. 1971′s The Last Picture Show, a story that could easily be summarized as a teenage drama based in small-town America, is so much more than that. Like Saturday Night Fever is so much more than urban teenagers dancing and Rumble Fish is so much more than rebellious youth. This is a film that, by charting the changes of primarily two-characters, we see the challenges of life itself.

It is slightly unnerving when the better teen dramas in the last decade are Easy A andMean Girls. I am sure their success and critical acclaim will attest to success on their own terms, but the difference is the use of the marketing term “target audience”. Rather than merely targeting the teenage audience members, The Last Picture Show is a profound and intelligent story. In black-and-white, it is shot almost as a Western. We see tragedy, sadness, loss and regret in the characters that surround our two teen leads. Though we visit, unlike teenage dramas, we are not stuck in a high school or restricted to the confines of bedrooms and house parties. In The Last Picture Show, we see the owners of the pool club and the operators of the cinema projectors. We see the wife of the gym teacher and we see the owner of the factory that employs half the neighborhood. You could argue that Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are possibly the most unimportant characters in the story – what we are restricted to, is small-town life.

An Exploration of Life – and not just the Teenage Years

What is brilliant about The Last Picture Show is how profound the story is. On the surface it is a love triangle between Sonny, Duane and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), but this bland summary does no justice to the scope of the film. Initially a case of unrequited love between one boy and his best friend’s girlfriend, it then becomes more complicated as Sonny is involved with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his gym teacher. We then see the social separation between Jacy and Duane and how, though initially an issue of sex, parties and high-school crushes (with an unforgettable Randy Quaid as Lester), it later becomes a tragic and definitive separation between economic circumstance. Jacy is a girl from money – and she will only find a man with money. Duane and Sonny have neither.

Many more issues are raised; The conflict between the boys’ friendship – and the dramatic shift between the two following Jacy’s interference; The need for escape from the small town – and the ones who make it, whilst there are those who don’t; The mourning and loss of a pillar in the community – and how his faith in the community is what ties many to the town; High school bullying dramatically changes as Joe Bob (Barc Doyle) is found attempting to molest a child – despite his upstanding position and assumed moral high ground as the preacher’s son. The fact that Joe Bob was given $1000 prior to this may underpin an attitude to money – and how money can corrupt and destroy someone. Hardly the trials and tribulations of youth.

The Inevitable Class Divide

I am beginning to see an emerging interest I have in the depiction of class in cinema, and so this dimension to The Last Picture Show, I shall explore further. Jacy is initially the “girl everyone loves” but, over the course of the film, we see her tragic change in character (or maybe a reveal of who she really is). Though a child of affluence, her mother is first-generation – having “scared” Jacy’s dad into being rich. But her Mum does not see the same in Jacy – indeed, she is not “scary” enough. With or without this knowledge, her attitude towards Duane is hurtful and cruel – teasing him in the back seat of a car and pushing him off as he places his hand between her legs. Then, shortly afterwards, she joins Lester at the [naked] pool party of a wealthy neighbor. She has no problem in revealing everything to everyone. She sees the divide and is happy to consent and “join” them. This attitude appears again as she marries Sonny – only to reveal that she left a note for her father to find. In true unresponsible fashion, she is inevitably “saved” from a poorer lifestyle and the marriage is annulled. Despite Jacy’s unhappiness
Last Picture Show starring Jeff Bridges & Cybill Shepard and her need to be accepted – she is too uncomfortable on her own and she needs someone to take care of her.

Bogdanovich: Perfection

Like Martin Scorsese, director Peter Bogdanovich is obsessed with cinema – even today you will find him presenting many documentaries about Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe and John Ford - so it is no surprise that technically, Bogdanovich has created a work of Art. His use of soundtrack alone is haunting as radios and televisions are always playing in the background. I would assume this subtle choice of sound shows how life goes on around this community. It doesn’t matter on the grand scale of things, because life just carries on regardless. The TVs will still be watched and the radios will continue to be heard.Even the opening and closing shots as the camera pans across the isolated village connects this film to the John Ford Westerns – the small community and the inhabitants we get to kow during the course of the film.

