As high-school senior Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) makes his way through main street in the north Texas town of Anarene in The Last Picture Show, the old-timers pelt him with complaints about his football team’s performance the night before, another in what appears to be a long line of embarrassing drubbings. The gentlest jab comes from Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the few remaining businesses in Anarene and put money on the game, surely for reasons more sentimental than rational. “A few football teams have had some luck with tackling,” Sam tells Sonny. “Keeps the other team from scoring too often.”
Sonny doesn’t take it to heart. He’s a multi-sport athlete, probably only because the school doesn’t have enough boys to fill out the rosters. When basketball season rolls around, there’s talk of a 121-14 loss that seems like a new state benchmark for futility, but he’s been skipping most of the practices, on account of his affair with the coach’s wife. He’s a good-natured kid, by and large, unusually sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others, which accounts for his friendship with the intellectually disabled Billy (Sam Bottoms) and for the affair, too, which is rooted as much in pity as misdirected teenage lust. What’s mostly striking and important about Sonny, however, is his passivity: why should he care about anything? His generation has inherited a ghost town.
Though 50 years have passed since Peter Bogdanovich’s elegiac masterpiece was released, the town of Anarene in 1951 will look familiar to anyone who’s driven through small-town America and witnessed main streets pock-marked by boarded-up businesses, never to return again. It may not have the signposts of 21st-century failure – the Walmart close to the freeway, the Dollar General stores and check-cashing places, the half-block of fast-food joints – but the ambience is more or less the same. While the old-timers in Anarene probably reminiscence about the days when the football team won state championships, the teenagers are bored and looking for a way out. And there don’t seem to be any children in the town at all.
Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, which he adapted for the screen with Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show is a coming-of-age movie set in a dead town, which might technically qualify it as a zombie movie. Opening to the sound of a howling autumn wind kicking up dust on the vacant street, the first shot starts on The Royal, a single-screen movie house playing Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and a 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who rouses Sonny’s interest more than the cold-fish girlfriend he’s necking with in the back row. The Royal is owned by Sam the Lion, along with seemingly all the other open businesses in town, like a diner where the waitress occasionally doubles as short-order cook, and the pool hall that also functions as a general store. When Sam bans Sonny and his buddies from his establishments for trying to pay a local woman to deflower poor Billy, they’re dumbstruck. They literally have no where else to go.
Teenagers tend to live by the moment in the best of circumstances, but short-term thinking seems like a defense mechanism for the high-schoolers in the film. Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the glamorous daughter of the only well-to-do family in town, frets about her floundering relationship with Sonny’s best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and treats her sexuality with a combination of desire and calculation. She want to lose her virginity to Duane, because that seems like the socially respectable thing to do, but her lustier interests lie elsewhere. It’s left to her hard-drinking mother (Ellen Burstyn) to worry about Jacy getting pregnant and married too young, and ending up in the same rut she’s found herself in.
The most touching relationship in the film is also born of hasty, impulsive decision-making. Asked by his coach to drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to a health clinic just outside town, Sonny eagerly accepts the assignment, because it gets him out of civics class. But Ruth’s clear loneliness catches Sonny in a similar spot and the two start having trysts on practice days, an arrangement not unlike Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate – the older woman salves her unhappiness and lack of marital intimacy, the young man gains experience and confidence. Yet Ruth’s needs are too overwhelming for Sonny to understand, much less accommodate, which leads to a scene that earned Leachman, an actor known more for comedy, a well-deserved Oscar.
The Last Picture Show is freighted with significance, starting with a title that hints at one of the many deaths – and kinds of death – that pervade the film. American self-mythology is built on the idea of thriving little bergs like Anarene, which are flush with ma-and-pa diners and movie houses, and the multiple generations of residents who turned their home town into a happy community. This film is black-and-white like a tombstone, and the melancholy hanging over nearly every interaction gets underlined further by a soundtrack jammed up with Hank Williams Sr songs. It’s like Bogdanovich is standing wearily by a Wurlitzer with a pocketful of quarters and he’s plugging away all night.
There’s no getting around the fact that The Last Picture Show is a bleak affair, made all the more piercing for cinephiles when the film inevitably follows through on its title. What does survive this existential decline are the small kindnesses that still pass between the citizens of this town: when the diner waitress, at a low moment for Sonny, whips him up a burger after hours, even though he’s been banned from the place; when Jacy’s mother, realizing she’s lost her virginity to the wrong man, eases through the cruelty that follows; and, most poignantly of all, a look from Sonny that gives Ruth the acknowledgment she needs at precisely the right moment. These characters may live in a ghost town, but they’re human.