The Last Picture Show
The dying little town of Anarene, Texas, is not actually Hell, but it’s a pretty good first draft. I’ve never thought of Hell (when I think about it at all, it is only as a mind game; there is no literal Hell) as eternal flames. It’s more like a doctor’s waiting room or the Department of Motor Vehicles where your name never gets called, or like a small town in Texas. I grew up in a small town in Texas. I know.
Anarene is actually Archer City, where Larry McMurtry, the author of the book this movie is based on, grew up and still lives, and where this movie was shot. He also co-wrote the screenplay, back before he was well known. (McMurtry now owns and operates a large bookstore in Archer City that I suspect loses money, like Stephen King’s radio station that plays a continuous medley of Steve’s Favorite Rock ‘n Roll … but they can both afford to lose some money. McMurtry runs the bookstore because he loves books. It’s called Booked Up, and you can see it on Google Maps if you navigate down Center Street. Can you believe it? Somebody took the time to drive the two main streets of Archer City for Google maps!)
The wind blows most of the time in Archer City. They used to say that between the Texas Panhandle and the North Pole there was nothing but a bob-wire fence, and that was blowed down most of the time. (Archer City isn’t quite in the Panhandle, but it’s close enough.) That’s in the winter. In summer the 110 degree wind blows mostly dust. The “big city” it is closest to is Wichita Falls, about twenty miles away. Fort Worth is about 60 miles down the road. There are hundreds of towns like Archer City in Texas, pretty hard to tell one from another unless you can see a street sign. These used to be thriving communities, each of them with a picture show, but in the early ‘50s television killed pretty much all of them. That meant that all that was left for entertainment in towns like Ararene was football and screwing, usually with somebody else’s wife or husband. Everybody knew everybody and they probably still do. It’s a redneck Lake Wobegon, and Larry McMurtry is the town’s Garrison Keillor. He has affection for these people, but it’s a love/hate relationship. The town is so barren, windswept, hunkered down to the ground. Believe me, your only hope if you were born in such a place is to get out of it as soon as you can. This movie, in glorious black and white, captures the look and feel of places like that so well it almost hurts to look at it.
I recently read the fifth (and surely the last) book in McMurtry’s Anarene Saga, Rhino Ranch. It’s not a very good book. But neither was Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show. I didn’t read Book Three, Duane’s Depressed (the title depressed me enough to put it right back on the shelf) nor Book Four, When the Light Goes. I probably shouldn’t generalize, but I think maybe Larry ought to stay away from sequels. None of the three sequels to Lonesome Dove was half as good as the original. He also wrote sequels to Terms of Endearment and The Desert Rose, and neither were nearly as good as the first one.
But for both McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich, this novel and movie got them off to a hell of a start. (This was McMurtry’s third book, and the first was made into the movie Hud, but this was the one that really got his name recognized.) And for that matter, a lot of other people new to the movies got big career boosts: Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid, and Cybill Shepherd. It also earned well-deserved supporting Oscars for veterans Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson. Johnson’s performance was understated and moving. Leachman’s final scene, the last in the movie, is electrifying, stunning, as raw as I’ve ever seen emotion on the screen. And it was done in one take, with no rehearsal, to her considerable shock. She figured she’d have at least one more shot at it, but Bogdanovich said no, that one was fine, and he was right.
This movie is a masterpiece, one of the best movies ever made, and Bogdanovich himself admits, in the hour-long DVD retrospective, that he’ll probably never make another movie as good—which ironically makes him much like his good friend and mentor, Orson Welles. Welles did a few good movies later, but never approached Citizen Kane again. Bogdanovich had a hot streak with What’s Up, Doc?, which I’ve always liked, and Paper Moon, but then faltered badly with Daisy Miller, where he tried to make his girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, into more of an actress than she really was, and the disastrous At Long Last Love, where he somehow thought casting non-singing, non-dancing movie stars like Burt Reynolds in a song-and-dance musical—and letting them do all their own singing and dancing!—was a good idea. He never really recovered from that. But The Last Picture Show remains as his lasting monument. You make one picture like that, and you don’t really have to do another good one to go down in cinema history.
Personal footnote: After decades of playing cowboys in B-movie shoot-‘em-ups, Ben Johnson was not sure he could handle the role of Ben the Lion, a real cowboy. He had to be talked into it. Meanwhile, Bogdanovich was toying with the idea of casting another unknown, John Ritter, as Sonny. If he did, he thought if he couldn’t get Ben Johnson it might be fun to cast another old cowboy star as Sam: Tex Ritter. This was the bargain basement singing cowboy, the one who was in the movies that were too dumb for Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. And ol’ Tex was from … drum roll … my little Texas town, Nederland. Well, he wasn’t born there, and he went to school in nearby Beaumont, but his family owned the Ritter Hardware store in Nederland, which is still in business.