Saturday, October 22, 2011
"A person can't sneeze in this town without someone offering them a handkerchief"
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My hair's still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don't you love me like you used to do?
Well, why don't you be just like you used to be?
How come you find so many faults with me?
Somebody's changed so let me give you a clue
Why don't you love me like you used to do?
By Edward Copeland
Even if Hank Williams Sr. weren't well represented with songs that play throughout Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel The Last Picture Show, somehow I think the movie would play as if it were a cinematic evocation of the music legend. Despite the fact that today marks the 40th anniversary of the film's release and The Last Picture Show took as its setting a small, depressed Texas town in 1951 and 1952 (even going so far as to have cinematographer Robert Surtees shoot it in glorious black & white), it contains a universality that resonates today both in human and economic terms. Williams' hit "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?" that I quote partially above are the first words we hear, before any character speaks a line. In the movie's context, the lyrics could be describing the first person we see — high school senior Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms). With the way the U.S. has been going of late, I know very few people who don't feel like a "worn-out shoe" and wish fondly for past, better days and these feelings stretch from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. Fortunately, The Last Picture Show itself hasn't changed. Age has served the film well, helped in no small part by its amazing cast.
McMurtry, who based the town in the novel on his own small north Texas hometown of Archer City, co-wrote the screenplay with Bogdanovich, the former film critic who was directing his second credited feature film after the fun and tawdry thriller Targets that gave Boris Karloff a great, late career role. (Under the name Derek Thomas, he had filmed a sci-fi feature called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women in 1968 starring Mamie Van Doren.) In the novel, McMurtry renamed the town Thalia, but the film gave it another moniker — Anarene.
The movie opens on Anarene's main stretch of road and passes the Royal movie theater. The wind howls ferociously, blowing dust, leaves, trash and anything that isn't tied down through the air and down the street. The flying debris leads us to Sonny and that Hank Williams song, which comes from the radio of his old pickup that he's having a helluva time getting started. Actually, the pickup only half belongs to Sonny — he shares it with his best friend Duane Moore (Jeff Bridges), who always seems to get it first on date nights so he can neck with his girlfriend, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd in her film debut), widely considered the best-looking teen in town. Once Sonny gets that old pickup running, he spots young Billy (the late Sam Bottoms, Timothy's real-life younger brother) standing in the middle of the street with his broom, trying to sweep up the dust. Sonny honks at him and Billy smiles and climbs in the pickup with him. As he usually does, Sonny affectionately turns the mentally challenged boy's cap around backward and the two head to the pool hall owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). Sonny pays for what looks like a sticky bun and a bottle of pop, prompting Sam to shake his head. "You ain't ever gonna amount to nothing. Already spent a dime this morning, ain't even had a decent breakfast," Sam tells Sonny, but not in a mean-spirited way. "Why don't you comb you hair, Sonny? It sticks up…I'm surprised you had the nerve to show up this morning after that stomping y'all took last night." Sam's referring to Anarene High School's final football game of the year, where the team took a real beating. "It could've been worse," Sonny replies. "You could say that just about everything," Sam says.
"It could've been worse" applies to most of the situations in The Last Picture Show, which can be described accurately by the overused phrase "slice of life." Plot doesn't drive the story — character, not only of the people but of the town itself, does. While you watch the movie, you aren't concerned with what happens next or how the film ends because you realize that life will go on for most of these fictional folks you've come to know even after the lights come up in the theater and the projector shuts off. Wherever the movie finishes will resemble a chapter stop more than a finale. (As if to prove the point, McMurtry returned to Thalia in four more novels, though Duane becomes the main character in the followups as opposed to Sonny, who decidedly takes the lead here. Bogdanovich even filmed the first sequel, Texasville, in 1990 with mixed results.)
