(The Last Picture Show, 1971, d. Peter Bogdanovich)
Black and white is the actor’s friend.
So said Peter Bogdanovich, during his onstage appearance at the Plaza Classic Film Festival Aug. 14, before a screening of his 1971 masterpiece, The Last Picture Show.
Bogdanovich was quoting his friend, Orson Welles, who was occasionally known to bum around the director’s home during his residential wanderings. We can only have fun imaging the two directors exchanging this little nugget as Cybill Shepard washed their underwear. Whatever its origins, this explains the nostalgic black-and-white look of this 1950s coming-of-age story, set in a slowly dying Texas town.
If black and white is the actor’s friend, then Bogdanovich was graciously paid back by a largely unknown cast. This really is an actor’s film. While only Jeff Bridges would go on to measure up to The Godfather graduates, the rest of the young cast (Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms) would dot the great films of the 1970s.
Bogdanovich gives each actor one big speech or scene. Often, the camera starts as if it is a character hidden in the room. Then it slowly, auspiciously closes in on the actors’ faces, as if closing in on their souls. Breaths freeze. Time holds. The characters dig for a thought or moment buried deep within. Then the camera slowly fades back, releases the tension, and allows time to resume its normal speed. We see this technique again and again, most effectively as Ben Johnson reminisces at a fishing hole shortly before his death.
It is generally thought that the Oscar winner Johnson stole the show, letting the withered miles of his face serve as the town’s soul. But I’ll take Ellyn Burstyn. Her aging beauty possesses the callousness to draw blood and the tenderness to be wounded in equal measure. Could an actress have a breakout performance at age 39 nowadays? You could in 1971. Her subsequent five-year career run is a treasure of the seventies’ New Hollywood films.
Perhaps the biggest star is the town itself. And this leads to a mystery … how did a New York boy so acutely capture the rhythms of a small Texas town? Arnene, Texas, is a place of perpetual dying – a small brick speed bump for the northern winds rushing down the plains. The town no longer lives, but it never quite vanishes.
While the film is based on a Larry McMurtry novel, there is something vaguely Faulkneresque about the location and story. I see a loose similarity to the Compson clan of The Sound and the Fury. The girl runs off to the fast life, Dallas or Hollywood. One young man leaves town for a perch of psychological distance. And one young man remains to mind the farm and preside over the decline. In Picture Show, it is the sweet Sonny left to watch Arnene slide further into dust.
All this leads to that fantastic ending, a small table, a lovers’ conversation, an ending that becomes a beginning. Sonny still has Ruth (Cloris Leachman), his older lover, but their prospects are dim. Their final wounded conversation is a thing of sadness, generosity, and a humane uncertainty. It’s a film moment that I can never shake. That’s why I love the movies.