The Last Picture ShowAFI Rank: #95 (10th Anniversary list)
Year Released: 1971
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Actors: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman
The Last Picture Show was left off the first AFI top 100 listing, but it made it onto the 10th anniversary revision, at spot #95. I have to wonder if a reason it didn't make it onto the first list, and barely clung onto a spot in the second, was the near-porn levels of sexuality, which many viewers are uncomfortable with. There are many long shots of multiple women with full frontal nudity, several sex scenes, and much of the rest of the movie's focus is on sexual affairs and situations. I think it's an area that reviewers often find a bit difficult. Intriguingly, we have many movies in the AFI top 100 which are absolutely full of violence and gore. So apparently for some in our world it's OK to portray pain and hurt, but not physical intimacy.
The Last Picture Show is a stellar, stand-out movie in a myriad of ways. First, even though this was 1971, it was shot in black and white. That gives its story set in 1951 even more of a "faded" look, a sense of the colorlessness of the world the characters live in. Their small town in Texas is nearly falling apart around them. They've got a run down pool hall, a cafe with faded walls, and dingy movie house. The high school kids are routinely dismissed by the adults as worthless and going nowhere - which is at its heart a commentary on how the adults feel about their own desolate lives in a place where tumbleweeds literally roll down the dusty streets.
The only way to add any interest into their lives is to have sex. Wives have affairs with whatever men they find around. The high school kids have sex with their boyfriends / girlfriends, chase after strangers, fall into affairs with married people, and the cycle keeps going. The adults aren't surprised or shocked at what the kids are doing. If anything they're cynical - it's exactly what they did, and it didn't help life any. They're still stuck in this dying town, feeling despair. One character says he figures that 80% of married couples are miserable. In this town, it seems more like 100%.
With so many movies on the AFI top 100 barely having speaking parts for women, The Last Picture Show stands out as having a number of powerful, complicated female characters. Yes, one could say they're all over-sexed, but so are all the male characters here. It's simply a symptom of the town's malaise. Many of the most poignant scenes are between the run-down mother who feels the angst of all she's lost, and her daughter who is feeling trapped in the small town. The mom is trying to prevent the daughter from making the same mistakes she did. The daughter, as many teen girls tend to do, is rebelling against her advice simply "because".
The actors here are amazing. They can tell volumes with the turn of a head or the glimmer of interest in their eyes. This isn't a movie about wild, flamboyant characters. It's about characters who have been weathered and beaten down, but who still try to find that spark of life to go on with.
I think it's fair to say that a watcher has to be comfortable with the idea of sexuality to draw in the full power of the movie. There are scenes of a back-seat prostitute yelling at a metally challenged boy who his friends have tossed in with her. There's a scene of a cheating wife crying while her teenaged lover climbs into bed with her. There's the preacher's boy who contemplates molesting a young girl. So much of what this town does to escape its soul-sucking despair involves the raw power of sex. It's the one life-affirming action that most over puberty can take. Clearly it does not always - or even mostly! - bring a solution or joy. But the characters keep trying out of desperation.
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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100