Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid and others
This classic drama weaves a rich tapestry of small town American life, warts and all. Until the movie’s release in 1971, the American heartland had been overwhelmingly portrayed as a wholesome, morally upstanding and family orientated space, so it is hardly surprising that the film created a bit of a furore on its release, as it subverted the tacit understanding of not washing the communal laundry in public.
It follows the lives of a group of Texan youngsters finishing their final year of school in 1951, against a backdrop of American football, pool halls, diners and the local cinema. However, this is not the generally pictured America of verdant green fields and happy-go-lucky rites of passage. The town is run down, employment opportunities are limited and the Korean war is looming. The kids hang around aimlessly trying to find entertainment in what little options there are, which mostly means drinking and making out. The older inhabitants of the town seem to be caught up in their own affairs, some stoically accept their fate, while others find temporary relief in television, booze and illicit trysts. The two exceptions being the owner of the pool hall and the waitress working in the diner. They seem to be the only adults interested in the kids’ lives and willing to impart a few words of wisdom.
Director, Bogdanovich, stayed commendably close to the source material – Larry McMurtry’s eponymous novel – showing us the alcohol abuse, boredom, classism and sexual shenanigans so typical of, but often covered up in many small town communities. He even managed to shoot the movie in Larry McMurtry’s Texas home town, showing an almost obsessive regard for authenticity. Despite its controversial reputation, the movie manages to steer clear of superficial voyeurism and city slicker schadenfreude, with an excellent cast bringing their respective characters to life in such a nuanced way that you can’t help buying into their trials and tribulations. It deservedly launched the careers of leads, Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges, as well as director Peter Bogdanovich, into the stratosphere, after winning two Oscars and being nominated for eight.
The Last Picture Show is a movie that reminds us about the hypocrisy, desperation and small cruelties, but also the loyalty, forgiveness and enduring friendships that are part of the human condition everywhere. That makes it a timeless classic that should speak to us all.