The Last Picture Show (1971)


At thirteen, I was dropped off in lonely Hays, Kansas, at a military school lost on the vast wheat plains and run by Capuchin monks and staffed by members of the 5th Army from Ft. Riley. Hays is Out There, especially to one who had known a gracious sheltered life in Charleston, West Virginia, one of three fully civilized places in that beautiful, mountainous Appalachian state. After serving two years Out There in Kansas, I talked myself into a prep school back East, but not before I had experienced enough of life on the plains to look down at that empty vastness years later on countless bi-coastal air flights with safe affection and forlorn hope some now grownup friends in those little plains towns, souls probably still Down There/Out There, weren’t sadly lost: in a word, marooned.

I was sent Out There in the early 1950s on the word of a venerable that it wasn’t Out There but Out Of Trouble (an early experience that formal authority is often a joke), albeit far from the playing fields of Eton, and hence about twenty years later when I first saw The Last Picture Show, a masterpiece about teens coming of age and adults dying of worse than age in a dying little West Texas town interchangeable with Hays, I’ve thought I understood it; and that Director Peter Bogdanovich and his fine cast acting at their best got uncannily right one chapter in the historical passage Out There, a terribly true, very blue chapter.  William Inge masterfully depicts mournfully but, in its truth, bracingly, life Out There–The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Picnic and Splendor in the Grass–but I think The Last Picture Show compares well.

In military school I became pals with Cadet Roger Stabile of Pittsburgh, Pa., a fellow outcast and related to Dick Stabile (his uncle, I think), the terrific swing band sax man who played with many of the greats and formed his own orchestra before all that wonderfulness went its way; and with Cadet George McLintock of Kansas City, where there is, of course, some culture and where over a Thanksgiving as the McLintock’s house guest and joined by Kansas governor Arn and his wife and their dynamite daughter of fourteen I attended a concert at the symphony hall by French classical pianist, Robert Casadsus. That would do as being (if only briefly) Back Here.

I and my fellow Easterners tried those first months on the endless plains to gaze at the sky often and to plot escape, even though I learned such things as that filing down the sear pin of the M-1 rifle could make that weapon fire faster and that our Crack Platoon could look as good doing fancy drilling as the best from Fort Riley.

However, on the second Thanksgiving, I went to an Oklahoma farm even further Out There with Cadet Richard Baker, and there I saw what later comes across in The Last Picture Show:  Down a long, lonesome road in an old Chevy with a couple of girls and the windows rolled up tight in the cold (the Sioux would already have been long gone South) to a sudden little raw town that might as well have stood somewhere else in a radius of many miles and featuring a drug store, a movie theater, a few other stores, a few of those Chevys and Fords that looked like fat beetles with eye shades, and the lost boys and girls, especially the girls who like their pioneer grandmothers were going to be stranded there, at least until the little farms went away, and then who knows what might have become of them. Driving into that town, you’d come to the end of the world.

Bogdanovich captures it all beautifully. By shooting the movie in black and white, he paradoxically intensifies the visual sense of being Out There on that vastness as would be rendered by your natural technocolor-seeing eyes. The town he selected couldn’t be a better set: the classic atmosphere. The poor women…Bogdanovich makes you feel for them immensely. Cloris Leachman as the stranded, ignored wife won an Oscar; but watching the movie now, you might think that Ellen Burstyn as another trapped and vital wife gives the better performance, though there is little to choose between the two superb portrayals. Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion is better than he is in Shane. Timothy Bottoms is entirely believable as Sonny, one of the teen boys coming of age Out There. Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges and Eileen Brennan seem perfect.

There’s not much reason to analyze this one. It’s far too good to need anything much said about it.

A couple of funny notes, though. Randy Quaid is in the movie–a youngster then–and is awful, out of place, and goofy: no surprise he ended up in those Chevy Chase screwball comedies. They should have invited some kid in the town to play that part.

The other funny thing to me is that Cormac McCarthy says he felt the need to write about the Southwest because someone needed to do so. Apparently he forgot about Larry McMurtry, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which The Last Picture Show is based and many other good books about the Southwest. I think McMurtry has gone a long way toward repairing the misrepresentation of Out There in Ole Cormac’s Gothic fantasies.

It was wonderful to watch this picture show again.