THE LAST PICTURE SHOW AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
(This post appears a little early. I am teaching fiction here on Kythnos next week, and there will be no new post until Saturday February 18th)
Nostalgia can be a deceptive and embarrassing thing, and some of those favourite movies you revisit 40 or more years on, can seem trite and unbearable, and make you feel ashamed of what you once loved and therefore arguably once were. I’m relieved to say this is not so for me in one important instance , with the 2 black and white masterpieces of US director Peter Bogdanovich (born 1939), the first of which The Last Picture Show won every award going when it appeared in 1971, almost half a century ago. This was a hypnotically understated and beautifully poignant coming of age drama set in the early 1950s in the fictional North Texas town of Abilene, and was based on an autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry (born 1936) is a hugely successful author most of whose novels have been filmed, and those movies include Hud (1963) with Paul Newman as the wild rancher’s son, and Terms of Endearment (1983) with Debra Winger as the terminally cancerous mother, victim of husband Jeff Daniels’ adultery and with Shirley MacLaine as her uptight and volatile parent. McMurtry also wrote Lonesome Dove in 1985, an engrossing rancher saga which was turned into a mega TV blockbuster series.
2 years after The Last Picture Show, in 1973, Bogdanovich, still filming in black and white, produced a tender, rich and unsentimental 1930s Depression era story, about a good looking con man variously selling expensive dedicatory Bibles to credulous recent widows, and stealing bootleg liquor from a Texas sheriff’s brother, then brazenly selling it back to him! The film was Paper Moon, the con man subtly portrayed as irritable, infinitely callow, yet strugglingly sincere by Ryan O’ Neal (born 1941), of erstwhile 1960s TV Peyton Place fame. The swindler’s 10-year-old daughter and partner in crime, was played with astonishing shrewdness and precocious wisdom by Ryan’s own daughter Tatum O’ Neal (born 1963) and for my money at any rate is the best performance by any child actor ever.
Coming of age movies have quite rightly a bad press, especially the numerous febrile US ones that followed on from Bogdanovich’s tour de force. Films like American Pie (1999) with all its numerous spin-offs, are all drive-in scrabbling rear seat sex, two-dimensional masturbatory hilarity, and a surfeit of what nowadays is laughably called material that is ‘gross’. Instead Picture Show explores the convincing and uncomfortable adolescent anguish of the handsome high school senior Duane played by Jeff Bridges (born 1949) infatuated with Jaycee, the beautiful blond schoolmate who is a first class shallow and manipulative young femme fatale. Jaycee is perfectly portrayed by Cybill Shepherd (born 1950) in this her film debut. Alas Duane fails to perform in their first tryst in a motel with all their schoolmates parked outside waiting to get an unedited report on how it went. Duane is ordered to lie to them, in favour of an ecstatic and unforgettable loss of Jaycee’s virginity, and earlier she had secretly attended a nude swimming party, invited there by a gauche and gormless youth played by Randy Quaid, born 1950 (onomatopoeic first name, eh). Desperate to become a real woman, Jaycee had tried to ingratiate herself with Bobby Sheen, the moneyed son of the mansion with the splendid pool, but Sheen coolly and unpleasantly informs her that he will only have sex with her once she has lost her virginity.
Bogdanovich was one of the wave of New Hollywood Directors, alongside e.g. Coppola, Scorsese and de Palma, who made their names in the 1970s. Born in New York his mother was Austrian Jewish and his father a Serbian Orthodox Christian. In his youth, he watched up to 400 movies a year (as amazingly so did I, your present blogperson, I can’t help but cheerfully boast, in my early 50s, around 2002, if we are talking about TV videos and world cinema recorded from Artsworld and Film4). Bogdanovich claimed that he was influenced by the films and artistic credo of Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) and that is certainly detectable in his terse and cryptic dialogue, but even more so I would say in Picture Show he is reminiscent of early Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) of Seven Samurai and Rashomon fame. Kurosawa’s melancholy 1952 black and white masterpiece Ikiru (‘To Live’) about a terminally ill Japanese bureaucrat struggling to make sense of his final days, gains much of its power from focusing on the troubled face of the main character played by Takashi Shimura, and ditto with Sonny, the gentle and pensive best friend of Duane who is played by Timothy Bottoms (born 1951) and who is the pivotal hero of the film. Over and over again the movie is punctuated by Duane and Sonny’s 50s jalopy swinging into Abilene on a dismal claustrophobic day of howling wind and whirling dust. Always there is the young boy Billy with his learning difficulties sweeping the sandstormed town with his old-fashioned broom and alternating this with sweeping the town’s only 2 assets, the pool hall and the diner run by dry, unfoolable Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson, 1918-1996) and Genevieve (Eileen Brennan, 1932-2013) respectively, both confidants and unsentimental parent figures to Duane and Sonny. It is that repetitive howling windblown milieu with its always sweeping simpleton Billy, that is so reminiscent of the pathos of the subtle oriental cinema of Kurosawa or the Bengali Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) where the audiences’ eyes have to work as hard as their ears when it comes to vivid and simple yet infinitely potent artistic effects.