Sam's reference to the previous night's football debacle displays an excellent example of what captivates the citizens in a so-called "one-stoplight" town such as Amarene, as the team's players (mainly Sonny and Duane, since they are the teammates we know best) get repeatedly berated by their elders the day after the loss. A common refrain becomes variations of the question, "Have you ever heard of tackling?" That even continues when Abilene (Clu Gulager), one of the many oil-field workers who live in Amarene, when he comes straight from work to Sam's pool hall, changes clothes and takes billiards so seriously that he has his own cue stick that he keeps in a case and assembles. While he's there, he collects on a bet he had with Sam on the game. Abilene isn't faithful in most areas of his life and that's telegraphed right away when we see that he'd bet against the hometown high school football team. "You see? This is what I get for bettin' on my own hometown ballteam. I ought'a have better sense," Sam says as he forks over the cash. "Wouldn't hurt to have a better hometown," the emotionless Abilene declares. Soon enough, football will fade from the town's collective memory as they move into basketball season. While sports may be important in holding this dying town together, we never see an actual game of any kind. The closest we come is one instance of basketball practice in the school gym. That's because high school sporting events aren't what The Last Picture Show wants to show us. It's telling a coming-of-age story — several in fact — and not all concern the teen characters in the tale. It's also about love and loss, not always in the present tense. Of course, at its core, The Last Picture Show also deals with community and by community, I mean gossip. In this small a town, very few secrets can be kept, yet at the same time its citizens seem fairly discreet about what they know and staying out of other people's business. I've never read the novel, but I can see how easily it would work in book form. There's a story that Bogdanovich, who was then married to multi-hyphenate Polly Platt, who died earlier this year, read the jacket cover of the book and didn't see a way it could work as a film until Platt outlined it for him in chronological form. She must have done a brilliant job since she not only changed Bogdanovich's mind but led him to the road where he ended up directing and co-writing one of the best films of all time. the balancing act needed to transfer The Last Picture Show to the screen would have been very tricky for anyone to pull off, but I think the reason it worked boiled down to two key elements: its look and its cast.
Platt, in addition to being the person who gave Bogdanovich the vision to turn McMurtry's novel into a feature film also served as the film's production designer and its uncredited costume designer, seamlessly taking the actors and Archer City, Texas, back in time nearly 20 years. Her work was helped in no small part by the legendary director of photography Robert Surtees' exquisite black & white images, which earned one of The Last Picture Show's eight Oscar nominations. Surtees received a total of 15 Oscar nominations for cinematography in his career and won three: for King Solomon's Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful and Ben-Hur. He actually lost twice in 1971 — he was nominated for Summer of '42 as well as The Last Picture Show. He earned four consecutive nominations from 1975-78, when he made his last film before he retired. Other nominations included The Sting, The Graduate and Oklahoma! He showed a strong gift for using both color and black & white and his stark look in The Last Picture Show perfectly captured the time and place of the setting without letting any nostalgia sneak into the proceedings, which it really shouldn't. No one is looking back at the events from the future, so that element shouldn't be there. In a way, it's interesting to compare it to George Lucas' American Graffiti two years later. Both films look at high school seniors and eschew musical scores in favor of soundtracks full of the pop hits of the era. The difference is that Graffiti, while good, revels in a "good old days" spirit with barely a mention of sexual curiosity let alone activity while The Last Picture Show depicts an entirely different economic class that's having very few good times, but certainly getting drunk and laid. Of course, adults didn't exist in Graffiti whereas their roles prove integral in The Last Picture Show. Admittedly, I haven't seen American Graffiti in some time — Lucas hasn't re-edited it to make the drag race CGI and digitally replaced all the cars out cruising with hybrids, has he?
Despite the film's ensemble nature, Sonny truly serves as the center of this movie's universe. Timothy Bottoms wears such deep, soulful eyes that it made him a natural to play a role that required deadpan humor as well heartbreaking drama. While the other younger cast members mostly continue to flourish in the industry if we can still count Randy Quaid, who made his film debut as Lester Marlow, a rich kid from Wichita Falls who lures Shepherd's Jacy to a nude swimming party, but has now transformed himself from a talented character actor into a fugitive from justice on the run with his wife and being pursued by Dog the Bounty Hunter), Bottoms' star never seemed to take off after such a promising start. The Last Picture Show was his second feature following Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and in 1973 he starred in The Paper Chase, but it has been mostly TV. low budget movies and downhill since then. (I suppose his most recent highlight was playing the title character in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's short-lived Comedy Central sitcom That's My Bush!) It's a shame because he's the key to so much of The Last Picture Show. Of those eight Oscar nominations that I mentioned it received, four went to acting and two won. All were much deserved, but Bottoms deserved a slot as well. I didn't add it up, but I imagine he appears in a great majority of the movie's scenes and a case could have easily been made for pushing him for lead — not that he stood a chance to win against Gene Hackman in The French Connection, but I would have nominated him before Walter Matthau in Kotch, George C. Scott in The Hospital or Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. However, I don't know if I could have evicted Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday for him.
