Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Larry McMurtry’s First Picture Show

In homage to the late Larry McMurtry, chronicler of the American West in all its complexity, I’ve been watching movies made from his work. There’s a whole slew of those, including Oscar winners Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain. The very first was Hud (1963), adapted from a McMurtry novel. But The Last Picture Show (1971) was the first film (though not the last) for which McMurtry provided a screenplay, working with director Peter Bogdanovich to transform his own prose fiction for the screen.

 By the time he made The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich was a veteran of Roger Corman’s B-movie world, responsible for the macabre thriller, Targets. But The Last Picture Show was his leap into the bigtime, and he made the most of it, turning out a moody tribute to a dying Texas town and its lonely, love-starved denizens. The opportunity to participate must have thrilled McMurtry, who was known to lament in later years that “Movies have largely lost interest in character. It is not without significance that two of the most publicized characters in the cinema have been a shark and a mechanical ape.”

 The Last Picture Show, filmed in evocative black & white, mostly in the tiny Texas town where McMurtry grew up, is all about character. In contrast to the year’s big Oscar winner, The French Connection, it moves forward slowly, exploring the intricate relationships of the town’s citizens, who are played by some of Hollywood’s finest actors. Cloris Leachman won an Oscar for her poignant role as a neglected housewife; other acting nominees for this film included a young Jeff Bridges (as the hero’s laid-back buddy) and Ellen Burstyn as a mother who sees her daughter’s character flaws—and her own—with all too much clarity. For Randy Quaid, in the small but sharply observed role of a well-to-do high school kid, it was the start of a major Hollywood career. 

 And of course The Last Picture Show marked the cinematic debut of model Cybill Shepherd, who plays Jacy Squires. Shepherd’s blonde beauty is electric on screen, and in one sense the entire town is shown to revolve around her haughty sense of sexual entitlement. But there’s a sad footnote to her presence in the film. Bogdanovich was apparently as bedazzled as his cast of characters. By the end of the shoot, he and Shepherd were together, leaving his wife and longtime artistic partner Polly Platt out in the cold. The multi-talented Polly, whom I was fortunate to interview at length in 2008, eventually recouped and went on to have a major Hollywood career of her own. But this film marked the end of the strong husband-and-wife collaboration that had seen them through their Corman years.

 The Last Picture Show was nominated for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Aside from Leachman’s win, the only other Oscar for the film was taken home by Ben Johnson, in the small but commanding role of the town’s moral conscience, known as Sam the Lion. The story is that he had to be persuaded by his mentor, John Ford, to accept the part. He was sought after by Bogdanovich, a true student of cinema history, partly because of his association (as stuntman and actor) with Ford and John Wayne, whose sidekick he often played. The Last Picture Show draws to a close with a final screening at the town’s one cinema. The movie on the screen is the 1948 classic western, Red River. This film, as well as Ben Johnson’s casting, represents a fond look back at the glory days of the silver screen.







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