Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site, and we’re happy to present them to you now.
The Last Picture Show
“Peter Bogdanovich began his filmmaking career as an actor, and a film critic of the auteurist school, conducting a lengthy series of interviews with the filmmakers who had defined classical 20th century cinema, such as Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller and Orson Welles. In his early years, he worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a film programmer, and also wrote film-related articles for the magazine Esquire.
Moving to Hollywood with his then wife Polly Platt, Bogdanovich drifted into “B” movie director Roger Corman’s circle, and soon was working for Corman on a variety of assignments, culminating in his writing, producing, directing, editing, and starring in Targets (1968), a landmark film about an aging horror star, Byron Orlok, who clashes with a young psychopathic sniper on a killing spree at a drive-in movie theater.
The film generated extraordinarily positive reviews, and Bogdanovich was launched as a director. His next film was Directed by John Ford (1971), a tribute to the legendary film director, with interviews from many members of the Ford “stock company” of actors, including John Wayne, Henry Ford, and James Stewart. But this was just a stepping-stone on the way to his next film, The Last Picture Show (1971), which Bogdanovich co-wrote with novelist Larry McMurtry.
Set in the fictional west Texas town of Anarene (actually Archer City, Texas, McMurtry’s home town) in 1951- 1952, The Last Picture Show is a coming of age film, a valentine to a vanishing era, an elegy for small-town life, and a showcase for the actors who bring the film to life, most notably Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, owner of the local movie theater, and Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the wife of a high school basketball coach.
In addition, the film has superb contributions from Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges (as two young men growing up in the desolate milieu of postwar society), Cybill Shepherd (in her film debut), as well as Eileen Brennan, Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, and Randy Quaid. Most of the action revolves around the town’s pool hall and theatre; as the title implies, when Sam the Lion dies, the theatre dies with him.
To effectively convey the despair and isolation of the world these characters inhabit, Bogdanovich made the sensible but resolutely uncommercial decision to shoot the film in black and white, and hired the gifted Robert Surtees to photograph the film. Scored almost entirely with contemporary pop songs of the era, The Last Picture Show comes across as an authentic, if resolutely downbeat, slice of Americana, and catapulted Bogdanovich into the “A” list of directors.
An immediate critical and commercial success, The Last Picture Show was honored with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, winning two awards for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson as Best Supporting Actors. Perhaps the definitive film about the loneliness of small-town American life, The Last Picture Show is emotionally searing and brutally honest, and thus endures as a classic American film.” — Gwendolyn Audrey Foster