Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 14, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 41
films in focus
By Andrew Sarris
Who would have thought a few years back that in 1971 Peter Bogdanovich would be traveling first-class on the express train of film history while Dennis Hopper was bumming a ride on a freight train headed for oblivion? Certainly not the trend-spotters of the slicks and the media. Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” was as much in as Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” was out. And when it turned out that their second movies had similar titles (“THE LAST PICTURE SHOW” for Bogdanovich and “THE LAST MOVIE” for Hopper), it was generally assumed that Bogdanovich would have to change his title in order not to be accused of ripping off a superior film-maker. (Actually, Larry McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show” (1966) antedates even “Easy Rider” (1969), much less “The Last Movie.”)
As it happened, no one had to change titles. “The Last Picture Show” is the the movie with the great New York reviews, and “The Last Movie” is the one with the great European reviews and a rather dubious prize from the Venice Film Festival. And suddenly all the people who were swarming around Hopper are now swarming around Bogdanovich, who can probably write his own ticket for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is rumored that the Radio City Music Hall has already booked Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc” with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal as the 1972 Easter attraction simply on the basis of the early rushes. Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper is talking forlornly about going back to acting.
Mind you, I am not gloating. Bogdanovich is entitled to do enough gloating for the both of us. I am merely surveying the silly spectacle of movie-makers being treated as all or nothing. It was silly when Bogdanovich was being stepped on for “Targets,” and it’s silly now that Hopper is on the receiving end of the ridicule for “The Last Movie.” Thus thought I much, much prefer “The Last Picture Show” to “The Last Movie,” nothing I write should be construed as a suggestion to avoid seeing Hopper’s very ambitious effort. In fact, the successes of “The Last Picture Show” can better be appreciated in the context of the failures of “The Last Movie.”
What interests me most about the reactions to “The Last Picture Show” is that it seems to appeal to many people who would normally be attuned more to Dennis Hopper’s chic modernism than to Peter Bogdanovich’s austere neoclassicism. Furthermore, many of the people who grooved on “The Last Picture Show” seem to have loathed Bogdanovich’s heartfelt tribute film on John Ford. Hence, Bogdanovich has won over many of his erstwhile enemies by providing them with an emotional experience they did not anticipate from a registered admirer of Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Alan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh, not to mention Jerry Lewis, a taste Bogdanovich shares exclusively with the French. It has been said jestingly of Bogdanovich that while every other young American director yearned to be Fellini or Bergman or Antonioni or Godard, young Peter had his sights set on the Irving J. Thalberg award. Now Bogdanovich has the last laugh, and possibly an Oscar to go with it. Let us hope so. The Academy could do a lot worse.
However, even an Oscar would be an anticlimax to the accolade Bogdanovich has already received from the critic of Newsweek: “The Last Picture Show” is a masterpiece! It is not merely the best American movie of a rather dreary year; it is the most impressive work by a young American director since ‘Citizen Kane’!” “Citizen Kane?” That rings a bell somewhere. Let’s see. It is now 1971. I have visions of Pauline Kael in the year 2001 setting out to prove that Bogdanovich was not the actual auteur of “The Last Picture Show,” but was in fact deeply indebted to Larry McMurtry’s novel and to an entire school of Texas novelists. After all, she chose 1971 as the year to lower the boom on Orson Welles for hogging all the credit on “Citizen Kane” away from Herman J. Mankiewicz in 1941. An examination of Bogdanovich’s literary source now may thus avoid a great deal of needless controversy later. It may also provide clues to a stylistic temperament that after only two feature films is still in the process of emerging. For his own part, Larry McMurtry seems to have collaborated rather smoothly with Bogdanovich, and to have indicated that he prefers “The Last Picture Show” to “Hud,” a ’60s movie adapt from his first novel, “Horseman, Pass By.” Walter Clemons recently wrote a favorable appraisal of McMurtry’s literary career in the New York Sunday Times Book Review, and so McMurtry is not entirely anonymous by screenwriting standards. Still, I doubt that very many moviegoers have ever encountered “The Last Picture Show” in book form. It is completely out of print in both its hard-cover (Dial Press) and pocket book (Dell) editions, and I had the devil of a time finding a copy in New York.
