Peter Bogdanovich’s second feature film is often considered one of the best American films of the 20th century and a quintessential slice of the Hollywood Renaissance period. But it is also one of the most honest and cruel dissections of the American Dream.
Based on Larry McMurtry’s book of the same name, the film follows a group of high school seniors living in the dusty and windswept town of Anarene, Texas, as the Korean war of 1951 unfolds. Best friends Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) are searching for their place in the world, contemplating their future and trying to escape their dead-end town, without much success. Duane is dating the town’s most beautiful girl, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), while Sonny is having a secret affair with the wife of their school coach, Ruth (Cloris Leachman).
The Last Picture Show offers us parental figures who are either hypocrites or burned out adults with deep regrets about how their lives have turned out. For example, Jacy’s mum (Ellen Burstyn) disapproves of Jacy and Duane’s relationship by projecting her frustration over missed opportunities for a better life onto her child. Meanwhile, Ruth is chronically depressed as she battles with her unhappy marriage and seeks long lost intimacy with a young man half her age.
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However, instead of this parental regret acting as a warning to the younger generation, they too sink into the same forlorn hopelessness as they slowly drift apart. Here it’s the town that generates despair and traps both young and old in its dusty prison. As our teens grow, they gradually lose their faith in their adolescent carefreeness alongside the importance of friendships, relationships and eventually the American dream itself. The only escape in town is cinema and sex. Here we are offered a raw and intimate look at teenage love and sexuality, capturing its awkwardness authentically without glamorising the topic or making it a dominant plot point.
The Last Picture Show is the ultimate “end of an era” film about loss, love, and poverty’s social prison. Here Duane and Jacy break up, Duane and Sonny fight, Sam dies, leaving the pool hall to Sonny, and Duane joins the army as the local cinema closes its doors. With every ending, Bogdanovich reflects the dying embers of childhood and the uncertain path to adulthood.
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Made in 1971 but set 20 years earlier, The Last Picture Show feels like it equally belongs to both the 50s and the 70s. For example, the Korean War backdrop could similarly reflect the Vietnam War. While the dusty town talks directly to the economic change of both eras, the 50s rooted in post-war change while the 70s embraced the shopping mall and the multiplex leading to ghost towns.
The result is an unforgettable, nostalgic yet melancholic slice of cinema. By the end, we feel like we know this town and its inhabitants, and regardless of the depressing undertones, we don’t want to leave. The Last Picture Show is an ode to cinema, history and the challenges of growing up in environments of limited opportunity. But, as the title suggests, it is also a farewell to adolescence, innocence, and childhood freedom.