As someone who grew up on a diet of 1980s Brat Pack classics, I always felt that John Hughes blazed the trail as far as classic high school films went. However the coming of age film can be traced back a decade earlier. This is evidenced by the films in our next two posts which both feature on young men on their way out of high school looking forward to the next chapter in their life. Additionally both look back at prior decades, focus on small town life and have endings that aren’t exactly happy.
The first of these two films is Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show which turns the clock back twenty years to 1951. Striking itself out visually, the film is shot entirely in black and white and focuses on the small town of Anarene in Texas. Anarene is portrayed as a character in and of itself with the protagonists mainly congregating in the town’s pool hall, diner and titular picture show. All of these businesses are owned by the fatherly Sam the Lion, a sort of surrogate parent to the town’s youths, who is the guiding light in the lives of our two central characters. These characters are high-school seniors Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson who over the course of the film, fall in and out of love with both ladies and each other. Duane is going steady with Jacy Farrow, a popular and classy young lady whose parents see Duane as a class below their daughter. Throughout the film, Jacy is portrayed as quite manipulative and does several things simply to get attention. Meanwhile, Sonny is initially dating a fairly unlikeable girl who he later dumps as he dreams of getting with Jacy. Eventually he finds himself attracted to the wife of his basketball coach Ruth Popper, but their affair is tinged with sadness as she realises he’ll soon leave her for someone his own age. At times the story gets quite bleak with death affecting Sonny and Duane in different ways and by the end they realise that the Anarene at the end of the film isn’t the Anarene they knew growing up.
Though utterly bleak at times, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Picture Show from start to finish. It does have a fairly episodic tone but at its heart is the friendship between two men on the verge of adulthood. Boganovich’s decision to shoot the film in black and white gives it a timeless quality and makes it feel more of its time than it would’ve done had it been shot in colour. One of the film’s major strengths is its sense of place and I really felt I knew the layout of the town by the time the film finished. With four acting nominations in the supporting categories, I knew that The Last Picture Show would be well acted from the get-go. A young Jeff Bridges is incredibly captivating as the brash and hot-headed Duane who is motivated by his love of Jacy. Meanwhile, in her first major role, Cybil Shepherd portrays Jacy as a girl who craves attention and doesn’t care who she hurts to get it. For their roles as Sam the Lion and Ruth respectively, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman were awarded the Supporting Oscars at the 1972 ceremony. While both delivered scene-stealing performances, I feel that these awards should possibly have gone to Bridges and Shepherd instead. One cast member who didn’t receive any attention at the awards was Timothy Bottoms who, as Sonny, really anchors the film. His facial expressions tell the story beautifully and he really made me feel for Sonny throughout the course of the film. While it did drag from time to time, The Last Picture Show did make a positive impression on me and by the film’s final scenes I was incredibly taken with this poignant story of the end of adolescence. In addition I was surprised by how influential the film was as its roots are arguably in every high school movie that has come since.