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  • Writer's pictureValerie A. Higgs

AFI #95: The Last Picture Show (1971)


Three teenagers try to figure out who they are and what they want in a small town in Texas in the early 1950s. With moral dilemmas at every turn, they test the boundaries of their family ties and their friendships.

I hadn't seen Timothy Bottoms (Sonny) in a while, so it was nice to see him starring in this movie. Seeing so many familiar faces looking so young was also a lot of fun. I was cheering and calling out their names as they appeared.

This was one of those movies that I have always wanted to see, and fortunately, it was on the AFI list. Whatever I thought this movie was going to be about, I didn't think it was going to be mostly about sex and sexual politics.

Jeff Bridges (Duane) didn't cross my consciousness until The Fisher King. Cybill Shepherd (Jayce) until the Moonlighting TV show. Timothy Bottoms: The Paper Chase. Eileen Brennan (Genevieve): Private Benjamin. Cloris Leachman (Ruth): Phyllis, a Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off. Then there was Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager (I knew his face, but never knew his name), and John Hillerman (Higgins!!).

As for the story, it was a quiet snapshot of what life was like in a small rural town in Texas where everyone knows everyone. For instance, when Duane and Sonny go to Mexico for the weekend out of sheer boredom, they come back to tragic news. But they are told, "Oh right, you were in Mexico." They told one person they were going to Mexico. But the news spread to this one character who I had never seen before. Was he a named character? Not sure.

It was clear what Duane's motivations were. He was in love (like everyone else) with the beautiful Jacy. He wanted to marry her, though he was just a "roughneck" and she was from a wealthy family. Get a wife, get a job, get married, and raise a family.

Jacy was looking for similar things. Though she actually loved Duane, her mother was disappointed that she wasn't experimenting more and finding a wealthy husband. Once Jacy realized she was free from self-imposed restrictions, she took her mother's advice and sought out better prospects.

The lonely Ruth just wanted to be loved, and she wasn't getting that from her husband, the high school football and basketball team coach. I have an idea why he wasn't paying his wife any mind, and it was one brief interaction that could have been overlooked that tipped me off. She finds love with Sonny - I'm not exactly sure what Sonny was looking to find with his coach's wife.

In fact, I'm not sure what Sonny was looking for in general. He was a friendly enough person; he wasn't a bad boy and he was a jock. But he just really seemed to go along just to get along. I didn't see him do anything decisive until he went back to Ruth's house at the end of the movie. Even then, what was he looking for?

Peter Bogdonovich started his movie almost exactly as he started; panning the camera across the remote town, except this time, the movie theater was closed.

Was The Last Picture Show worth being on the list of one of the greatest American films of all time? It was a fairly good movie, and I enjoyed it. But the jury is out for me. It was an interesting stylistic choice to film it in black and white in 1971, but much like another movie on the BFI and AFI lists, it didn't really help to give the movies a 1950s feel.

But I'm glad I finally saw it because this movie is a great example of why I started this challenge. I have been curious about it since I was a kid and I had a great reason to finally see it.

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