What’s the difference between a city and a small town besides tall buildings, population and acres of concrete? Not much really. Both a city and a small town are comprised of people and with people you have the good, the bad and the ugly and worst of all, the indifferent and the quitters. The 1971 classic movie by Peter Bogdonovich The Last Picture Show, which is based on Larry McMurtry’s fantastic semi-biographical book of the same name explored a year in the life of people living in a small, dying Texas town from November of 1951 to October 1952.

Ostensibly The Last Picture Show is a coming of age story about two friends, Sonny Crawford played by Timothy Bottoms and Duane Jackson played by The Dude himself Jeff Bridges who earned an Academy Award nomination for his first starring role in a movie. Sonny and Duane are seniors in high School and co-captains of the football team. The boys share a pick up truck and a room in Sam the Lion’s boarding house. Sam the Lion is played by Ben Johnson who won a best supporting Oscar for his work. Sam is a surrogate father to both boys, Duane especially, since their own fathers are either gone like Duane’s old man or off following the oil like Sonny’s father. Sam is a powerful but gentle force in town. Sam owns the rooming house, bar/pool hall, the café and most importantly the only movie theater in town.

Above I said The Last Picture Show is ostensibly about Sonny and Duane but in my opinion the movie is really about Sam the Lion and Ruth Popper played by Cloris Leachman, who like Ben Johnson, earned a best supporting actor award. Sam, as a character, is a man who knows his time on earth is near an end and thus he has become a mellow teacher and provider for the outcast and odd in Thalia, Texas. Those types include Duane and Sonny, the mute and mentally deficient street sweeper Billy and Sam’s waitress at the café Genevieve who has her own sad back story.

Before taking the role of Sam, Ben Johnson was primarily known as John Wayne’s side kick in a lot of the Duke’s movies. He played the laconic cowboy because in real life he was a laconic cowboy. Johnson had been a Professional Rodeo Cowboy, stuntman for westerns and a ranch hand in Oklahoma and even in LA before the cocksuckers ruined Southern California with concrete. Johnson excelled at playing a “type” but he was never known as an actor. The Last Picture Show changed that perception, and the funny thing is, Johnson almost turned down the role because it required him to talk too much.

If you want to see what kind of actor Johnson could be, just listen to his monologue at the fishing hole with Sonny and Billy. It’s amazing acting on his part and it’s all done by voice inflection and facial acting because the whole time Johnson is just sitting on a log near the water line of a pissant little pond talking. The scene is a phenomenal piece of acting that was disguised as an instructional conversation that Sam was having with his young protegé.

Cloris Leachman’s Ruth Popper is a devastating performance but an amazingly restrained one for the amount of pain and pathos she exuded on screen. Ruth Popper is the wife of Coach Popper who in the movie was an implied short eyes (the book it’s more than implied.) Ruth is trapped in a loveless, sexless marriage. She’s depressed, lonely, forlorn and hopeless. Because of her closed-off life with a shitbird husband she begins an affair with Sonny that, of course, makes her feel even worse about herself and her life.

I believe that Leachman won the Oscar in the same manner that Johnson did, by great acting throughout the movie but truly it’s on the strength of one scene. In Leachman’s case that scene closed out the movie when she unloaded on Sonny and the aftermath of her wrath such as it was. Those scenes are absolutely gut wrenchingly painful to watch and its a deceptively simple scene of two people in a kitchen talking. The sincerity of the acting on Leachman’s part is overflowing with truth and filled with soul deep pain that it’s hard to watch. Unless you have no heart or live in a bubble you will recognize the universal emotional truths in it.

If you haven’t seen The Last Picture Show and enjoy movies based on superb acting, writing and directing I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a powerful, affecting and effective movie that showcases some of the best acting and writing that has ever been committed to film. If that doesn’t make you want to watch it, check out the rest of the cast, they were all great. Eileen Brennan, Cybil Sheppard in her acting début (I think she just played herself), Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, John Hillerman (Higgins from Magnum PI) and Randy Quaid, also his acting début. Amazing work done by all and excellent directing by Peter Bogdonovich. Kudos to Bogdonovich for insisting that the movie had to be shot in black and white. That choice added an extra dimension of intimacy to the film that color would have lacked. I can’t recommend The Last Picture Show enough.