Bottoms' Sonny though really serves as the line upon which so much of the movie's clothing hangs to dry. He's the first character we meet, introducing us to Billy, whose origin never gets explained, and more importantly Johnson's Oscar-winning Sam the Lion, who not only owns the pool hall but the diner and the Royal movie theater as well. Sonny takes us to the Royal for the first time, arriving late because of his delivery job. Miss Mosey (Jessie Lee Fulton), the kindly manager of the place who never has popcorn since she long ago forgot how the machine worked, tells Sonny that he already missed the newsreel and the comedy and the feature has started, so she only charges him 30 cents for admission. Imagine being able to see a movie for that cheap — and I imagine it wasn't that much more to get two movies and a newsreel, Now, the prices go up and up and up while, in general, the quality goes down further and further. Once inside, he hooks up with his girlfriend Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart), who gets annoyed that he doesn't realize what an important day it is. It seems it's their one-year anniversary of going steady. With that perfect deadpan aplomb I mentioned earlier, Bottoms as Sonny simply says, "Seems longer." The main feature playing that night is Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Though Sonny and Charlene have relocated to the back row so they can make out, it's clear that Sonny finds the giant image of Liz Taylor more alluring than the girl who is kissing him, While we met Duane earlier when he got off work from the oil field and went to the diner with Sonny, he and Jacy show up and take the seats in front of them and it's clear that Duane finds it very satisfying to be kissing Jacy because they don't seem to be watching the movie at all. When the movie is over and all the kids exit, they tell Miss Mosey they enjoyed it, but I bet they wouldn't want to take a quiz on it. However, that wind still howls giving the older woman trouble putting up the poster for the next attraction so Sam gives her a hand teasing the return of Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne. The town can boast having a movie theater, but it certainly isn't first run. After the show, Duane lets Sonny have the pickup, so he drives Charlene out by the lake and they begin to make out. You can tell this is a choreographed routine for the teens because Charlene immediately unhooks her bra and hangs it from the rearview mirror, which is followed immediately by Sonny's hands going to her bare breasts as if they were magnets and her chest was built out of metal. Charlene complains that something's wrong with Sonny — that he's acting as if he's bored or would rather be somewhere else. However, when Sonny does venture to place his hand somewhere else, Charlene goes nuts. "You cheapskate — you didn't even get me an anniversary present. Now, you want to get me pregnant," she barks as she starts to put her top back on. Sonny argues that it was only his hand, but she says she knows how one thing leads to another and she's waiting until she gets married. Sonny, a hangdog expression on his face, tells her that they should break up then. This shocks Charlene, but she gets mad, not upset. "Now don't go tellin' all the boys how hot I was," she warns him. "You wasn't that hot," Sonny sighs sadly in a monotone. He can't decide if he's depressed or relieved to be rid of Charlene when he shows up at the diner and tells the ever faithful manager/waitress Genevieve (the great Eileen Brennan) about it. "Jacy's the only pretty girl in town and Duane's got her," Sonny tells her. "Jacy will bring you more misery than she'll ever be worth," Genevieve declares. What a font of wisdom her character will turn out to be. Sonny remembers hearing the news that Genevieve's husband Dan finally is able to return to work, so he figures that means she won't be working much longer. In another moment from a 1971 film set in 1951 that could be taking place in 2011, she responds, "We've got four thousand dollars in doctor bills to pay. I'll probably be making cheeseburgers for your grandkids." If the bills are that high in 1951, calculate them now.
You will have to forgive me for saying so much — I have an unfortunate tendency to ramble about films I love — but I also needed to get you to this point so we could talk about the most important part of film dealing with Sonny, something that begins with doing a simple favor for Coach Popper (Bill Thurman). The coach asks Sonny if he will drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman in her Oscar-winning performance) to her doctor's appointment. In exchange, he'll get Sonny out of physics lab. Sonny will take any excuse to get out of that class so he agrees. Mrs. Popper is surprised when Sonny shows up at her door — her husband didn't tell her that he wasn't taking her. It's all quiet and above board on that trip. However, when Sonny sees her again at the town's sad Christmas dance, she asks him if he could help her take out the trash from the refreshment stand. He does and the two share their first kiss. Ruth asks the teen if he'd be able to drive her to the clinic again next week. "You bet!" Sonny replies. Many movies and works of fiction have told stories of affairs between older married women and younger men of high school or college age, but none have done so with as much meaning or affection as The Last Picture Show does in its depiction of Sonny and Ruth, which tosses most of those clichés out. Ruth isn't some oversexed seductress — she's a lonely, needy woman of 40 trapped in a miserable marriage. The movie doesn't spell it out directly, but in the commentary on the DVD, Bogdanovich says that Coach Popper is supposed to be gay. To me what's so stunning about Leachman's performance is that I can't think of her in any other dramatic roles. She's a comic actress extraordinaire. but she's so frighteningly good as Ruth I wonder why we never saw her explore really juicy drama. When Ruth and Sonny make love for the first time, it's such a mixture of elements when you have the overanxious boy rushing to lose his virginity while the 40-year-old married woman cries because she feared she never know that feeling again. As their affair continues, she actually seems to grow younger. Sonny also finds himself surprised to learn how many people are aware of what's going on between the two of them.
