THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) revisited

September 27, 2013

last pic1 Greetings again from the darkness.  Tuesday night was a real treat for this movie lover.  Thanks to the Dallas Film Society, Frost Bank and Alamo Drafthouse, the first in a Texas-themed film series was presented … The Last Picture Show.   As I have stated many times, seeing the classics in a theatre goes far beyond reminiscing. It is experiencing the best of cinematic art in the forum its creators meant for it to be seen.

Forty-two years ago, director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich and writer Larry McMurtry (screenplay and novel) assembled a cast that blended veteran stage, screen and TV actors such as Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, with an energetic and fresh-faced group of relative unknowns such as Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd.  It was the first screen appearance for Quaid and Shepherd (who had been a successful last jeff cybillteenage model), as well as Sam Bottoms (Timothy’s brother) who plays Billy, the smiling, sweeping mute boy who so adores Sonny and Duane.  Of course, Bridges had been acting off and on through his childhood thanks to his dad Lloyd, but this was his breakout role.

It’s not unusual for this film to be pre-judged as some simplistic, outmoded black and white movie with no relevance to today’s world.  In fact, a better argument can be made that this is one of the finest commentaries ever made on human nature, friendship, growing up, mentoring and personal dreams.  You might wonder how a story that takes place in some tiny, desolate, wind-blown rural Texas town in 1951 (the start of the Korean War) has anything to do with society today.  The small town setting actually strips away all distractions of today’s stories and focuses on what makes people tick … why they do the things they do.  We see the strong, the weak, the disabled, the rich, the poor, the innocence of youth, the melancholy middle-aged and the impact our decisions and actions have on others.  It’s easy to ask “why do they stay” or “what makes life worth living” in Anarene.  Those same questions are asked by many people every day in any town or city you can name, regardless of size or location. This is also one of those rare movies that causes your outlook and perception to change depending on your age.  When I first watched, I was seeing through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), while now I relate much more to Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).  Not many movies have that kind of generational power.

last ben The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Cinematographer, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), with wins for Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman) and Supporting Actor (Ben Johnson).   The French Connection was the big winner that year, and other nominees included A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof.  What a year!  Ms. Leachman and Mr. Johnson (pictured left) are both heart-breakingly terrific in the movie. Johnson’s scene at the fish tank is mesmerizing and he perfectly captures the wistful wonderings of so many middle-aged men who feel like life has passed them by.  I’ve often interpreted Sonny and Duane as the two sides of Sam the Lion (what he once was and what he is now). Johnson passed away in 1996, but used his wonderful slow drawl and strong presence in such films as The Wild Bunch, Dillinger and many John Ford westerns. Ms. Leachman (still working today in “Raising Hope” after striking it big in “Mary Tyler Moore” and Young Frankenstein) generates such empathy from the viewer as she re-discovers a reason to live.  She is also the key to what I consider one of the most powerful closing scenes in cinematic history.  As for the others, Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn are both in their 5th decade of Hollywood stardom and have each won Oscars.  Eileen Brennan has a very memorable moment in this film where she shoots one of those filled-with-disgust glares at Jacy (Shepherd). It’s one of those looks that only exists between one woman and another. Ms. Brennan (who passed away earlier this year) was Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Private Benjamin (1980).

last bog Equally fascinating are the stories of the creative forces behind the film.  Peter Bogdanovich (pictured left) was a film historian and film critic when he broke into Hollywood as a bit actor and filmmaker.  He later had some directorial success with such films as Paper Moon (1973) and Mask (1985), but he never again reached this level as a director (though very few do).  In fact, much of his career has been spent as a supporting actor (including a psychiatrist in “The Sopranos”).  Bogdanovich can be heard as the DJ on the radio during this film … a New Yorker giving his best impression of a Texan.  Married to his artistic collaborator and (later) producer Polly Platt while filming this movie, he soon began a very public affair with young Cybill Shepherd. They made quite the high profile couple for a short while.  You might remember the story of 1980 Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Paul Snider, and was the subject of Bob Fosse’s film Star 80.  At the time of her death, Stratten was dating Bogdanovich.  A few years later, Bogdanovich married Dorothy’s younger sister Louise.  Even in Hollywood, this was greeted with raised eyebrows.  Bogdanovich worshipped the films of Truffaut, Ford and his friend Orson Welles … the influence of each is visible in The Last Picture Show. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich was never able to re-capture the magic of this 1971 gem.  Some blame his divorce from Polly Platt, while last mcmothers claim it was writer Larry McMurtry’s input that helped make the film something special. In addition to this novel and screenplay, McMurtry (pictured left) is also known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove” (later an award winning TV mini-series),  his novel “Terms of Endearment” (adapted into an Oscar winning movie), and his screenplay for Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain.  Despite all the success, it’s The Last Picture Show that hits closest to home … it’s a semi-autobiographical rendering of his life in Archer City, Texas (renamed Anarene in the film).  Even today, McMurtry is a book seller and frequent resident in Archer City.  In 2011, he married the widow of author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).  Lastly, cinematographer Robert Surtees captured the desolate landscape of Anarene through his horizontal pans of a landscape that never seems to change.  Mr. Surtees was a 16 time Oscar nominee for such films as Oklahoma!, The Graduate, A Star is Born and one of his three wins came for the classic Ben-Hur.  His son Bruce followed in his shoes and was Oscar nominated for his work on Lenny (1975)

