The Story Behind The Last Picture Show

Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges in The Last Picture Show. Source: (Getty/IMDb).

In 1971, The Last Picture Show was released. Directed and cowritten by Peter Bogdanovich, it was based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry. The semi-autobiographical novel was set in Thalia, Texas, although it was based on McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, Texas. McMurtry has claimed that the characters in the novel are not based on any specific individuals, and some believe that Duane Jackson is based on McMurtry himself. The locations are easy to distinguish though; for example, the movie theater in the film was based on the Royal Theater in Archer City and in the town itself, ranching and oil were (and still are) the dominant industries.

The Characters Are All Struggling To Find Their Way

The Last Picture Show is about the passage of time, as the characters and the town itself experience changes. However, it is also about life in the small town, where everyone knows everyone else, they all know each other’s business and the adults are attempting to cope with their own lost dreams. The central characters, best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), and Duane’s girlfriend Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), are seniors in high school in 1951. Jacy, who is one of the most beautiful and popular girls in town, is dating Duane, but she would rather be with Bobby Sheen, who is wealthy and a better prospect than Duane. He, however, doesn’t want to be with a virgin, so she sets out to lose her virginity, which she does, with Duane. After that, she breaks up with Duane over the phone. 

 

Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms. Source: (IMDb).

The Drama Continues

At Christmas, Sonny starts having an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), his basketball coach’s wife. After Sonny and Duane return from a trip to Mexico, they learn that Sam (Ben Johnson), who owned the theater, pool hall, and diner, died after having a stroke. Sam leaves the pool hall to Sonny. Bobby, meanwhile, has gotten married, and Jacy has sex with Abilene (Clu Gulager), a foreman who is also her mother’s lover. After that, Jacy pursues Sonny, who dumps Ruth, and the two are briefly married. However, the marriage doesn’t last as Jacy’s parents want her to go to college and have a better life, but she wants to stay in town, where she is the center of the gossip. Duane and Sonny, who had a falling out because of Jacy, reconcile before Duane ships out for Korea, and they go to see Red River. In the end, Sonny and Ruth are tentatively reunited.

The Evolution Of The Film

The actor Sal Mineo gave Peter Bogdanovich a copy of Larry McMurtry’s book, but it was only after his wife, production designer Polly Platt, inspired him to read it, that he decided to take on the challenge of filming it. He ended up co-writing the screenplay with McMurtry and chose to film it in McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City. Just as McMurtry changed the name in the book, Bogdanovich changed it in the movie, naming it Anarene, another homage to the town of Abilene, Kansas from Howard Hawks’ Red River, the classic western which is the “last picture show” that Sonny and Duane see. Bogdanovich discussed the film with Orson Welles, who was his houseguest at the time, and at his suggestion, Bogdanovich decided to film it in black and white. 

Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Source: (Letterboxd).

Offset Drama

During the filming itself, there was a bit of drama that could rival the drama in the film. After their days on the set, the actors spent a lot of time drinking and smoking in their hotel rooms. Timothy Bottoms fell in love with Cybill Shepherd, and Peter Bogdanovich had an affair with her. That affair led to the dissolution of his marriage, although Polly Platt continued her work on the film, even styling Shepherd’s hair.

It Was A Critical And Commercial Success

The film performed well at the box office, grossing $29 million, although the people from Archer City, who had traveled to Wichita Falls to view it, were not pleased with the way that he portrayed the town. It also had a lot of critical acclaims, being nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Johnson and Bridges, and Best Supporting Actress for Burstyn and Leachman. Both Johnson and Leachman won in their respective categories. The film is in the National Film Registry. The sequel, Texasville (1990), based on McMurtry’s book of the same name, did not do well, either critically or at the box office.