My only other experience of Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial works has been through the rather excellent What’s Up Doc? which was and remains a perennial screwball comedy classic. So it came as quite the surprise to find him applying his more than competent style to a serious piece – in black and white no less – showing us the lives of a number of residents in a small town in the United States that is slowly dying in the face of wider expansion elsewhere in Texas and across the rest of the country in the early 1950s.
But then, all anyone seems to do in this town is snog, get naked and fumble around, such is the general state of malaise that is affecting the place. There’s youth here but it’s stifled, directionless, without purpose. What little entertainment can be found outside of these base endeavours is limited to a pool hall, a movie theatre and the local cafe – the latter of which is often staffed by Eileen Brennan who I recognised instantly after enjoying her performance as Mrs Peacock in Clue – another film set during the same era of McCarthyism, funnily enough.
There is a strangely non-erotic tone to each of the very many sex scenes, it’s an almost impersonal and awkward glance at small town relationships. The number of potential partners is limited due to the amount of people living in the area, and the interactions between the young, the middle aged and the elderly is perfectly captured and represented.
The main focus is on the friendship and gradual emotional growth of Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (the usually excellent Jeff Bridges). Their friendship is often tested, occasionally breaks, but ultimately they are friends to the end no matter what happens to them or the disagreements they may have over how to live their lives.
It also happens to be an impressive cast. Not only do we have a debuting Cybill Shepherd as Jacy Farrow and Ellen Burstyn as her good looking mother, but there’s also Cloris Leachman, aka Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein as a woman who enters into an affair with Sonny. It is their relationship, other than the friendship between him and Duane, that has the most depth as it eventually balances somewhere between love and hate, although Jacy’s boredom leading her to sleep with half the town (apparently) comes close to matching it. Lurking somewhere not far behind this relationship is the one between Sonny and his disabled friend Billy, culminating in a touching finale.
There’s um… there’s also Randy Quaid. He’s not too bad here to be completely honest, but there’s always a lingering thought of his role in Independence Day in the back of your mind every time you see him in anything else, even in films like this that long pre-date his role in the alien invasion blockbuster.
It’s easy to see why The Last Picture Show garnered awards attention at the time of release. On first glance the gradual decline of the town may indicate a story with a slow pace and something likely to limit your appreciation of the story, but instead it’s a potent character study that remains gripping simply because it represents a small group of people having to make do with what life has given them, and shows how different people may react to the same circumstances. In other words, it is a cinematic classic, and despite the completely different tone is equally as good as Bogdanovich’s work on *What’s Up Doc?”