Billy is played by Sam Bottoms (1955-2008) who sadly died early of brain cancer, and who was the younger brother of Timothy Bottoms. Another repetitive and unforgettable motif is the precise positioning of Billy’s baseball cap which he wears peak forward, and which Sonny and Duane always turn peak backwards then pat him tenderly on the shoulder. Their protective brotherliness only goes so far however. One day a group of hilarious school friends led by Duane and Sonny introduce Billy to the adult world, by buying him a session in a car with a raucous and foul-tempered prostitute. Billy ejaculates prematurely much to the disgust of the pro, and she rattles him across the ear and flings him out of the car for making such a mess. One of the most moving scenes in the film is innocent Billy sprawled there in the dust, with a humiliating bare backside and tangled underpants, as he struggles to stand upright and regain any mite of dignity. When Sam the Lion discovers what has happened to his vulnerable young employee, he reads the riot act to Sonny and Duane. and bans them from his pool hall, though later being a sage and forgiving man he relents and they return. Ironically he even goes so far as to give Duane and Sonny money to go on a woman chasing expedition to Mexico, no doubt because he feels they need the animal relief more than young Billy does.
Much of the power of the film comes from Timothy Bottoms’ extraordinarily sensitive and expressive face, the Shimura-style anguish he shows at Sam’s honest and quietly stated anger, his own pathetic culpability, and later the wordless tenderness that is there when he initiates an affair with 40-year-old Ruth (Cloris Leachman, born 1926) neglected wife of the school’s football coach. Leachman who is now 90, rightly won an Academy Award for her role, as she too communicates much more by her pained and hopeless face, than by her sparse dialogue, when it comes to chronic lack of self-esteem, and her touching teenage excitement when she anticipates Sonny’s next romantic visit.
In the meantime, Jaycee gives up on Duane and he angrily responds by taking a job on a Texas oil rig, meaning that he sees a great deal less of Sonny as well as the woman he is besotted with. In the interim Jaycee manages to seduce and sleep with her mother’s clandestine partner who kicks her bleakly out of his lorry once they have had their ad hoc sex on top of a deserted pool table. She also inveigles Sonny into a relationship on the pragmatic grounds that he is probably the best of the available bunch in wretched Abilene. Theatrically she declares her undying love and even persuades him to go over the state border to get married. Unfortunately, they are intercepted by a policeman dispatched by her parents, the dour and phlegmatic mother being played by Ellen Burstyn (born 1932) of The Exorcist (1973) fame. Equally harrowing is the fact that their lodestone Sam the Lion has died of a stroke while Duane and Sonny were in Mexico, and that Sam has left the pool hall to Sonny in his will. Duane now angrily confronts Sonny with his betrayal, sleeping with his woman Jaycee, even if she had temporarily rejected him, it was not the act of a real best buddy. Sonny’s speechless tussle with these complicated ethics is portrayed perfectly in his lips and eyes and worried cheek muscles, but finally he turns rebellious and even taunts Duane’s inability to perform in the motel bed with Jaycee. An ugly fight ensues, which results in Sonny being hospitalised, where it belatedly occurs to him that embroiled with Jaycee he has of course had nothing to do with his middle-aged mistress Ruth for months.
Several poignant themes conjoin seamlessly as the film comes to its end. Early in the film Sam The Lion had taken Sonny to a remote pool where he liked to fish, and had revealed that once long ago he had had a secret love affair, and had even gone crazy skinny dipping there with his beloved. Later, after the debacle of the failed elopement, Jaycee’s mother confides that she was Sam’s secret lover and it was a love beyond any she has known. Duane still smarting from Jaycee’s rejection decides to enlist in the army and to fight in Korea. Meanwhile and tragically Billy is not vigilant enough when sweeping the main square and is hit by a truck and killed. The truck driver and the sheriff and sundry cold-hearted cronies show not a whit of pity, but like some sort of righteous choir of crows they blame gormless Billy for not watching his back. Then follows the first of two incendiary explosions as Sonny screams at them for their incredible hard-heartedness and lifts Billy’s body in his arms to remove him from the windblown square. Without his vulnerable young friend, with Duane maybe about to be killed in Korea, and with Jaycee coolly looking elsewhere, he does what we all expect, and returns to Ruth’s house for some sympathy. At first stunned after so many months of separation, eventually she finds her voice and bawls her stifled rage at his pathetic selfishness, and even blames him for a parallel neglect in the case of Billy. For had he patiently looked out for him like a true older friend, the young boy would not have been killed by a careless and stony old truck driver.
Update with matters of related interest. Especially concerning Cybill Shepherd
32 year-old Bogdanovich fell in love with 21 year-old Cybill Shepherd (Jaycee), a former model, during the filming of The Last Picture Show. Ultimately it led to his divorce from his wife Polly Platt, his long-time artistic collaborator, and the one who had encouraged him to cast Shepherd in the first place. Forthright Cybill claimed that during the filming she was also intimate with Jeff Bridges, Larry McMurtry and the location manager Frank Marshall.
Some other historical paramours are cited in her 2000 autobiography Cybill Disobedience – How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood and The Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think. She claims that she dated Elvis in the early 1970s but found his drug dependence too hard to cope with and that ultimately she chose Bogdanovich over him.
Now 66, she is also a vocal activist for both gay rights and abortion rights, i.e. she won’t be flirting with celebrities like Donald Trump soon.