There are few filmmakers more uniquely and closely connected to Old Hollywood than cinema giant Peter Bogdanovich (1939–2022) was. Beginning in the industry as a film historian, writer and critic for publications like Esquire before becoming a filmmaker, Bogdanovich interviewed and befriended figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Orson Welles, Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, to name a few. Yet, it was his second feature, following 1968’s Targets, which would become a defining example of the emerging New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s – whilst it was inspired by the Old Hollywood titans he admired.
The iconic 1971 film, set in 1950s Texas, follows Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges in his second role), two high school seniors coming of age in the dead-end, dying town of Anarene. As they contemplate graduation and what lies ahead, Duane dates his icy classmate and town beauty, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), who is fiercely protected by her rich mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), while Sonny has an affair with the football coach’s wife, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman).
The Last Picture Show helped usher in the New Hollywood Wave and kickstarted Bogdanovich's eclectic career in filmmaking, which included collaborations with silver screen legends such as Burt Reynolds and Audrey Hepburn. The film put Bogdanovich at the forefront of the group of New Hollywood directors and laid the path for a new generation of filmmakers to storm Hollywood, including William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
At just over 50, the film, based on Larry McMurtry’s titular book, permeated by its unforgettable Hank Williams soundtrack, has cemented its status as one of the most important films of its time, and one of the key works of New Hollywood. Not only a striking portrait of 1951 Texas and a love letter to the movies of the 50s, it remains a quintessential example of the ability Hollywood had at the time to make films with small budgets and relative creative freedom, which portrayed life more realistically than American films had been able to in the past. The Last Picture Show depicted the era of the 50s with a crudity and frankness which was only possible to do in the 70s – whilst being an aesthetic tribute to the films of the classic era.
A film with Old Hollywood connections
Bogdanovich first saw the book by McMurty, which the film was based on, in a store. He was presented with a copy by Rebel Without a Cause star Sal Mineo not long after, who urged him to make it. He felt encouraged make the movie.
“When I was in an airport or a store, on one of those displays I saw a bunch of paperback books. One of them said, The Last Picture Show. I turned it over to the side and I looked at it and thought this sounds like it could make a good film. Then about two weeks later, Sal Mineo comes over the to the house, and he had the same paperback in his hand, and he said, ‘I always wanted to make this but I’m too old to play it now, you might like it.' So, I thought, wow, that was a hell of a coincidence.” Despite being a New Yorker, Bogdanovich was compelled to take on the Texas-set film.
The advice of Welles
One of the most striking elements of The Last Picture Show is its black and white photography, lensed by renowned cinematographer Robert Surtees ASC. Amidst the era of New Hollywood, where films such as Easy Rider and The French Connection were ruling the day and capturing the rampant disillusion and social upheaval, it was highly unorthodox and practically unheard of for a major 1970s American film to be in black and white. It was Orson Welles, who Bogdanovich had befriended, who suggested he shoot the film in black and white, and played a part in its look.
“I said to Orson, I want to get that depth of field you had in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He said, ‘You’ll never get it in colour’. I said what do I do? He said, ‘Shoot it in black and white. It’s an actor’s picture. You know what they say about black and white, don’t you? Black and white is the actor’s friend’. I said why? Orson said, (Bogdanovich imitates Welles) ‘BECAUSE EVERY PERFORMANCE LOOKS BETTER IN BLACK AND WHITE. Name me a great performance in colour, I dare you.'”
Welles, along with Howard Hawks, were mentors to Bogdanovich during the making of Picture Show.
“When the picture came out, it got good reviews. One of them [Newsweek] said it was the best film by a young director since Citizen Kane. Orson sent me a telegram that said reading your notices is like opening presents at Christmas.”
A New Hollywood
Shooting the film in black and white was not only daring but was seen as highly uncommercial, in a time where most major American films were in colour. However, the film was produced by the New Hollywood production company BBS, formed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, the producers of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, who had helped to reinvent Hollywood by producing low-budget, artistic films with new talent, which made money.
A crucial example of the New Hollywood revolution, which was turning Hollywood on its head, BBS had a deal with Columbia where they were able to make audacious, director-driven films, with creative freedom, as long as they were under a modest budget. Even as Bogdanovich noted at the time, films of the era such as John Schesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, just coming off his seminal 1969 Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, were vetoed from filming in black and white. But, illustrative of BBS’ willingness, Bogdanovich went to Schneider at Welles’ encouragement and encountered “no pushback”.
“I went to Bert Schneider, whose brother was running Columbia at the time, and I said I’d to shoot it in black and white. He said ‘why?’. I said I thought it’d look better, and the performances will be better and so on. He got back to me about a week later: ‘We’ll shoot it in black and white’. About a year later, I asked him why he was so quick to say yes. He said he thought it’d be a novelty.”
Schneider was right – the film grossed $29.1 million from its $1.3 million budget and had a huge cultural impact across the US at the time of its release. It was also highly against the grain for the time, to make a period film about the life of kids growing up in a tiny Western town in Texas, in the 50s. At a time when films from The Wild Bunch to Klute reflected the swirling rage, violence and anger surrounding the heady Vietnam war, Bogdanovich says he was adamant about not wanting to make another film about the post-sixties era.
