In 1951, society was transitioning away from complacency and trying to understand the American Dream. Especially those in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere. As their country moved forward, they saw their own towns dying.
The Last Picture Show was released in 1971, but takes place 20 years earlier. The film depicts this transition as people were learning about this American Dream through the inevitable entitlement to it that we saw everywhere else in our entertainment–as depicted here with the television sets continuously playing game shows and variety shows that help to fuel these sentiments.
The film is a stark contrast from the freedoms celebrated in movies of the late-1960s. Set in 1951, it’s a story that tries to capture life in a small Texas town that has no life. And because of it, those living in that town have no life. A sad reality, but a reality nonetheless. Anarene, Texas represents countless small American towns that basically have nothing. Nothing but a diner, a pool hall, and a movie theater. In Anarene’s case, a dying movie theater which is frequented by Sonny and Duane, two high school seniors and best friends.
Sonny, played by Timothy Bottoms, is a brooding teenager trying to figure out his love life. He’s dating a girl, but doesn’t really like her so they break up. The girl he’s really eyeing is Duane’s steady girlfriend, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), who he dubs the only pretty girl in town. He also ends up having an affair with his coach’s sheltered wife.
Duane, played by a young Jeff Bridges, is a wide-eyed, enthusiastic teen, whose life seems to revolve around Jacy. Because in a town with nothing much to do, it’s easy for a girl to take up all your time and energy. Unlike, Jacy, Duane doesn’t seem to have any big plans of leaving Anarene. He’s complacent there, just like mostly everyone else.
The characters in Anarene look sad. Some have hope, while most have despair in their eyes. And the rare few have an ironic sense of appreciation for the life they’ve been born into. A nostalgia for this barren town, where something like a fish-less pond may evoke fond memories. These few count their blessings without looking back with regret.
Jacy is conflicted about what she seeks in a man. She wants one who will treat her right, but she also wants her eventual husband to be wealthy so she can leave Anarene. Her mother, Lois (Ellen Burnstyn), convinces her that she can’t have both, perhaps because she, herself, wasn’t able to. Jacy is happy with Duane but her mother assures her that she’ll be forever broke if she stays with him. So Jacy eventually begins to fool around with different men quickly trying to find one who will be her ticket out of town.
In fact, everyone in this movie seems to be sleeping with each other. The Last Picture Show, at times, feels like a soap opera in a ’50s Texas town where nobody seems to value fidelity, to the extent where director Peter Bogdanovich even appears to be romanticizing infidelity at some points, setting up the movie to not have very many likable characters. Even the town hero, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), tells a story of a married woman he used to be lovers with.
But Jacy is the de facto antagonist of this movie. She’s a conniving brat. She toys with every man she’s involved with, only seeing relationships as a means to a better life. Unfortunately there aren’t any redeeming qualities about her in the end.
The film definitely has nuanced depth, but lacks certain necessary developments that would have helped these character transformations seem more gradual. Lois’ advice changes Jacy so abruptly that it doesn’t feel believable. There’s inner-conflict, but we can’t see how she can be so in love with Duane one moment, and then totally disregard him the next without any reservations or conscience making her regret–or at least hesitant about–any of her decisions.
Also, this entire story is grounded in Sonny and Duane’s friendship, but not enough of their actual friendship is shown for the punches to hit quite as hard.
Though not featured nearly enough, Sonny and Duane are enamored with the town theater which plays not-yet classic movies from the time. In 1951 television was still pretty new, yet seemingly every home was furnished with a TV set. With that luxury, less and less people were going to the movies–especially prior to the late-’60s in a pre-New-Hollywood era America as we see happening here.
While different from other New-Hollywood films, The Last Picture Show, still shows evidence of vision and innovation. It’s one of the first films to exclusively use pop songs for its score, rather than a traditional instrumental score, appropriately utilizing country-western tunes from the era to fit the feel it’s going for.
For those who didn’t live through 1971, let alone 1951, it might be difficult to see how much things changed in those 20 years. But in a town like Anarene, it’s possible that not a lot did. The Last Picture Show is at it’s best when conveying its deeper themes like this. And that’s why it’s considered to be a classic piece of 1970s cinema. But watching the movie all these years later, its appeal may not hold up as well as we’d hoped it would. Still, you can appreciate the film for its significance.