last tim cloris There are a few other things I like to point out in regards to the film.  The high school teacher reciting Keats’ “Truth and Beauty” to a class who couldn’t care less is John Hillerman (a native Texan), who went on to stardom in “Magnum P.I.” in the 1980’s.  Randy Quaid received an Oscar nomination just two years later for his work in the great The Last Detail. Of course, he later went on to star as Cousin Eddie in the ‘Vacation’ movies. Clu Gulager plays town lothario Abilene. He is the son of vaudeville star John Gulager, who worked with George M Cohan. Clu has had a long career in TV and movies and even appeared in last year’s Piranha 3DD … at age 84!  The music in the film corresponds closely to the story and much of it is the work of the great Hank Williams, Sr. Check out the two versions of “Cold, Cold Heart” as they are performed by both Williams and Tony Bennett.  Now THAT’s how you use music in a flm!  Cybill Shepherd became a star thanks to her work here, then in Taxi Driver, and in the hit TV show “Moonlighting” (with Bruce Willis), her own show “Cybill”, and the Showtime series “The L Word”.  She continues her work in both TV and movies.  As previously mentioned, she began a very public affair with director Peter Bogdanovich while filming this movie. What many don’t know is that she was actually seeing Elvis Presley at the time, and chose Bogdanovich over the King of Rock and Roll.

In 1990, director Bogdanovich revisited Anarene and caught up with the characters 30 years later in the sequel Texasville.  While it’s based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name, Mr. McMurtry was not involved in the production and Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay himself.  Many of the original cast reprised their roles, but the film was not well received either critically or at the box office.   On the bright side, The Last Picture Show was selected to become part of The National Film Registry in 1998.  Maybe the film deserved a happy ending after all.

**NOTE: I have elected not to post the original movie trailer as it is my opinion that if you have not seen the movie, it’s best to view it with fresh eyes … in other words, the trailer shows too much of a few critical scenes.

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THE LAST DETAIL (1973) revisited

March 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Last evening I attended the second film in the monthly 1970’s series being presented by the Dallas Film Society, Landmark Magnolia Theatre and Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.  This one happens to be one of my all-time favorites and one that seems to have been forgotten by many … THE LAST DETAIL.

It would be easy enough to understand how the film has drifted into oblivion and become just another one of the many fine films that were born during an incredibly prolific and ground-breaking era, if not for these factors:

1. It received 3 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Randy Quaid); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)

2. It features what may be Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, and certainly one of his top 5.

3. The screenplay was written by the great Robert Towne from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan

4. The film was directed by the beloved (but troubled) Hal Ashby, who had a remarkable string of films that garnered a very faithful following

5. Its humor and poignancy hold up very well today as evidenced by last night’s audience response

 Admittedly, I have always viewed this as a “Guy’s movie” – one of those movies that guys love to quote and girls love to hate.  The audience last night was at least one-third female and the overall response was very strong, especially from those who had not previously seen the movie.  Sure, there was one lady who called the film “despicable”, but as Mr. Vognar pointed out, she was probably bringing her own values and morals into the story. 

To do that is to miss the point entirely.  No denying, there is an enormous amount of booze, fighting, shoplifting, prostitution and swearing.  Oh my, the amount and severity of swearing never ceases to amaze. What’s important to note, and has been stated by Mr. Towne on numerous occasions, these are lifelong military men who feel trapped and powerless most of their waking hours.  The swearing and bravado serve as their defense mechanism … their last grasp of independence. 

Though I have seen the film numerous times over the years, I was struck by two things last night.  First, Randy Quaid’s performance brings an incredible amount of humanity and sympathy to a character that demanded a certain approach.  Many actors would have over-played it, but 22 year old Quaid’s baby-face works magic in the scenes where we see the two hard-nosed sailors begin to soften their stance.  Second, Otis Young as Mulhall showed much more range than I had remembered.  He is the perfect centerpiece between Nicholson and Quaid.  As a side note, this was Gilda Radner‘s big screen debut and a couple of years before the birth of Saturday Night Live.

 A quick note on Nicholson.  This is a far different Nicholson than what we have seen recently in The Bucket List or Something’s Gotta Give.  He was coming off a star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces and was on his way to Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This is a great actor at his absolute peak.  Sure, there is the infamous “I am the bleepity-bleep Shore Patrol” outburst in the bar, but more impressive are his scenes on the trains, or at the picnic.  Great stuff.

Lastly, I’ll mention director Hal Ashby.  His string of fabulous “little” films include Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There … each quirky, but incredibly insightful, and proof of just what a fine filmmaker he was.

Next month’s screening is the political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View.  It was directed by Alan Pakula and stars Warren Beatty.  For all you youngsters, there was a time when Warren Beatty was Hollywood royalty and not just the old guy who hangs around Annette Bening.