The Inevitable Reference

The Last Picture Show is in the 1001 Films to See Before You Die and upon the release of the remastered version in April 2011, it became a part of an extended run at the BFI Southbank in London. But neither of these are what brought me to this film. It was way back in 2000, watching an episode of Dawson’s Creek whereby The Last Picture Show became one of the most important films in Dawson’s life. The love triangle between Dawson, Pacey and Joey clearly an echo of the triangle between Duane, Sonny and Jacy (notice how the names almost sound the same). Both groups of friends within small towns, both film and show include storylines of a high-school student engaging in a relationship with an older woman (Pacey/Tamara Jacobs – Sonny/Ruth Popper) and both created by film-fans – Kevin Williamson and Peter Bogdanovich.Akin to Dawson and Pacey, Sonny and Duane are the centerpiece of the story as both boys change dramatically due to their teenage experiences of sex and relationships. What is truly remarkable is how it shows characters who are young and desperate to get out of the situation they were born in. In one stand-out sequence, the boys leave town to visit Mexico (Bogdanovich doesn’t show us their holiday, but teases us as they return, sombrero included and hangover to fend off) and when they return, the town has dramatically changed. The boys have seen the wide world and tasted a little of what it is to be free … but only one can take the jump and leave town.

Simon Columb is an Art & Design Teacher in Secondary Education in London who has always been fascinated with art, music, film, television, contemporary painters, sculptors, etc. Alongside his blog – www.screeninsight.com – he also takes part in a weekly podcast called ‘The Simon and Jo Film Show’ (http://simonandjofilmshow.podomatic.com/), whereby the duo analyses a new release, the London box office and another choice pick from the history of cinema.

  • Ron

    Ben Johnson was one of my very favorite actors. But I’m biased because he was born and raised not far from my abode here in Oklahoma. What would the movies be like without actors like he, Slim Pickens, Walter Brennan, Alan Hale Sr.?

  • tony

    I agree with Ron. Ben Johnson was indeed a fine actor. In the ‘making of’ documentary on ‘She wore a yellow Ribbon’ he was reminiscing about how he was spotted by John Ford. Being a natural rider he managed to stop a couple of runaway horses while Ford was shooting a film. Ford was so impressed that he offered Ben a contract on the spot. His performance as Tyree almost steals the show from big John.

    • Rufnek

      “. . . almost steals the show from Big John”????

      Ben Johnson stole scenes from everyone he was ever with onscreen, including Wayne, Steve McQueen, Bill Holden, Richard Harris, and the original Mighty Joe Young.

  • Bobby

    Ben Johnson was one of my favorites too, Alan Ladd being 1st, the actors of the 1940-1960 era seemed to me to be more natural actors, even the bit part players. Altho there are very good actors today as far as my opinion actors of bygone days as a whole just acted better together.

  • Catherine

    The ghost and Mr chicken is Don knotts at his very best hands down!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Zahid

      You shloud also know who the major players are. ShoeMoney, DoshDosh, John Chow, BloggingExperement, John Cow are just a few of the hundreds of quality sites available to look

  • John Small

    Something’s wrong… the link that led me here was labeled “What is your favorite Don Knotts film performance?”

  • N.deBrabant

    I thought this was a poll for your favorite Don Knotts movie, not a review of the Last Picture Show.
    I agree, however, I love Ben Johnson. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is one of my favorite Movies he was in.

  • James Howard

    What happened to the Don Knotts poll?

  • GenevaP

    I also thought this was a poll of favorite Don Knotts movies. Anyway, my favorite Don Knotts performance is on the Andy Griffith Show, but favorite movie is The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

  • Debbie

    I also thought this was a Don Knotts poll. Anyway I have 2 favs: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” amd “The Love God”.

