It begins and ends outside the movies. Peter Bogdanovich’s sophomore feature, The Last Picture Show (1971), is a clear-eyed portrait of a small North Texas town in decline. It is also a film that isn’t afraid of hard-won sentiment. Although often brought into discussions of the New Hollywood, and certainly sharing a downbeat sensibility with stablemates at BBS Productions like Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Bogdanovich’s opus is informed by a different set of motivations, influences, feelings, and emotions. The iconoclasm and revisionism of many other New Hollywood films is largely absent from The Last Picture Show, along with their jazzily modern and often more eye-catching technique. Although we are shown a strong contrast between the lonesome, windswept lives of the film’s community of characters and those flickering on the single cinema screen in Anarene – a fictional creation, though largely shot in the hometown, Archer City, of author and screenwriter Larry McMurtry – there is a strong sense of realism and the detail of everyday life in the wonderfully crafted but spare production design of Polly Platt and the starkly evocative black-and-white cinematography by Robert Surtees. As a result, The Last Picture Show is some distance away from the “nostalgia” film, a form that would become dominant force across the subsequent decade.

The Last Picture Show opens with a stark image of the deserted streets of Anarene, panning from the bleak outside of the cinema to the wide main street as we see Sonny’s (Timothy Bottoms) pickup splutter into town. The car radio is playing Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?”, helping to establish both the period and borrow something of the country singer’s plaintive, unadorned, lonesome but pent-up tone. In these opening shots we attain a very clear and evocative sense of environment, temperature, and the elements. Although this is meant to be a functioning, breathing rural town, the lonesome wind, dust, faded clapboard signs, squeaking window shades and doors, and airborne debris grant it a ghostly, mostly uninhabited quality. The narrative spreads from late Autumn 1951 to the same time the following year, but the town already feels abandoned (even though it will reappear in the sequel, Texasville [Bogdanovich, 1990], almost 20 years later). Although full of precise but not overplayed period details – for example, all the music is only ever heard on jukeboxes, radios, and record players and is authentic to this moment in time – it is as if the patina and pall of memory and recollection are already encrusted on daily life. This is partly a result of the film’s focus on the disappointed coming of age of its late-teen protagonists, as well as their dissipated passage through the last rites of high school, but it comes to infect the relationships and connections between all the film’s elements.

Of all the New Hollywood directors, Bogdanovich had the most significant credentials as a film critic and curator and often boasted of his strong relationships with legendary figures such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. In some ways, The Last Picture Show reflects the influence of all these filmmakers. For example, Bogdanovich cast Ford regular Ben Johnson in the pivotal role of Sam the Lion, changed the final screening at the town’s cinema from a deflating Audie Murphy oater (as chosen by McMurtry in his 1966 source novel) to Hawks’ epic auteurist favourite, Red River (1948), and presents a vivid community of “equal” characters in a manner reminiscent of Renoir. But I would argue that not all these influences are equal. Bogdanovich was editing his important documentary, Directed by John Ford (1971), while making The Last Picture Show and drew on veteran cinematographer Surtees to evoke the dustbowl starkness of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but it is Welles who casts the greatest influence and shadow. While Welles was engaged with intermittent production on the prismatic The Other Side of the Wind around this time – Bogdanovich would subsequently take over the role originated in the film by Rich Little and later supervise its long-stalled completion (in 2018) – The Last Picture Show illustrates much stronger parallels with Welles’ Booth Tarkington adaptation, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The stark, unscored opening credits of Bogdanovich’s film directly quote Welles’ second feature before providing a lovely variation on the earlier movie’s introduction to its central characters through the commentary of various citizens of the town (in this case, deriding the performance of the high school football team and Sonny and Duane’s [Jeff Bridges] guiding contribution). The various scenes or moments in which characters remember the past – including Johnson’s deeply felt but wonderfully matter-of-fact recounting of the days long before when he brought a young woman to the dam for a swim – strongly resonate with similar moments in Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil (1958). Nevertheless, at the same time, The Last Picture Show is a significant departure from all these percolating influences.

