The Austin Chronicle

The Cinematic Wisdom of Hank Sr.

By Christopher Gray, February 14, 2007, 6:38pm, Newsdesk

The other night, TCB's dreams of one day going to sleep before dawn were dashed yet again when The Last Picture Show came on at 2:45am. On TCM, no less, meaning Cybill Shepherd's iconic (once upon a time, anyway) diving-board scene wasn't digitally blurred and, more importantly, zero commercial interruptions. Released in 1971, this movie has been a longtime favorite for many reasons: the unforgiving black-and-white cinematography, Ben Johnson's bravura Oscar-winning performance as deceptively gruff Sam the Lion, even the idea that back then a trip to Wichita Falls was a big night on the town. But as good as the acting, direction, and screenplay are, The Last Picture Show really belongs to Hank Williams Sr.

Music permeates The Last Picture Show, but the film has no score. Its soundtrack is entirely songs playing on the radio, jukebox, or a record player, and roughly half of those songs are Williams'. In Anarene, Texas, based on novelist and co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry's hometown, Archer City, only rich people have television, and besides grousing about the nontackling football team at the cafe or pool hall, there is precious little to do in Anarene but fool around, suffer the consequences, and start all over again. In other words, the arc from "Hey, Good Lookin'" through "Cold, Cold Heart" to "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)." Oddly enough, considering one of the main plot elements is an extramarital affair, the only well-known Williams song not included in the film is "Your Cheatin' Heart." Go figure.

Williams' songs appear most often on the car radio (director Peter Bogdanovich plays the DJ) or on the jukebox at Sam the Lion's pool hall, places where songs of loneliness and heartbreak belong. They're nowhere to be found at the several parties the characters attend; the musical fare there is sappy period pop like Pee Wee King's "Slow Poke" and Johnnie Ray's "Please, Mr. Sun." There's great music in this world - Kay Starr's "Wheel of Fortune," Tony Bennett doing "Blue Velvet" - but by and large, the bland arrangements and pie-eyed lyrics stand in sharp contrast to Williams' lovesick blues. When they're not fooling around, the characters, rich and poor, dream of escaping Anarene and their dead-end lives, and Williams' songs linger as a near-constant reminder of how hard that really is.

"This is an awful small town for any kind of carrying on," Eileen Brennan's wise waitress Genevieve tells Timothy Bottoms' Sonny after his affair with the coach's wife fizzles out. "Why don't you go play a record?"

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