“I didn’t want to do that”.
Bogdanovich would again resort to black and white photography on his classic Depression-set caper Paper Moon, in 1973. The film would win an Oscar for actor Tatum O’Neal, and launch the career of another then-unknown actor, in the then 8-year-old O’Neal.
“[On Paper Moon], I said to [Paramount head] Bob Evans or [Paramount executive] Peter Bart, I want shoot this one in black and white. Peter said, ‘Here we go again’.”
Casting the picture
When it came to casting the role of Jacy Farrow, the iconic, school homecoming queen and the love interest of Jeff Bridges’ Duane Jackson, Bogdanovich first saw her eventual portrayer, Cybill Shepherd, on the cover of Glamour. The model-cum-actor had done little in film, apart from having previously done a screen test for French director Roger Vadim, which Bogdanovich had seen, but didn’t sway him in casting. He also saw Sissy Spacek for the role of Jacy, who was a “very good actor“, but he was determined to use Shepherd.
For the role of football team co-captain Duane Jackson, the filmmaker says he knew instantly he wanted Jeff Bridges to play the part. He remembers vividly, seeing a young Bridges for the first time.
“The part he played, Duane, was a real shithead. Jeff was so inherently likeable, I thought it would make a very interesting contrast, that he was a very likeable as a person, but playing someone who was not likeable at all.”
Bogdanovich says he also knew immediately that he wanted to cast Ellen Burstyn for a role after having her test for several parts. He went as far as to offer her carte blanche on the film.
“I said to Ellen, you can have any part you want, the waitress (Eileen Brennan’s role), Jacy’s mother or the Coach’s wife. She said to me she wanted the part of Jacy’s mother. I said, ok, you got it. That was the first and only time I said to an actor they can choose any available part they want to play.”
Not only launching the careers of movie stars Bridges, Leachman and Burstyn, Bogdanovich says he was also the reason Jodi Foster was cast in her breakthrough film Taxi Driver, suggesting her to Martin Scorsese after seeing her audition for the role of fledgling con-woman Addie Loggins in Paper Moon, which would be played by Tatum O’Neal.
“I was the one who told Scorsese to use her in Taxi Driver. I’m the one who told him to do it.”
For the vital, supporting Picture Show character of Sam the Lion, the stalwart, paternal cowboy of the small town, who operates the local pool hall, the town’s one café and its picture theatre, Bogdanovich originally considered his friend Jimmy Stewart for the role, but decided against that, believing he was too big of a movie star to “be in a dinky little town in Texas”. He says he decided to go for a character actor, before opting to aim for frequent John Ford collaborator and perennial John Wayne sidekick, Ben Johnson.
The veteran Western player was resistant at first. It was Bogdanovich’s friend, esteemed director John Ford, who helped and was able to get the actor involved.
“I said to John, I’ve got a good part for old Ben. [Ben] said there was too many words. Ford said, ‘Oh, he always says that.’ Ford spoke to Ben. He said, ‘What do you want Ben, do you want to play Duke’s sidekick all your life? It’s a good part. Play the part’. Ben called me later that day. He said, ‘You put the old man on me’. So, he did it. He was wonderful.”
The making of a classic
One of the seminal scenes of the film is Cloris Leachman’s last in the movie: her confrontation with Sonny, the scene that won her the Oscar for her performance. Upon shooting the scene, Bogdanovich felt so strongly about her performance, he was satisfied with one take. He still remembers filming the scene.
“She was literally shaking. I thought she was never gonna (do better than what we had)”.
He told her on the spot she was going to win an Oscar.
“I told Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman they were gonna win Oscars and they did.”
Nominated for eight Oscars, the film won two for both Leachman and Johnson. Bogdanovich says it was a scene Leachman believed she could have done better on and would continue to reflect on.
“Every time we met, she’d say to me, ‘I’m so unhappy, Peter’. (I’d say) What’s the matter? ‘I could’ve done that scene better if you’d let me do one more take’. Jesus Christ, Cloris, you won the fucking Oscar.”
That same year of the film’s release, for the 1972 Oscars, Bogdanovich was approached by Bert Schneider to cut together a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, who had been backlisted from the US since the 50s due to being named as a suspected Communist in the McCarthy hearings, and hadn’t been back for 20 years. The silent screen star was to receive an honorary Oscar, to mark his return to the US from exile. Chaplin was to appear in person and accept the honour. A lifelong fan of Chaplin’s films, Bogdanovich agreed. He remembers meeting the impressed cinema icon at the tribute, although by this time, Chaplin was mostly out of it.
A lasting legacy
Looking back on his landmark movie, Bogdanovich can scarcely believe it came out so long ago.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been 50 years [since Picture Show was made]… it’s hard to believe it’s 50 years. Half a century.”
He has distinct and mixed memories of making the film, in part because of everything that happened during filming; but five decades on he is satisfied with its legacy.
“My marriage fell apart, I fell in love, my mother died – all that happened while we’re shooting… I look back on it with affection and sadness. Happy and sad. The picture turned out well.”
– Anthony Frajman