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  1. xiphos0311 says :

    IF anybody is interested here’s Sam’s monolouge:

    Here is Cloris Leachman’s performance at the end of the movie there is a major spoiler in this if you have not seen the movie so be advised:

  2. M. Blitz says :

    Xiphos I love this movie (in fact your last two choices have been awesome, I just haven’t had time to comment!). That scene with Ruth is just brutal. Actually, there’s a few brutal moments in this movie, but they all feel absolutely true.

    And I gotta say, this has a great soundtrack. Who doesn’t love Hank Williams!

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Blitz whenever you can post it’s always a pleasure.

      Yeah there are many moments in the movie where the emotional truth hits you like a sledge hammer.

      The contrast between the Oscar winners characters circumstances are stark and plain. Sams big moment is outside in nature and while and his story is essentially about loss it’s really about love and seizing the few and far between moments that love filters through your life. His monolouge is about hope.

      Ruths big scene, on the other hand, while superficially about acceptance and forgiveness is really about surrender and settling and takes place in a cramped kitchen which acts as a visual stand in for Ruth’s life, which is one about being hemmed in not having any choice. The movie is just fantastic on every level.

      I agree the music is aces and I liked how you only heard coming from radios or TV so it was entirely organic.

  3. Tom_Bando says :

    Well a couple things here…

    1: Ben Johnson was a fine solid character actor from the forties, but it is true he hadda work at it. You see him in ‘Mighty Joe Young’, for example, vs. ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, it’s quite true he’s more comfortable in the smaller role of ‘ Yellow Ribbon’ for sure. My grandfather who’s 90 reminds me of him some in the face and bearing, so you gotta know I’m a fan.

    2:You gotta see that 1966 episode of Gunsmoke where William Shatner confronts Ben Johnson at a gunfight. It’s a riot and quite the clash of acting styles. Shatner is playing a cardshark if I remember right. Good stuff.

    3: There’s a really nice scene like this in You Can’t Take it With You, from Capra in ’38. It shows Lionel Barrymore as aging patriarch discussing his granddaughter’s upcoming wedding w/ James Stewart, and they’re talking in what used to be Barrymore’s late wife’s room. They make it very clear that she’s ‘still there’ in the room, all those years later, which is why they never sold the big old house. ‘It’d be like moving out on Grand ma’. Trust me, the dialogue, pacing and acting in that is very very good. Look for it if you ever get a chance to see it.

    4: Ellen Burstyn makes Everything better!

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Tom I agree that Johnson is a solid character actor but he was one of those guys that just played himself over and over but he was good in that role of himself. TLPS showed he could actually act.

      It’s funny you mention the Grandfather resemblance because I think the same thing. If Johnson had a whispery gravelly voice from getting shot in the neck and the story took place in northern Arizona Sam the Lion would be my Grandfather. They don’t particularly look alike but their bearing, attitude and goodness were a carbon copy. If I ever want to visit the old man and not go to his grave in Arizona, I can pop the movie in and see him come alive.

      Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Breenan both did stellar work in their somewhat small roles.

  4. Tom_Bando says :

    Oh here’s what I mean. That’s Jean Arthur w/ Lionel. Good scene. Passage of time, Generations remembered, etc. I like it.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Good stuff thanks Tom

      • Tom_Bando says :

        Yer welcome. I was lucky to have a great-grandmother around til I was in my early 20’s, and she had a huge old bureau like that w/ the great big mirror etc up in her second floor of her house. She’d prob. only gone up there a few times a year after her legs kinda went from ‘old Arthur’, but it was there. It was like a museum to her life, all the furniture and pics etc collecting dust, many of them she sorta forgot about while living out her 80s and 90’s one floor below. Place had the same kinda quality/smell/feel to it as the Vanderhof place does in the movie, I think. Anyways that’s cool about your grandfather from N. Arizona. Tough hombre am sure.

