Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age drama set in a small Texan town. Released in 1971 to critical and commercial acclaim, The Last Picture Show is a film revered by cinephiles for its timeless themes and melancholic take on a genre usually featuring melodrama and the occasional bombastic dance sequence.
Interestingly, few have heard of The Last Picture Show. Whilst heavy hitters from the ‘New Hollywood’ era of filmmaking (approximately 1967-1983) such as Coppola’s The Godfather and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver have been mainstays amongst film lovers for years, Picture Show is often missing from the rosters of Letterboxd lists or group chat recommendations.
This is for one simple reason. Other ‘New Hollywood’ films provoke, glamourise, sensationalise, and criticise a certain view of America. They take small facets of society and use them to deconstruct human nature and the American Dream. Alternatively, The Last Picture Show presents us with a bleak, depressing reality that few would like to acknowledge exists.
The film centres around 3 teenagers coming-of-age in 1951-52. The core trio are Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd in her debut role). Rounding off the ensemble are Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, and Ben Johnson as community leader Sam the Lion. The latter two won Academy Awards for their performances.
What makes The Last Picture Show so poignant fifty years on is the sense of melancholy that pervades the film. In the small town of Anarene, Texas, there is quite literally nowhere to go and nothing to do. Bogdanovich opens the film with a wide of the town: lifeless, bleak, and deserted. This initial sense of dread and isolation only builds as the film goes on.
By shooting the film in black and white, Bogdanovich lends the film a timeless quality that only adds to the melancholy. Nothing really moves in Anarene. Even cars, which are so often used as symbols of teen rebellion and freedom, barely leave the confines of the small town. Its aesthetics evoke Dorothea Lange’s photography of the dustbowl. Everything has a grey, grainy quality. Sam the Lion’s face is weathered and tired whilst young Billy’s (Sam Bottoms) innocence is wrapped in a dusty shroud, showing how even the young are made to feel old in Anarene.
Now, intentionally I haven’t discussed much of the plot in this retrospective. This is because it’s best left to the viewer to go on the journey with these characters. For the film to be truly impactful, you need to go in blind. However, one particular highlight is Sam the Lion’s monologue towards the end of the second act.
He discusses how he once brought a woman to one of the town’s few remaining beauty spots. On the surface it’s just an old man recounting a tale to pass the time, but it’s really the scene that best epitomises the film’s message. Sam is reminiscing about a time long past. A time when the world had a sense of beauty and purpose. We cannot see this world, and we can not be sure it even existed, but we still pine for it. It focuses on how all that remains of this world is a concoction of nostalgia and dreams – the most potent yet dangerous drug a man can take.
As The Last Picture Show nears its end, we see our characters grow and change only to realise that there’s nothing waiting for them. Sonny, Duane, and Jacy all have dreams they want to chase. They’re growing up and wanting to explore the world but they can’t. The 1950s were seen as a time of change – the birth of the teenager, diners and drive-ins; fast cars and romantic pursuits. However, what Bogdanovich presents us with is perhaps the most accurate depiction of growing up. Nothing changes as you think it will. Your dreams are never fulfilled and the old times remain great whilst the new ones get worse.
The Last Picture Show is an ode to a lost version of America that no one can quite imagine but doesn’t want to admit is gone. This lost version of America isn’t seen in the film itself, but is the one brought to life in the memories of its characters and the setting of a declining town.
What makes Bogdanovich’s film so poignant 50 years on is that it’s about growing old despite still being young. It’s about the freedoms we seek yet never fully realise. There is a universal feeling in every teenager that the best is over, that our fears of becoming our parents will be realised. It’s part of growing up but it is also what makes The Last Picture Show feel so real. Ultimately, the film is about resigning yourself to accepting a life you never wanted but always knew you’d have.
“Everything gets old if you do it often enough … You’ve ruined it and it’s lost completely.”
“Guess I’m just as sentimental as the next fella when it comes to old times.”