I went into this film with minimal knowledge, save for basic details regarding plot. I’ve come out of it thinking it’s the best coming-of-age drama I’ve ever seen – a difficult statement to make, as I adore Stand By Me (1986).
The problem with films such as Stand By Me, to use one example, is that they address the matter relatively lightly. Stand By Me is about four boys who spend a weekend hunting for a dead body thinking it’ll make them heroes – a pretty morose concept. The boys all appear to have deep-seeded, family related issues. In spite of this, the film is often characterized as being warm, touching, and funny. A true coming-of-age story should rattle you. Coming of age is a tumultuous time, often confusing, and often exceedingly painful.
Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show tackles this transition in a changing world with stunning force.
We witness the death of an already dying small town in tandem with the corruption of youth, and all that corresponds; the dwindling power of romance, love, innocence, and hope.
The story is seen through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), who’s already pretty jaded. His best friend has severe anger management issues, his best friends’ girl is a sex-craving sociopath whose mother is an alcoholic floozy with a past. He engages in a romantic entanglement with a married woman old enough to be his mother, who is herself in an emotionally stunting relationship with a man who is rumored to be a closet homosexual (according to Cloris Leachman, her character’s husband was supposed to be closeted, and a deleted scene involving one of his gym students would have clarified this.)
Everywhere you turn you see debauchery, adultery, and cruelty under a thin veil of Godliness, the church, and supposed happiness.
Through Sonny we see emotional abuse, and the hardship that comes from growing up in a town and a life that feels inescapable. The film ends on a poignant note as Sonny finally accepts the fate of his town, and his youth. Jumping in the truck and peeling through the streets, he makes his way to a road that seems to have no end. There’s a sense of release – you know he’s leaving town, getting away from the emptiness of it all. And just as soon as he’s torn off into the distance, he slows to a stop on the side of the road. He pauses as the moment washes over him. And he turns back.
He drives straight to Ruth Popper’s (Cloris Leachman) place – his lonely housewife and lover. Infuriated by how much he’s hurt her, she breaks down, smashing a coffee pot in the process, and unleashing all of the pent-up passion and emotion that she’s kept tidily below the surface. As her rage cools, he brushes her face, all the while with a look of heartbreaking neutrality on his. And they melt into each other, ignoring everything wrong with their relationship, and centering in on the only thing that holds them together – the same thing that holds them to the town – It’s better than being alone.
The entire film centers on this theme of solitude and loneliness. An interesting choice on the part of Bogdanovich was to have nearly every scene filled with purely diegetic sound. Whether getting out of a car, or having a drink alone at home, none of the characters can stand to be entirely alone without some kind of audible companionship. The isolation of the town itself permeates the characters who inhabit it. Seldom do we see characters interacting with one another where there is music or TV in the background – and when such noise is present, it’s quickly shut off once another person enters the scene (with the exception of the dance scene.)
Ellen Burstyn’s Lois Farrow is perfection. Poised, she plays a regretful, alcoholic housewife with a past with a nuanced grace. Her moments of emotional honesty are stunning, as she leaves herself stark naked for the world to see – wounded.
Cloris Leachman’s performance is a tour de force – she earned her Oscar win. True to form, she doesn’t abandon her roots as a comedienne – her first sex scene with Sonny, though awkward and sad, starts with an adorable bit of physical comedy. Her character is a tragic one, trapped in a suffocating marriage, lonely and isolated from the world. Even from herself. She starts off meek and mild, with needs that have gone unmet for who knows how long, only to burst forth as a fierce tigress, if only for a moment.
Ben Johnson’s turn as Sam the Lion is powerful, yet understated. I rewound his scene at the pond with Sonny at least three times – it’s one of the most captivating monologues I’ve ever seen. He gives his character depth and soul, almost entirely through his eyes. Johnson nearly turned down the role, stating that his character had too many lines in the film. Even still, he has some of the fewest scenes of dialogue out of any character. He is a man of few words, and they’re all the right ones – measured and powerful, he speaks with a purpose.
It’s a rare film that can transcend the decades. The Last Picture Show is timeless in its applicability – it’s a universal story that every generation will relate to, in their own unique way. It was moving and captivating in equal measure, and is in my top ten films in this series thus far. Of course, it may help if I actually made a list … but that’s for another day.
It is a beautiful film – tragic and moving, not horribly hopeful, but not entirely cynical either.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on May 29, 2012.