  5. Continentalop says :

    Great review Xi. I think lately you’ve really hit your stride with the reviews.

    Since you also read Easy Riders & Raging Bulls, you might agree with me that Polly Platt deserves a lot of credit for this film’s success. I don’t think it is a coincidence tha Peter’s career basically went downhill after they stopped working together.

    • Tom_Bando says :

      Was she the co-writer or something?

      • Continentalop says :

        She was the production designer, but she was also Mrs. Bogdanovich at the time (he dumped her for Cybil on this shoot). And according to a lot of sources, including Peter, she had a big influence on this movie and was a major collaborator with him: she did an uncredited first draft of the script and she acted as Peter’s advisor. He was from the East coast and upper middle class intellectuals; she was an army brat I believe who grew up in places like this movie. In fact Ben Johnson once said that Polly seemed more like the director of this film than Peter did.

        The last movie they did together was Paper Moon – I think it shows her influence by seeing how much he floundered after that without her.

    • Tom_Bando says :

      Well okay that makes perfect sense then. Sure this movie is a great one—and Xiphos–keep tossing out these here gems. We like’em.

      Ben Johnson rocks.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Conti I absolutely agree that Polly Platt was integral to Bogdonovitchs stellar early success she tempered his elitist NY BS and focused him on what was important. You could also say without being wrong that Cybil Sheppard was the anti-Polly and encouraged Bogdonovitch to make bad choices become even more arrogant then he was naturally. Sheppard was an evil succubus and an anti-muse.

    • MORBIUS says :

      Hey Conti, been a while. If you ever revisit this thread
      I have a question about a movie title you might know
      the answer to. Where would be a good place to ask it?

  6. kloipy says :

    sad to say I;ve never seen this. Thanks for the recomendation Xi. On the Netflix

  7. Barfy says :

    Bittersweet movie. It’s been awhile but a strong movie that stays with you. A lot of loneliness in those people. I know it’s apples and oranges but when I watch Friday Night Lights, set in another time but still a dusty Texas town, there’s hope. This was such a quality movie and really due for a rewatch. Maybe tonight. Thanks for bringing it back Xi.

  8. MORBIUS says :

    Excellent choice Xiphos, another great movie
    I haven’t seen in quite a while…this must be rectified!
    Such pathos…you could almost feel the town slowly
    dying. Except, of course the scenes with Cybil in the
    pool or in the car…for some reason made me all tingly!

    And i’ve always been partial to Blue Velvet by Bobby
    Vinton…not Tony (I Left my Heart in San Francisco) Bennet.
    Sorry Tony…that’s just how I roll!

  9. Franklin Thomas Marmoset says :

    This is a really good review, Xiphos. Nicely done. I haven’t seen this film in years and you’ve made me want to watch it again.

    Any chance you might follow up with a review of the sequel, Texasville? I’ve never seen that one, always wondered if it was any good.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      I haven’t seen Texasville either Frank. I guess I should see it in-order to satisfy my completest fetish. I did however get the book from the library yesterday becasue I realized I hadn’t read it either.

  10. just pillow talk says :

    Damn, high praise indeed.

    It’s been added to the ‘ol queue.

  11. ThereWolf says :

    Another very cool review, Xi.

    I have seen TLPS, but so long ago I not only can’t recall the film but was probably too young & scatterbrained to appreciate it. Not like the sensible, mature chap I am now…

    Think I’ve got this taped to VHS somewhere so I’ll give it another spin when the mood takes me.

  12. Tom_Bando says :

    Interesting(?) side-note about Ben Johnson, he died at age 77 back in ’95 while visiting his mother(!) in Oklahoma, she was 95 or so.

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