Saturday, 11 July 2015
THE DIRECTORS - PETER BOGDANOVICH ( Part I): THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)
Although this was Bogdanovich's second film after TARGETS, it was actually his first real picture show. As the cinema of the title closes it doors for the last time in the tiny hick town of Archer City Texas in 1952, the 31-year old director was just beginning his golden time as an enfant terrible director with a run of three smash-hit critically acclaimed films.
This adaptation of Larry McMurtry's first autobiographical novel about small-town lives didn't interest him at first. He dismissed it as a story about Texan teenagers whom he couldn't relate to, but when his actor friend Sal Mineo recommended it, he and his then-wife Polly Platt found it a challenge to translate to the big screen, which thus appealed to Bogdanovich's need to stretch himself.
It's no coincidence that such a single-minded artist found a home for filming this at BBS, the studio behind EASY RIDER and FIVE EASY PIECES. His uncompromising style and choices matched their equally perverse desire to produce experimental, risky films. Bogdanovich had a very exact sense of what he wanted from the start. His opening problem was how to gain a depth of field in the shots - which his friend Orson Welles counselled could only work by shooting in black and white. The director nixed the idea before even asking the studio, assuming their refusal. Welles suggested he at least ask, and studio head Bert Schneider surprised Bogdanovich by agreeing relatively easily. This is a huge plus in the look and feel of the film as the period detail is utterly convincing and somehow adds to the sensitivity and mood in the performances.
The director's evident talent and confidence in his vision is such that Bogdanovich shot very economically, 'cutting in camera', that is to say only filming set-ups from the angles and close-ups he needed. At this stage in his career, he horrified his crew by not even knowing what a 'master shot' was. yet to him the movie was already storyboarded in his head so why bother getting more coverage of a scene? (Later, he honed his technique to such a point that he was able to show the studio a finished edit of WHAT'S UP DOC? a mere three weeks after filming wrapped and with music added!
His relationship with his crew on this film though suffered greatly. Bogdanovich was so keen on the precious performances of his actors being the sole reason for the film working that he spent all his time with them, allowing no-one else but him to fraternise with them at meal-times for example . In the excellent Laurent Bouzreau documentary 'Look Back' (1999) he is very candid about his error here and his virtual dismissal of his technical crew, causing them understandable enmity toward him.
The young director devoted himself to choosing a cast of very young actors by instinct, almost none of whom had done more than one film. The male cast is led by Timothy Bottoms as the awkward, drifting Sonny and Jeff Bridges as the likeable rogue greaser Duane. They are wonderful vivid rivals in love, backed by a silent but sweet turn by Timothy's younger brother Sam, a non-actor in real-life whose pleasant open charm makes his later demise all the more harrowing. Timothy excels in the scene where he discovers the young boy's body dead in the dusty street. By now Bogdanovich had already developed a resistance to allowing actors in major emotional scenes to rehearse, so Bottoms' raw grief is all the more profound to witness.
Supporting them is a taciturn and dignified performance by Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, the cinema owner and elder statesman of the town. Johnson turned down the film repeatedly but the director used his signature tenaciousness to call in a favour from John Ford to convince him, adding that he would surely win the Academy Award if he agreed to do it - and was proved correct.
Elsewhere in support is a brief but amusing turn from a gauche Randy Quaid also at the start of a later-troubled career.
I feel it's the female performances though that strike the deepest resonance in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, dominated by the young model-turned-actor Cybil Shepherd. Spotted on the front cover of a glamour magazine by the director while shopping, he was captivated by her self-possessed sardonic smile. He knew instinctively he had to meet her for the hard-to-cast role of Jacey, the town beauty who thrives on male attention, and manipulates men young and old to serve here simply because she can. Shepherd needed plenty of convincing but her unimpressed manner and lack of typical Hollywood ambition suited the character perfectly. She is remarkably self-assured in the role for such an innocent to the profession and subtly uses her looks and wiles to lead the menfolk into fighting and cheating to be with her. Unsurprisingly, in real life she and Bogdanovich began a relationship during filming which lasted for several years.
Cloris Leachman, later infamous as the deliciously overblown, ghoulish Frau Blucher in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, gives a very different, poignant portrait of loneliness as Ruth Popper, whose neglectful (possibly homosexual) husband causes her to throw herself at Sonny, a doomed fling that renders her humiliated and bitter at the double rejection when he goes off with Jacey. Leachman touchingly conveys the conscience and cost of unrequited love felt by those left in the wake of the young and thoughtless's rampaging hormones. A more positive spin on unsuccessful love is in the hands of Ellen Burstyn, whose career took off in the 70s with ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE and THE EXORCIST. She also makes her mark here, imbuing Jacey's mother Lois with a hard-won dignity and coping with romance's disappointments with resolve and practicality. She plays the cards she is dealt and handles the results with a survivor's spirit as well as elegant beauty.
There's a poetic texture in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW in the way the characters' lives are drenched with loss and nostalgia even while the present they will mourn still unfolds. Archer City here is a ghost-town where the spirits haunting it are the living who simply haven't got around to dying just yet.The movie house, symbolic of small-town business, seems about to close even at the beginning of the film. The elder men are hollow men, almost ready to blow away with the tumbleweed, their meaning and promise long gone. The younger male figures already feel like they're rehearsing for later regrets, simply killing time until they pass on. Bridges' Duane goes off to Korea on the bus, casually fixing to see Sonny in a year or two. providing: "I don't get shot first." he grins.
The wind blows up the dust in the street. Life goes on - even in a museum. A simple and marvellous masterpiece and a deserved cult classic.