In an otherwise glowing review, Pauline Kael criticised The Last Picture Show’s self-conscious referencing of Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (1950) and Hawks’ Red River in its two cinema-set scenes.1 Kael’s argument is that these moments draw us out of the film, making us consciously aware of the auteurist credentials and overriding cinephilia of Bogdanovich as well as the careful intertextual references he has women into his adaptation. This can also be extended to the various posters and stills for Ford’s Wagon Master (1950, starring Johnson) and Rio Grande (1950) as well as Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) and Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) we see in the cinema’s foyer. Although I love these scenes, appreciate the appropriate “lateness” with which these movies show up in town, and rarely muster much agreement with Kael, I think she has a point. The beauty and brilliance of The Last Picture Show is found in its attentiveness to the lived detail of the recent past. These scenes in the cinema provide a precise recognition of the physicality, eroticism, and social experience of cinema-going, but the films chosen by Bogdanovich – and there is no doubt it was him – feel too deliberate (the characters even sit in polite awe of Hawks’ opus). In McMurtry’s novel Sonny fantasises about Ginger Rogers while distractedly kissing his make-do girlfriend; the image of Elizabeth Taylor in Minnelli’s film is a much more obvious, even modern object of desire. For the characters in McMurtry’s novel, the mundanity of the movies they see highlights how even these cut-rate visions can still serve as fantasies in their defeated town.2

Where does The Last Picture Show now sit within Bogdanovich’s career and the broader legacy of New Hollywood? In some ways, neither the film nor the director can be placed comfortably within the mainstream of 1970s Hollywood cinema. Bogdanovich quickly became a much sought-after filmmaker on the strength of his first four features, the last three of which were significant box-office and critical successes in a period of uncertainty and change. Although these films did reflect some of the sensibilities of their time, they were also more beholden to the cinema of the past than many of the most celebrated films of the era. While it is hard to imagine Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman working in classical Hollywood, it doesn’t take much to imagine the milder Bogdanovich thriving there.

The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973) also demonstrate a strong and uncommon (for the time) affinity for female characters and actors, something that would sustain Bogdanovich throughout the significant ups and mostly downs of his subsequent career. The pre-eminence established by those first four films was quickly dashed by the large failure and sizeable misjudgements of Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975). The “Bogdanovich touch”, if it ever existed, lasted for just a brief moment in time. Of those four features, it is The Last Picture Show that best demonstrates Bogdanovich’s strongest qualities as a filmmaker. Working closely with McMurtry and Platt, he created both a very contemporary take on the past and what is, perhaps, the most classical of post-classical Hollywood films. The greatest strengths of The Last Picture Show are its warm (and cold) sense of environment, community, and character. Although it is a beautifully made film, it rarely feels self-consciously so. There is a true sense of authenticity and realism in its casting, sense of place, and combination of sound and image. Even the decision to film in black and white feels less like a knowing nod to the past than a truly organic, inevitable decision. While Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and a brittle, limited Cybill Shepherd are very strong in what we might call the lead roles, the true dramatic highlights are gifted to the vulnerable, weary, pathos-laden turns of Eileen Brennan, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, and Cloris Leachman (the latter two winning Oscars for their performances). Even if we might long for a past where Hawks, Ford, and Minnelli play at the local cinema and Hank Williams blasts out of almost every available outlet, The Last Picture Show never shies away from profiling the disappointed lives that routinely underlie the myths of the past.

The Last Picture Show (1971 USA 126 mins)

Prod Co: BBS Productions/Columbia Pictures Prod: Stephen J. Friedman Dir: Peter Bogdanovich Scr: Larry McMurtry, Peter Bogdanovich, based on McMurtry’s novel Phot: Robert Surtees Ed: Donn Cambern Prod Des: Polly Platt

Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Sam Bottoms, Clu Gulager, Randy Quaid


  1. Pauline Kael, “Movies in Movies”, Deeper Into Movies, London and New York, Marion Boyars, 2000, 296-97.
  2. That said, many of the other changes made to McMurtry’s more squalid novel are improvements. I’m very happy not to have a visualisation of Duane and Sonny’s unflattering trip to Mexico. The deletion of a sex scene between Sonny and Jacy’s mother also speaks to the quieter and subtler dimensions of the film.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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