Peter Bogdanovich’s second feature film is often considered one of the best American films of the 20th century. It is a quintessential slice of the Hollywood Renaissance period and an honest and cruel dissection 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 football coach, Ruth (Cloris Leachman).
In The Last Picture Show, parental figures are either hypocrites or burned-out failures with deep regrets. 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. However, instead of this parental regret acting as a warning to the younger generation, they, too, sink into the same hopelessness as school ends, and 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. Their only escape in town is the local cinema (about to close its doors forever) and the opportunity for sex. The Last Picture Show is the ultimate “end of an era” film as we watch Duane and Jacy break up, Duane and Sonny fight and the town fold in on itself as the outside world changes. It is here that Bogdanovich reflects on the dying embers of childhood and the uncertain path to adulthood in a town held hostage by poverty and time. Made in 1971 but set 20 years earlier, The Last Picture Show feels like it belongs to two distinct eras in US history, the 50s and the 70s. The result is an unforgettable, nostalgic, yet melancholic slice of cinema and a stunning farewell to adolescence, innocence, and childhood freedom.