As great as Leachman is, she didn't win that Oscar in a walk. Her toughest competition came from the same film. Ellen Burstyn scored her first Oscar nomination in the same category, supporting actress, for playing Lois Farrow, Jacy's mother. Burstyn always is brilliant, but she manages to make us have sympathy for Lois at the same time we realize that her somewhat crazy ways have rubbed off on her daughter and turned her into the superficial cocktease that she is. Jacy claims she loves Duane, but her parents won't ever permit her to marry a boy like him without a future. The Farrows are one of the few well-off families in town, thanks to her husband striking oil. Not that it has saved the marriage any because Lois has been having an on again-off again affair with Abilene for quite some time. Jacy tries to convince her mother that she married her father when he wasn't rich. "I scared your daddy into getting rich, beautiful," Lois tells her daughter. Jacy insists that if Daddy could do it, so could Duane. "Not married to you. You're not scary enough," her mother replies. Later, when Lois informs Jacy about Sonny and Ruth's affair, Jacy's shocked, "She is 40 years old." Her mother quickly says, "So am I, honey. It's an itchy age." The big scenes for Burstyn (and Leachman) don't come until after other developments.
The fourth performer to earn an acting nod from the film was the great Jeff Bridges as Duane. It was his very first. He's good, but Duane actually isn't that large a part despite the fact he becomes the central figure in the book sequels. Duane's love for Jacy goes beyond reason. When she ditches him at the dance to go to the nude swim party in Wichita Falls, he takes it. When she finally agrees to put out, he can't perform (though Bridges' facial expression when she exposes her breasts to him is priceless). They try again and he comes out all smiles and she cuts him down, telling him, "Oh, quit prissing. I don't think you done it right, anyway." Finally, as she ducks him more often, he leaves town to take another job elsewhere, but gives Sonny explicit orders to watch if anyone starts seeing her. One night, Abilene stops by the Farrow house to tell her dad that a well came in, but he isn't home. He ends up taking Jacy to the pool hall and having sex with her on a pool table, her hands grabbing hold of the corner pockets. After awhile, when the boy she'd been dating from Wichita Falls runs off and gets married, she pursues Sonny, who is powerless to resist, no matter how it hurts Ruth. When Duane returns and finds out that Sonny and Jacy are dating, he breaks a beer bottle against his face, injuring his eye. "Jacy's just the kind of girl that brings out the meanness in men," Genevieve tells Sonny when she sees him with the patch on his eye. Soon after, he and Jacy drive to Oklahoma to elope, only Jacy left a long detailed note so the Oklahoma state troopers detain them until her parents arrive and get the marriage annulled. Sonny rides back with Lois who tells him he's lucky they saved him from her.
In a way, I have saved the best for last, except it isn't really the last. If Timothy Bottoms' Sonny provides the line from which all the characters and stories dangle, Ben Johnson's Sam the Lion provides the posts that anchors his line. The story goes that Johnson didn't want to take the part because he thought it was too wordy and Bogdanovich, who had just completed a documentary on John Ford asked Ford to talk him into it. Ford reportedly asked Johnson if he wanted to be the Duke's sidekick all his life and told him that if he played the part, he'd win the Oscar for supporting actor and that's just what happened. There are so many moments in Johnson's performance that I'd love to pick, but so I don't go on forever, I'm concentrating on one, which also happens to be my favorite part of the film. Sam takes Sonny and Billy fishing at this reservoir on land he once owned and it opens him up about the past. He talks about this crazy girl he was involved with about 20 years ago after his wife had lost her mind and his sons had died and how they always came out there. She challenged him to ride horses across the water. He didn't think they'd make it, but somehow she did it. Sonny asks why he never married her, but Sam tells him she already was married — one of those young marriages people get into that makes them miserable. He figured some day it would end, but it never did. "If she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain't that ridiculous? Naw, it ain't really. 'Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Gettin' old," Sam declares. What makes the whole sequence and monologue even better is the way Bogdanovich films it. He starts out in a medium shot where you can see all three characters, but as the tale grows more romantic he slowly moves the camera in on Johnson's face. As he starts to tell how they never ended up together, the camera pulls back out again.
