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The Last Picture Show (September 20, 2012)

The story goes that Peter Bogdanovich, a director with two films to his credit, saw, but did not buy, a paperback copy of the 1966 Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show in a drugstore. A couple weeks later the actor Sal Mineo, whom we saw in a brief role in Giant four weeks back, gave a copy of it to Bogdanovich, saying he’d always wanted to be in a film of the book, but felt he was a little old for it then. Bogdanovich showed it to his wife, Polly Platt, who is said to have put together a treatment that retold the novel chronologically.

The script was by McMurtry and Bogdanovich. Platt did the production design. It was photographed by Robert Surtees. Music was from several sources contemporary to the film’s setting – including Bob Wills and Hank Williams. The film’s music is entirely diegetic – that is, it is heard from a live band, radios, jukeboxes, or record players depicted in the film. It was filmed in Olney, Wichita Falls, Holliday and Archer City, Texas. Archer City is McMurtry’s home town. It starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, and Eileen Brennan. The movie was released in October, 1971.

Bogdanovich asked director John Ford to persuade Ben Johnson to take the part of Sam the Lion after Johnson turned it down three times because the part “had too many words.” Cloris Leachman did her last scene without a rehearsal. Bogdanovich felt it would ruin the scene if she rehearsed. Bogdanovich and Platt asked their friend, director Orson Welles, how to present the bleak look they desired for the imaginary town of Anarene, Texas. Welles responded “Of course you’ll shoot it in black and white.” Bogdanovich selected Shepherd for her part, her first in pictures, after he had seen her model on a magazine cover. During the filming, Bogdanovich and Shepherd became lovers. Bogdanovich and Platt’s marriage broke up after that. Shepherd said “When a film wraps, the actors often like to keep some of their props or wardrobe as mementos. I wanted the heart-shaped locket and brown and white saddle shoes that Jacy wore, but his wife Polly was in charge of costumes and wouldn't give them to me. I guess she figured I had enough of a souvenir: her husband.”

At the Oscars, Johnson won best supporting actor, and Leachman won best supporting actress. Jeff Bridges was nominated for best supporting actor, Ellen Burstyn for best supporting actress, Robert Surtees was nominated for best cinematography, Bogdanovich for best director, and McMurtry and Bogdanovich were nominated for best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium. The film was also nominated for best picture. In 1998 it was added to the National Film Registry as a motion picture worthy of preservation.

Roger Ebert wrote “Every detail of clothing, behavior, background music, and decor is exactly right for 1951 -- but that still doesn't explain the movie's mystery. . . Bogdanovich has been infinitely more subtle in giving his film not only the decor of 1951, but the visual style of a movie that might have been shot in 1951. The montage of cutaway shots at the Christmas dance; the use of an insert of Sonny's foot on the accelerator; the lighting and black-and-white photography of real locations as if they were sets -- everything forms a stylistic whole that works.. . .The Last Picture Show has been described as an evocation of the classic Hollywood narrative film. It is more than that; it is a belated entry in that age -- the best film of 1951, you might say. Using period songs and decor to create nostalgia is familiar enough, but to tunnel down to the visual level and get that right, too, and in a way that will affect audiences even if they aren't aware how, is one hell of a directing accomplishment. Movies create our dreams as well as reflect them, and when we lose the movies we lose the dreams.” I hope you enjoy watching The Last Picture Show with me tonight.