Film Treatment for the Really, Truly (No Kidding This Time) 'Last Picture Show'
The Rolling Roadshow takes over Archer City to screen Bogdanovich's classic among the people who inspired it
FADE IN: A two-lane highway a few miles from Archer City, Texas. The red dirt on the roadside has been stripped bare for construction of additional lanes. The camera finds our intrepid reporter at the wheel mulling his mission a pilgrimage to the promised land of Larry McMurtry, the author's hometown and the setting/source for a 1950s-set tale of the death of small-town Texas with its stew of high school football, drunken road trips to Mexico, oil wells, gossiped-about sexscapades, and tumbleweeds. On the satellite radio the Ramones are singing "I Wanna Be Sedated." Black-and-white Holstein cows dot the horizon. It's 5:10pm as we enter the city limits and linger on the town's one blinking red light. A man in a blue work shirt exits a truck toting the small ice chest that had served as his lunch pail. It's Friday, and the workday is done.
CLOSE UP of the Royal Theater Marquee. It reads The Last Picture Show. See the goosebumps rise on the writer's arm. This is Archer City, the town that snubbed Peter Bogdanovich's film version of McMurtry's novel, forcing many scenes to be shot in neighboring areas. The theatre is a shell, gutted long before filming, its outer brick wall torn asunder. Here the camera finds Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse impresario, kingpin, dreamer. He scurries about, instructing a worker in the fine art of popcorn. Laying out T-shirts. Hammering in lights. Positioning the inflatable movie screen. League is at the start of a three-week adventure his vacation, really that includes odd screenings like this across the West: It Came From Outer Space in Roswell, N.M.; Bullitt in San Francisco; Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil's Tower, Wyo.
CUT to the Onion Creek Grill. The walls are lined with Texas license plates from the Fifties and a few stray deer heads. The girl behind the counter wipes sweat from her brow and looks with wide eyes at the ever-growing crowd of strangers from Austin, Dallas, and other places so far from here. In the background, Hank Williams sings "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)," as if straight from The Last Picture Show soundtrack. By the register is an autographed photo of Jeff Bridges. This film has seeped into Archer City's soul.
PAN around the town square to discover the four buildings McMurtry has filled to the brim with books, creating a tourist attraction that brought new life here. His recent threat to close Booked Up sent nerdy bibliophiles scurrying forth, but now he's changed his mind. "I said to Larry, 'We should have done this a long time ago,'" says Mary Webb, proprietor of Lonesome Dove Inn and McMurtry's high school classmate. "It's kind of like Cher's last tour."
CUT to the grassy field next to the Royal Theater. More than 200 folding chairs bloom as the sun dips to the horizon. Slap at bugs. The theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey blares through the speakers as the portable film screen inflates to its full majesty. An attractive, 50ish woman, her husband, and friends from nearby Wichita Falls (where the naked swimming-pool party takes place in the film) nestle in and douse themselves with mosquito repellent before spotting friends. "I tell you what, your daughter gets prettier every day," the husband says. "She gave me a hug and I about popped a button. You ready for football season?" To the side of them Mary Webb, her little brother, and his new family are late arrivals. They have never seen the movie together and will nudge each other throughout with the insider knowledge that so-and-so really did do that. They don't have to look far for proof. Their sister Ceil Cleveland is commonly believed to be the model for young sexpot Jacy Farrow.
"This is the first time people have been able to watch a movie inside the Royal Theater since it burned down in the later Sixties," League points to the small contingent actually on the theater's old slab. "This is a historic moment in Texas film history." He introduces Polly Platt, film producer and Bogdanovich's then-wife, who asks how many in the crowd are actually from Archer City. Perhaps a dozen hands raise. "I was hoping the generations had brought more friends to The Last Picture Show than we had," she says. "Nobody would talk to us, I swear." The camera finds Platt's eyes as she remembers that first trip here: an hour before sunset, the hard chill of winter just like in the film's opening scene. "It was dead empty," she recalls. "I thought, how could a guy like Larry McMurtry come from a place like this? It's so dead. But you've brought it back to life." Platt tells of using McMurtry's high school yearbooks as a guide for set design, and Mary Webb nudges her brother again. This is their story, the story of their town and generations of its people. "Larry would sit and listen to the old men on the corner and he'd remember," Mary says. "I don't think he was vindictive at all. He was just telling their stories."
PULL BACK to reveal a full moon in a twinkling, cloudless sky. A puffy tree partially obscures the screen. The red of the Royal Theater marquee can be seen from behind. The audience is lost in the flicker of the screen.