The Last Picture Show has so many great moments, big and small, that I want to talk about them all but I do have to mention one final Sam moment before wrapping up Lois and Ruth. Earlier in the film, before Duane beats him up (they reconcile anyway) Duane and Sonny drown separate sorrows in sundaes at the diner when Duane decides that he just wants to get out of town — that night — at least for the weekend. He suggests to Sonny that they go to Mexico. The two friends check their cash reserves and decide they can do it and get up and leave. Genevieve asks where they are going. "Mexico," they tell her. "Mexico?" As they drive the pickup down the street, they notice Sam sitting on the curb outside the theater. They tell him of their plans. He gives them some money, telling them that Mexico has a way of swallowing your money. Wistfully, he even says that if he were younger, he might go with them. There's something odd in the town — as if he has something else to say, but he just tells them he'll see them around and gives them a wave. Somehow though, even when you're watching The Last Picture Show for the first time, you know that will be the last time in the movie you'll see Sam. When Sonny and Duane come back, they go to the pool room and find it locked. They find that odd. They ask a man what's going on. He remembers that they've been gone so they don't know. Sam died. "Keeled over one of the snooker tables. Had a stroke," the man says. He adds the Sam left the diner to Genevieve, the theater to Miss Mosey and the pool hall to Sonny.
Back to that ride home from Oklahoma between Lois and Sonny. Before they get in the car, Lois tells him that he should have stayed with Ruth Popper. "Does everyone know about that?" he asks annoyed. She says yes. "I guess I treated her badly," Sonny admits. "Guess you did," Lois concurs. As she drives, Sonny says, "Nothin's really been right since Sam the Lion died." No, they really haven't, Lois agrees. Sonny guesses that she must have liked him a lot, but Lois says no, she loved him. Sonny mentions the story Sam told him about the girl and she's surprised. "He told you that? You know, I'm the one who started calling him Sam the Lion," Lois confesses as Sonny realizes that she was the girl that Sam talked about. She apologizes for getting slightly teary. "It's terrible to meet only one man in your life who knows what you're worth," Lois admits. "I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd have missed it, whatever it is. I'd have been one of them amity types that thinks that playin' bridge is about the best thing that life has to offer."
When Sonny gets back to town, he learns Duane, who has enlisted in the Army, is in town for a short visit. He asks if he wants to go with him to the Royal. Miss Mosey has to close the picture show. Duane agrees. The final movie is Howard Hawks' Red River. "No one wants to come to shows no more. Kid baseball in the summer, television all the time," Miss Mosey tells them. Imagine now. Out-of-sight prices, out-of-control crowds, declining quality of product, more at-home convenience, everything digital so there is in essence no difference between theaters and home. The next day, Duane boards a bus to his base to ship off for Korea. "I'll see you in a year or two if I don't get shot," he tells Sonny.
As Sonny works the pool hall, the scene mirrors the opening with the howling wind and blowing dust, only this time he hears a commotion. He runs outside and sees that a truck hauling cattle struck and killed Billy who, as usual was sweeping the middle of the street. A bunch of gawkers try to console the driver, explaining that the kid was "simple" and continuously asking why he had that broom. Sonny snaps. "He was sweeping you sons of bitches, he was sweeping!" he yells as he picks Billy's broken body up and lays it on the sidewalk.
Eventually, he works up the nerve to knock on Ruth's door and asks if he can have a cup of coffee with her. She apologizes for still being in her bathrobe this late in the day. Then, as she's starting to pour coffee, it's her turn to explode and she throws the cup and the coffee pot against the wall.
"What am I doing apologizing to you? Why am I always apologizing to you, you little bastard? Three months I've spent apologizing to you without you even being here. I haven't done anything wrong. Why can't I quit apologizing? You're the one ought to be sorry. I wouldn't still be in my bathrobe. I would've had my clothes on hours ago. It's because of you I quit caring if I got dressed or not. I guess because your friend got killed you want me to forget what you did and make it alright. I'm not sorry for you. You'd have left Billy too just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty of nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess I was so old and ugly it didn't matter how you treated me — you didn't love me."
Ruth sits down at the kitchen table across from Sonny. "You shouldn't have come here. I'm around that corner now. You've ruined it and it's lost completely. Just your needing me won't make it come back," Ruth tells him. He reaches out and takes her hand. She takes it and puts it to her face. He never says a word. The two of them just sit holding hands across the table.
Lots of people can quote the last lines of movies, but when you think about it, there aren't as many famous final ones as you would think. The Last Picture Show belongs in that exclusive company.
Labels: 70s, B. Johnson, Bogdanovich, Burstyn, Cybill Shepherd, George C. Scott, Hackman, Hawks, Jeff Bridges, John Ford, Karloff, Liz, Lucas, Matthau, Movie Tributes, Oscars, R. Quaid, Sequels, Tracy, Wayne