“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
Like François Truffaut, Peter Bogdanovich is one of the few film scholars and critics who went from spouting his opinion, to actually backing it up, by becoming a prestige, A-list director. His career behind the camera has had its rocky patches, but he’s one of those dudes who had a couple of wins big enough early on, that he’ll always be seen as one of the best.
There were criticial and box office highs like the awesome Paper Moon, and some pretty low lows, like Nickelodeon. But before those, there was the movie that put him on the A-list of 70s auteurs, and will likely keep him forever on the A-list of all time, The Last Picture Show.
It’s 1951 in the small town of Anarene Texas. The day after losing their last high school football game of the season, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (a disconcertingly young Jeff Bridges) don’t seem nearly as cut up by the loss as the local adults. Bored, complacent and all a little scared about what will become of their lives after they finish their senior year, Sonny pines after Duane’s girlfriend, school hotty, Jacy (a disconcertingly young Cybill Shepherd).
As their losing football season turns into a losing basketball season, turns into a losing baseball season, turns into graduation, it’s made clear that Sonny and his friends aren’t they only ones trying to figure out what life in Anarene means. There’s also lonely housewife, Ruth (a disconcertingly young Cloris Leachman), Jacy’s mother and disgruntled trophy wife Lois (Ellen Burstyn), and local entrepreneur, mentor, and possibly the only life left in Anarene, Sam “the Lion” (Ben Johnson).
Anarene isn’t just a dying town, it’s already dead, the last few residents just haven’t admitted it yet. Shooting on location, in an actual all but dead Texas town, Peter Bogdanovich manages to capture one of the most depressing communities ever seen on film. The kind of town where Sonny’s girlfriend in the opening scenes might be a high school girl on the outside, but she’s already a bitter and defeated, middle aged woman on the inside.
Johnson and Leachman both won Best Supporting Performance Oscars for their roles, and The Last Picture Show was deservedly nominated for half a dozen more, but watching it now, more than 40 years later, I feel like it deserved even more. At the time, even if they were unknown (like Shepherd), it probably still had a feeling of modern day actors performing in a period setting, just because audiences knew it was new.
Now, all these years later, with all that disconcerting youngness of the actors, and the bleak, black and white cinematography, I’d be surprised if any 2014 viewer realised it was filmed 20 years after its setting. To me, the 50s just seems so real, and the young look of so many actors who’ve since become Hollywood’s old guard, all only adds to that authenticity.
With a couple of cheap and nasty exploitation flicks under his belt, this was Bogdanovich’s first swing at something more substantial, something more prestigious, something that would matter. And he more than delivers.
People like Tarantino or Edgar Wright may have sprung out of the gate with amazingly confident, fully formed directorial styles, but they did it by repurposing big, recognisable genre tropes. With The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich does it with something a lot quieter, a lot more subtle and a lot more restrained. And to me, that makes it all the more impressive.
Best Supporting Actor – Ben Johnson
Best Supporting Actress – Cloris Leachman