Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on March 22, 1972 in The Journal Herald.The Last Picture Show predictable, almost trite
The Last Picture Show, at Loew's Ames, has received generally enthusiastic reviews and eight Academy Award nominations but it is commonplace and borders on triteness.
It is the story of a boy's reaching maturity in a small Texas town. We see his relationships with various people in the town. He is enamored of a young wench woman whom he marries before a quick annulment.
He has an affair with the frustrated wife of a coach. And he has warm camaraderie with a man of dignity, a waitress, and a retarded boy.
The Last Picture Show is set in the early 1950s and is full of the details that bring nostalgia -- movies like Father of the Bride and songs and TV programs of the early '50s. The focal point is the movie house that shutters as the boy reaches maturity -- and a way of life passes.
The acting, direction, scripting, and photography have been roundly praised, and the film is up for the Academy Award for best picture. Many critics have championed it. By my standards the film has some substantial lacks. I would like to go into them.
For of all, The Last Picture Show is a conventional movie. It is yet another version of a young man's loss of innocence. Its plot is rather formula and predictable.
Though it has its spells of frankness and nudity, it leaves out the more vulgar, pungent scenes in the book and substitutes melodrama. Jerry Stein of the Cincinnati Post has called it "Peyton Place West."
Secondly, the characters are as ordinary as the plot. And the acting which has received many raves is without much dimension. Timothy Bottoms, who plays the protagonist Sonny, is perhaps the least interesting actor since Brandon DeWilde.
Ben Johnson's role as the old taciturn sage, Sam the Lion, is the kind that cries for surefire praise. But the role and Johnson's playing of it are lukewarm and laconic.
The story (adapted from a good novel by Larry McMurtry) and characterization are heavy with "sensitivity." Cloris Leachman is put upon as the coach's wife, and Sam Buttons is pleasingly pathetic as the doomed retarded lad.
Jeff Bridges is adequate as Sonny's friend. The best performances are by Eileen Brennan in a Patricia Neal type of role as the waitress and Cybill Shepherd as the flirtatious Jacy.
Robert Surtees' black and white photography is atmospheric. Peter Bogdanovich's direction is calculatedly auteurist; it is full of homages paid to other directors. This includes a scene from Red River that he suggests occurs at the conclusion of the film when it doesn't.
In all, The Last Picture Show is competent movie-making and probably deserves an audience. But its predictability and its calculation mar it for me. The values seem to me to be more contrived humanity instead of the real thing.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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