Last month it was 50 years ago that The last photo show, a title that either floods you with memories or makes you say, “oh yeah, I’ve heard that should be good. Should I watch?”
If you’re in the second camp (or, no shame, never heard of it at all), I’m here to tell you that, yes, you absolutely must watch this movie. And despite its advanced age (with a visual, black-and-white style that makes it look deliberately smooth more olde timey), it’s a story that will always be relevant. Plus it’s fun – it’s usually just hot young famous people who are naked all the time. (Aha! Suddenly you’re interested.)
Let’s break this down.
WHO: The last photo show was the film that propelled the child prodigy movie dweeb Peter Bogdanovich from critic/scholar/programmer to King of Hollywood. (Yes, he had already made goals (but that wasn’t nominated for eight Academy Awards.) If today’s online movie culture existed in 1971, Bogdanovich, who famously befriended earlier authors like Orson Welles and John Ford, would be the “stans” type of guy. (Considering his later supporting role in the ever-popular series) the sopranoslike dr. Melfi’s therapist Dr. Kupferberg, maybe he does.)
Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with the author of the semi-autobiographical book, Larry McMurtry, whose other works were adapted into the films. Skin, Conditions of Affection, and the miniseries lonely pigeon.
The protagonist of the film, high school student Sonny Crawford, is played by Timothy Bottoms, who isn’t exactly a household name, but is simply amazing here. His co-stars include Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid (in his first role), Ellen Burstyn (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), Eileen Brennen (of Note!) and a few surprising faces to discuss.
For classic cinephiles, it’s all about Ben Johnson, the legendary cowboy actor and John Wayne sidekick whose credits date back to the late 1930s. His performance as Sam the Lion, the wise and heartbroken elder statesman who runs the municipal swimming pool, restaurant and cinema, is the emotional core of this tender film. Known more for action than actual “acting,” Johnson must have twisted his arm to star in a film with so much dialogue. Bogdanovich pleaded with him, suggesting that if he played the part, he would win the Academy Award. He was right.
Comedy fans might do a double take when they see who plays the sad and lonely Ruth Popper. Yes, that’s Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein. Cloris Leachman (later) The Mary Tyler Moore Show) is extraordinary as the housewife who seduces Timothy Bottoms, and also won an Academy Award for the performance.
But then there’s the look you can’t not talk about, Cybill Shepherd in her first movie. Director Bogdanovich, cinematographer Robert Surtees and costume designer Polly Platt (more on this later) all knew they had lightning in a bottle here. The only reasonable thing to say about Shepherd in The last photo show she’s the reason god invented cameras.
WHAT: It’s 1951 and we’re in a Texas oil town outside of Wichita Falls. You have no choice but to complain about how bad the school football team is and sleep with your neighbors.
Yes, this “prestige photo” is just about one of the hottest movies you’ll ever see. It’s a wall-to-wall link, and in ways you might not immediately predict. Yes, there are resonating themes of loneliness, social facades and hypocritical values, but on the face of it, this film is really about solving it.
TRUE: We’re in hardcore Texas, flat Texas, dry Texas, with tumbleweeds and high winds and absolutely nothing to worry about. (Hence the activity above.)
The last photo show the famous transition from fiction to reality when 31-year-old director Bogdanovich became intimate with his 20-year-old star Cybill Shepherd, while filming on location. (He first saw her on the cover of glamour magazine.)
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, was on set the entire time, working as a production designer (and wearing other hats). The two continued to collaborate on sequels What’s up Doc? and paper moon because Hollywood was a wild place in the 1970s.
WHEN: Although released in 1971, at the height of the rebellious “New Hollywood” (think Easy Rider or Cab driver) the film has the look of a generation earlier embedded in its DNA. It was shot in black and white, with uncharacteristic-to-motion durations without much camera shake, and in as many real-life locations as possible. There’s a graininess to what they shoot, but that doesn’t mean the framing isn’t beautiful. Add to that the salty language and nudity, which creates a disturbing effect. You feel like you’re really watching something from the early 1950s, but it’s not like any other movie in that setting before or after.
WHY: Why would you look at it? Okay, enough joked about the spicy scenes – what sticks are the characters. It’s a remarkable portrait of a group of desperate people, each in pursuit of happiness knowing that nothing awaits them over the next hill. (In this part of Texas there is to be no hills!) This movie is chilly like hell, at least for me, but it’s not depressing, and it’s definitely not looking down on these people. what it is is caring. It’s a movie that doesn’t really have villains, just people who make mistakes.
Fifty years later, it’s even more of a curiosity. It’s rare to find movies that actually fall into a category of one. The last photo show was the first and last of its kind.
Where to stream? The last photo show