It’s not the last picture show

Sat, 09/14/2013 - 2:00pm

I was very happy to learn that it will not be the last picture show at the Empire Theatre, but its possible closing made me take another look at the highly acclaimed 1971 film “The Last Picture Show.”

“The Last Picture Show” is a poignant coming-of-age film about a dust-blown Texas town in 1951, where about the only things to do are go to the movies, pool hall or diner. Like the town itself, the young and old people are weary and probably not going anywhere — literally and figuratively. This 1971 film, nominated for eight Academy Awards, is masterfully directed by Peter Bogdanovich (nominated for Best Director) and has a brilliant but mostly unknown cast (at the time), including Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, Jeff Bridges as Duane and Cybill Shepherd, in her first film, as Jacy, as just-graduating high schoolers. Remarkable performances are also provided by veteran cowboy actor Ben Johnson as Sam, the owner of the town’s three attractions; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the lonely wife of the boorish high school athletics coach; Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s floozy, boozy, but understanding mother, and the late Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, the sympathetic waitress at Sam’s dinner. In addition, Randy Quaid has a small but not surprising role as the loutish Lester.

“The Last Picture Show” is based on the semi-autobiographical book by Larry McMurtry, the well-known author of many books about the realities of the West. McMurtry co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Bogdanovich, and it was filmed in his hometown. You can taste the dust and grit in this black and white cinematography and the country music throughout the film sets the period perfectly.

The characters’ passions and disappointments are evident as Sonny, Duane and Jacy cope with love and sex, not necessarily in that order, and mostly in the wrong places. While you can sympathize with kindhearted Sonny, you admire Ben Johnson’s Sam, who has seen and survived it all with stoic dignity. Nicknamed Sam the Lion, without him the town would blow away and the characters’ lives with it.

One can certainly see why Cybill Shepherd went on to play similarly icily sexy roles in films such as 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid”, “Taxi Driver” and, perhaps most famously, “Moonlighting” in the 1980s. Although he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, it’s harder to predict Jeff Bridge’s future by this performance. Here, as Duane, he is a very good looking high school jock and not much more. Timothy Bottoms, as Sonny, has the more demanding leading role as a young man who can’t seem to avoid being trapped by the town in its death spiral.

Ben Johnson, a frequent ensemble member of John Ford’s westerns, gives the performance of a lifetime as Sam and for it he received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Interestingly, Johnson repeatedly turned down the role as having too many words. Cloris Leachman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Ellen Burstyn makes Jacy’s bored and frustrated mother’s drinking and infidelities completely understandable and even likable. Eileen Brennan’s tired waitress Genevieve would be perfect if it did not resemble so much Patricia Neal’s housekeeper in the 1963 “Hud,” also set in a small desolate Texas town.

This is not a happy story, with few if any light moments in it. Even a nude pool party scene that has the potential for some prurient humor elicits despair. Just in case we might be tempted to feel happy, there is Billy (Sam Bottoms), who absentmindedly sweeps the dusty streets of town, and who plays a small but pivotal role in the lives of the characters. Nevertheless, perhaps to bring added meaning to the film’s title and to remind us of the value of movies, the last picture shown in the closing movie theater is the stirring “Red River,” a John Wayne film about the first cattle drive from Texas.

So, besides having some resonance with the idea of the Empire Theatre closing, what is the relevance of the 40-year old “The Last Picture Show” that makes it worth watching? Simple — it is how fortunate we are to be on beautiful Block Island with interesting people from all sorts of places. Yes, it’s the end of summer and the Empire Theater will be closing for the season (although movies will be shown during the winter, somewhere on the island, on the new digital projector), and we now know there will be a next summer, too, and another picture show.