  • Laura B.

    The Love God

  • SANDY B.

    MY FAVORITE DON KNOTTS IS ANDY GRIFFITH, FOLLOWED BY THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG 1 & 2 AND THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST. MY HUSBAND WATCHES DON KNOTTS EVERY DAY IN ANDY GRIFFITH. WE HAVE SEVERAL POSTER AD ALSO A T-SHIRT WITH BARNEY ON IT!

  • TinyTim

    For me, ‘The Last Picture Show’ is the ‘Huckleberry Finn’ of American cinema, a masterpiece on a par with any great film you want to mention from any era. Comparing it to ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is bad enough, but devoting a paragraph to relate it to “Dawson’s Creek?” Is this where post-post-modernism has led us?

    • Simon

      SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER first off is a brilliant film! Secondly, the relationship to DAWSONS CREEK is clearly more about how much THE LAST PICTURE SHOW influenced the show. Thats not a bad thing – considering the series was about a dedicated cinephile.

  • Rufnek

    The last picture show is so good because it’s based on a great novel by Texan Larry McMurtry, as were Hud, Terms of Endearment, and the TV epic Lonesome Dove. He also wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.
    Good movies start with good writing, which is something that directors who learned their craft making music videos and commercials will never understand.
    Personally, I have a big gripe against Hollywood for the major change in the movie Hud. Patricia Neal played a great role in that movie, but in the book, the character who befriends Lonnie and is raped by Hud was an older black woman. That was a big difference in the time frame and setting of both the book and the movie. And there were black actresses who could have played it well, but Hollywood chickened out and painted the character white.

  • Harry Lyme

    If you can keep a dry eye when Ellen Burstyn tells Sonny how Sam the Lion got his name, you are pretty strong. My other favorite scene is Sam and Sonny at the water tank.

    What a life Ben Johnson had, going from Sgt Tyree to Sam the Lion!

  • HELEN

    I like them all but the ghost and mr chicken is about the best

  • Doug

    This is one of the greatest films that came out of the 70′s in my opinion. The performances by Bridges, Shepard, Bottoms, Johnson, Burstyn, Leachman and the rest of the cast were exceptional, particulary Bottoms, Johnson, and Burstyn, who played Shepard’s roving eye mother. It’s really a great, classic film. I wish it had won the best picture oscar.

    It’s refreshing, dark and brooding in black and white, revealing how the population of a small dying Texas town deal with each other as they cross paths. It’s just not a story about three kids in a relationship with each other but also how the adults deal with their own isolation and moments of desperation.

    Definitely one of my all time favorites.

    • Simon

      I hope that came through in my writing. Its so much more than a teenage-drama.

      • Aun

        Mattyice2423 on November 6, 2011 Hey Jon I cmmoented on the article but I forgot to put my twitter so my name on there was mcmcorrea24 and my twitter is @mattyice2423

  • aldanoli

    TO FIND THE DON KNOTTS POLL, look in the links on the left side of the screen — click on “Movie Polls” and it will take you to the Knotts poll.

  • Richard

    I love Don Knotts bit in No Time for Sergeants.

    • Daniel

      You solhud also know who the major players are. ShoeMoney, DoshDosh, John Chow, BloggingExperement, John Cow are just a few of the hundreds of quality sites available to look

  • Susan

    This poll might have really been interesting if The Last Picture Show had starred Don Knotts. However no one could have played Sam the Lion like Ben Johnson. His gentle giant of a man was so moving because Ben was searching for something to give his life meaning. And in his final days he discovered that the best thing that happened to him was a short but perfect love affair. He left his memory of that joy as a gift to young Sonny, who was beginning his life search. Sam and Sonny were (it seemed) the only people in town who were intelligent enough to care about life’s meaning. At the last we see that their search was validated by women who had always been ready to share their burden and hopefully they might have shared themselves.

