Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
I’ve been told by a number of people that this is a great film. I think it may well be. It addresses one of those issues that seem to always be at the center of any number of films, and comes at the question with a frankness that seems refreshing in its frankness. This is yet another coming of age film, focused on a group of high school students dealing with their burgeoning maturity and with sex. That seems like the same old thing, of course, but The Last Picture Show deals with a larger and far more serious problem.
The issue is the one that is much more pressing to the average adolescent: boredom. When I was in high school, my friends and I drove around on weekends endlessly, putting hundreds of miles on the car and rarely getting more than 20 minutes away from home. We lived in the shadow of Chicago, but only made it into the city a couple of times a year. We pretended we were looking for girls, but we weren’t. We were trying to stop ourselves from being bored. And this was in a place where we had restaurants and movie theaters and stuff to do and a major city about an hour away. The Last Picture Show takes place in a town that has a pool hall, a movie theater, and a diner and nothing else. I suppose the only other thing it does have is teens who are bored and frustrated and looking for anything to quell the roiling agony of their own adolescence.
Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are high school seniors in this one-horse Texas town. The two live together in a rooming house despite having parents in town. Duane is involved with Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), who is the most attractive girl in town and also the wealthiest. Sonny’s girlfriend is Charlene Duggs (Sharon Ullrick). The two are moving slowly toward sex despite the two of them not liking each other very much. Also in town is Billy (Sam Bottoms), the borderline retarded, mute kid who spends his days sweeping the streets.
Sonny, Duane, and Jacy are pretty typical small town kids wanting to be adults and not wanting to wait to get there. Jacy’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants Jacy to find someone other than Duane, since Duane will never amount to much. Jacy realizes this, too, and sets her sights on Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), the local rich boy, who won’t have anything to do with her until she is no longer a virgin. She conspires to have sex with Duane to make herself more desirable for Bobby, then dumps him only to find that Bobby has eloped with someone else. Now alone and depressed, she has an affair with Abilene (Clu Gulager), the mother of her lover. When that goes nowhere, she aims at Sonny, causing a rift between the two friends, since Duane still carries a torch. For his part, Sonny, after breaking up with Charlene, becomes involved with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his basketball coach.
Things get further complicated with the death of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the leading citizen of the town and the man who owns the only three places to go in town. In his will, he leaves the pool hall to Sonny, the movie theater to the feeble old woman who runs the concession, and the diner to Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the waitress and cook. And life in the small town goes on, with everyone hopping into everyone else’s bed, everyone else knowing about it, and nothing much else happening except for the crushing boredom.
I get exactly why this film is as heralded as it is despite its driving around in a very large circle and ending up exactly where it started. Nothing really changes except for the loss of a few townspeople through death or signing up for the military, presumably just as a way to get the hell out of the town. By the end of the film, we’re pretty much where we were on the way in, but with some different configurations of people having sex with each other. Even that isn’t much of a change. We’re given the distinct impression that these seismic shifts occur now and again, then settle down and ossify. Ultimately, these are much smaller and less important changes than the closing of the movie theater, unable to make a go of it without the guiding hand of Sam the Lion.
I think it’s safe to say that The Last Picture Show is a great film in all of the important ways that a film can be great and important. What I’m not sure of is if it is a good film. Despite Cybill Shepherd’s resplendent striptease on a diving board, the film is almost too good at depicting the crushing boredom and despair of these sad and lonely people in this sad and lonely town. As great as it is, it’s not an enjoyable experience.
I don’t mean to denigrate the film at all. There is something both tragic about it and simultaneously beautiful in what it portrays. I’m just not sure it’s something I’d often choose to watch despite its definite gravitas. It’s worth watching, but like most of the people in this Texas town, it may not be worth the commitment.
And with that, I'm done.
Why to watch The Last Picture Show: It’s the truest portrait of adolescence.
Why not to watch: It could be argued that not much happens.