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.
DAMN SHE’S A MILF!