Almost everything in the movie is to be found in the novel. The same characters, the same names, basically the same relationships and situations. At first glance, the movie is a faithful and skillful adaptation of the source, but a second look at both the film and the book reveals some interesting divergences. At its best, McMurtry’s novel strains toward “Women in Love.” At its worst, it sinks into “Winesburg, Ohio.” What is fascinating about Bogdanovich’s treatment is that he avoids both the challenges of Lawrencian sensuality and the pitfalls of Andersonian pseudo-sensitivity. McMurtry’s graphic seduction of Jacey Farrow (Cybil Shepherd) by Abilene (Clu Gallagher) on a pool table would have tempted most modern directors with its metaphorical potentialities (Jacey thrusting her hands backward into the corner pockets at the moment of climax). Bogdanovice actually shot the sequence, and then cut it from the movie because he said it did not advance any of the characterizations dramatically or psychologically. Indeed the mark of a true neoclassicist when one considers all the extraneous footage inserted haphazardly by Hopper into “The Last Movie.”
Otherwise, however, Jacey Farrow is the most fleshed-out of McMurtry’s characters, and not simply because she happens to be played by ex-cover girl Cybil Sheperd, a personal discovery of the director. The amusingly callow coquettishness of the Jacey Farrow character just happens to lend itself to Bogdanovich’s discreetly distanced style. By contrast, the vibrantly wistful qualities of the more sympathetic older women — Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the waitress Genevieve (Eileen Brennan) — are too often lost in the long shots. Also, there is much less sex in the movie than in the novel. Bogdanovich and McMurtry were wise to avoid showing the young men of Thalia, (Anarene in the movie) Texas, having intercourse with a blind heifer. There is one very fleeting verbal reference to choosing between a cow and a whore for the initiation of dumdum Billy (Sam Bottoms), but we are mercifully allowed the option of interpreting the line as a sample of ruefully rustic humor. And so much the better. I we had to go through the movie thinking of the protagonist Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and his bad-luck buddy (Jeff Bridges) in sexual congress with a cow, that would indeed be the end of this particular picture show.
More debatable is the decision to have Lois Farrow not seduce Sonny after her daughter has sort of left him in the lurch. The lush Lois does perform this service in the book, but not in the movie, and it is possible that Bogdanovich was motivated in his reticence by the same kind of media double standard that induced Francois Moreau’s extra-marital affairs in “Jules and Jim.” Again it is a case of not being able to get away within movie characters what you can get away within literary characters. Experience, especially sensual experience, leaves a more lasting mark on the screen than on the printed page. Bogdanovich reminds me bit of Truffaut also in the gingerly protective way he guides Cybil Shepherd through her erotic exercises, a way reminiscent of Truffaut’s tender camera caress of Catherine Deneuve in “Mississippi Mermaid.” Thus even when Miss Shepherd is clumsy, notably in the swimming pool strip-tease sequence, she is beautifully clumsy…
Why then is “The Last Picture Show” so popular? I suppose at least partly because Peter Bogdanovich establishes a realistic mood and sticks to it…With what seem to be ghostly wind machines from the abandoned sets of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (Welles), “My Darling Clementine” (Ford), and “The Ox-Bow Incident” (Wellman), Bogdanovich manages to give his real-life location the resonance of an old-movie lot. At times I began to wonder what happened to people after they walked out of the fin-de-siecle frames. Also, the movie tended to open more with atmosphere than with a fixed narrative point of view so that I tended to get confused between Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson. I think audiences are less bothered by this problem than I am because Bogdanovich’s aforementioned discreet distance enables them to look upon all the characters as victims of a common malaise. Similarly, I felt that the movie tended to peter out in the end with three or four apparent endings. But audiences seem to feel merely that their own reveries have been prolonged.
Consequently, many of the stylistic decisions for which I might criticize Bogdanovich are nonetheless largely responsible for the success of this movie. I may find “Claire’s Knee” more lucid and rigorous, “Deep End” more inventive and inspired, and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” more audacious in its wrong-headed individuality, but no movie I have seen this year can match the spark that “The Last Picture Show” has set off in audiences…
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]