On October 22, 1971, Peter Bogdanovich's new film "The Last Picture Show" was released in theaters and would soon come to be known as one of the greatest films of the 70s. Based off Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name, the film follows one year in the life high school seniors in a small Texas town. A familiar plot now, this film is a reminder of the honesty of youth and how everything in the moment seems to be life or death.
Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn and Ben Johnson round out the cast, most of them acting for the first time. Ms. Leachman and Mr. Johnson won supporting actress and actor Academy Awards for their roles.
One of the more endearing aspects of the film comes in its pacing. The desolate town, where the only movie house in town is showing its last picture, is depicted through wide, empty shots, infusing the screen with the loneliness of the town. Shot at eye level for almost the entire length of the film, Bogdanovich lets private moments linger and fills the frames with the pain of adolescence.
A storyline that involves Ms. Shepherd's character using sexuality as power, all the while realizing just how much responsibility and heartache comes with that power, allows her to turn in a provocative and endearing performance that sets the stage for the people around her. It is in her final few moments of realization where her character shines through and it becomes telling as to why Mr. Bogdanovich cast her without so much as an audition.
Yet, it is Ms. Leachman, who portrays an unfulfilled housewife who starts up an affair with her husband's student, teaches us something profound. Not only about this character but about the human condition and its capacity for love and equally its incapacity for loneliness. In Ms. Leachman's last scene, which she performed in one take despite wishing to do more, volumes are spoken through the nervous tapping of her hand, the restraint she uses to keep her tears away and finally, with a soft touch and an even softer look, her delivery of the final line of the film.
Some newcomers may be tempted to pass this classic film up because of its age, unknown cast and lack of action. Some may even be detracted from its use of black and white photography, but "The Last Picture Show" has done what other films in its 40+ years since release have not, it makes us think, question and ponder how our flaws define us and how high school will always live deep within us.