The Last Picture Show could easily suffice for a dictionary definition of Georges Polti's thesis of misfortune, but a mere entry would miss the film's dusty elegance. Peter Bogdanovich made his directorial debut at age 32 with this near-epic tale based on Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name, and both shone as jewels of their genres.
Not much has gone right for anyone in the fading North Texas town of Anarene in the early Fifties, its utter hopelessness underscored by gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Played out around graduation and revisited a few weeks later after a rite-of-passage trip to Mexico, a group of high school seniors (Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid) yearns to escape their parents' fate yet take paths that keep them there. The film made stars of its brilliant cast, including Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, and Ellen Burstyn, but it was Ben Johnson's Oscar-winning performance as Sam the Lion that roared with life, that visceral connection of a veteran actor's passion, a hungry young director's vision, and the role of a lifetime. Shepherd, as the town tease Jacy, was arguably the riskiest casting, since she was Bogdanovich's girlfriend and a successful Cover Girl model with no acting experience. Shepherd's initial acting career was some hit (The Heartbreak Kid, Taxi Driver) and mostly miss (Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love), until she came into her own as an actress in the Eighties with Moonlighting, but as the achingly blond Jacy, she was all-American pristine. Bridges played her fumbling boyfriend with a limited future but the hottest piece in town, and he played that role with swagger and style. Cloris Leachman, as the coach's repressed wife, falls into awkward romance with Bottoms' graduating football player Sonny, the one bloom in this desert of misfortune that is ultimately trampled when he elopes with Jacy. But it's the interplay between such actors as Johnson and Ellen Burstyn as Jacy's sultry mother that linger in the film's wake. Their tender recollections of a long-past affair, not so faded in emotion but never again in action, resonate with the kind of elegance most films only aspire to. The Last Picture Show remains a definitive film about the Lone Star State, brittle and relentless as the dry West Texas wind.
The Last Picture Show screens Sunday, June 20, 7pm, and Monday, June 21, 7:30pm.
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