  • Paul M. Boos

    One of my favorite all-time movies, very well cast and directed! But no mention of the background music using Hank Williams Sr. exclusively? Added a contemporary flair to the movie that it would otherwise not have had….again, a GREAT movie!

  • Lenore Salinger

    Don Knott’s small performances in ‘NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS’ and ‘IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD’ were very funny and made me laugh. I didn’t find any of his starring vehicles that funny. They were mostly tiresome and/or boring. He was always best as a ‘second banana’ or part of an ensemble cast not as the lead actor. His Barney Fife character is fabulous.

  • Georgia Cee

    Rufnek said it perfectly. This is a great movie because it is based on great writing. Read the book, then read the rest of the story of Duane’s life. Read everything you can find that Larry McMurtry wrote.
    Good writing is the basis of good movies. Look at this year’s hits: Descendants, The Help for instance. Good movies needn’t be based on other works but they must have good scripts. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal were so good in When Harry Met Sally because they had a great script to work with as just one very different example.

  • almetrice

    my favorite don knotts movie the incredible mr. limpet

  • Vann Morrison

    Even though it was just a bit part, I thought Don Knotts was great in “No Time for Sergeants”.

  • Larry Jacox

    “The Last Picture Show” hit home on so many levels. I had friend from Kansas and I’m from small-town Washington state. We both felt Bogdonovich/McMurtry had been writing about our home towns in virtually every aspect The perpetual messing around, looking for something to do, scoring some beer when we could, the Friday night high school football games (and, yes, the money/class distinctions) and finally some of us staying home, most of us joining the service. Old buildings with screen doors and dusty roads. One of the best movies made.

  • Andy Hasselbach

    The Last Picture Show is one of my top ten favorite films. I see it essentially as centered on Sonny and the struggle for his soul, between the good people of the town-Sam the Lion, Genevieve at the diner, Billy the mute boy, Miss Mosey at the picture show- and the mean-spirited, crass, immoral people, including Jacy and her nouveau-riche parents. In this respect, Sonny much resembles Lonnie in Hud. I can never see this movie too many times.

  • Joan

    Wish we never had to have Don Knott’s “last picture show”… he was great. My favorite? The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and of course .. Barney.

  • M. Logan

    Ben Johnson: one of the world’s greatest horsemen! Also a wonderful actor. His scene in Shane where he apologizes to Alan Ladd is one of my favorites, and he truly deserved his Oscar in TLPS.

    Don Knotts’ funniest movie, to me, was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. What a career he had!

  • Jim

    “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” and The Incredible Mr. Limpet” are, and will remain, two of my favorites of all time… but a few more of note-worthiness are “The Shakiest Gun in the West and The Reluctant Astronaut.”

  • Mike

    Just a great great film. I went to see it because I had seen a interview with the director..Peter Bogdanovich and recognised him as someone I had seen interviewing Orson Wells endlessly on the set of a film that I had worked on. I was blown away from start to finish. I left the film haunted by the ending and also feeling so bad for the coachs wife played by someone I had never seen before ..I thought. I went home that night and watched for the first time a TV show that I had heard about but never seen. There was Cloris Leachman as dizzy as could be playing a person the exact opposite of the charactor I had felt so sorry for. I never missed the MTM show again and I have never stopped thinking about The Last Picture Show

  • Digvijay

    I rlealy like how you stay true to your ideas and aren’t afraid of some good ole fashioned controversy. I’m liking the blog, and continuing to dropping my exitcard

  • Lakshitha

    I agree with you in piilcrpne. The trouble comes in trying to balance controversy with likability. I’ve seen way too many people come off looking like an a$$hole.

  • Croonerman

    The Last Picture Show is one of my favorites also, Ben Johnson telling the story of the girl on the
    horse, which was a surprise for me to note it was Genevieve from the diner! Eventhough it was in
    B&W it did not dispel me from loving it, especially the dust and old buildings falling apart. You wonder how anybody could live there!–Loved it!