Peter Bogdanovich is a director in love with cinema itself, and that’s encapsulated best in his ode to the Golden Era, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Outside of its reminiscences towards a way of life that may never have existed outside of an Andy Hardy movie, Bogdanovich deconstructs the American family, the small town, and how movies influence the way of life within both spheres.
Three high schoolers learn about life and love in their dusty West Texas town in 1951.
Bogdanovich is a fan of the downtrodden working folk. People eager to find a dollar or escape the confines of their narrow lives however they can. The Last Picture Show acts as a set-up to his other feature that espouses similar themes, 1973’s Paper Moon. Whether it’s Ryan O’Neal’s Moses and his desire to make a buck or Sonny Crawford’s (Timothy Bottoms) attempts to make something of himself, Bogdanovich’s characters all live up the adage that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. High school seniors Sonny, Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Jacey (Cybill Shepard) start the film with their lives ahead of them. They’re surrounded by small minds and quaint shops, where a young boy literally sweeps the dust out of the road. Duane is a football star – a perfect outlet for Bridges’ swaggering and posturing – while Jacy is the town belle. Sonny, well there’s not much that Sonny particularly wants. He’s apathetic to everything, treating the high school football team winning no different than seeing Father of the Bride (1951) at the town’s only movie theater.
The film takes a lackadaisical approach, a year in the life mentality that’s often plotless. The movie develops as the characters do, and it’s astounding that so much of the film feels improvised but was heavily scripted by Bogdanovich. The teens problems are all relatable, whether it be what to do for a career or wanting to lose one’s virginity. Bottoms’ Sonny is the closest thing for a main character, but on a personal level he’s the least interesting. The scene stealer is then-ingenue Cybill Shepard as the “poor little rich girl” Jacy Farrow. Shepard is immediately perceived as a wide-eyed innocent, unaware of her power on men, but that’s a gross misunderstanding. Jacy has goals in life, but they’re doomed to failure. Ellen Burstyn’s Lois, Jacy’s mom, hopes to spare her daughter’s feelings by giving her a harsh dose of reality. Telling her “you don’t know a thing about” love, marriage and sex. Bogdanovich’s dialogue beautifully unfurls the mother/daughter relationship, leaving us with a character who could be a miser on the surface but is remarkably complex.
The Last Picture Show has a slew of scholarly criticism about so I urge you to seek it out. The hardest part about writing this review, two months after watching it, is how reliant on emotion the film is. The way shots are composed and characters interact, it’s often not a simple case of deconstructing dialogue and plot motivation. Really, this is just my attempt to explain why this review took me four days to write and is only 500 words! In the end, The Last Picture Show isn’t my favorite Bogdanovich movie – that honor sticks with Paper Moon – but it’s a poignant tale of growing up, and realizing that time marches on; nostalgia, as much as you love it, will soon become passe.
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