If you grew up in the sixties and seventies, one of the seminal moments of your life had to have been the first time you saw the movie The Last Picture Show. It was released in 1971, and the picture caused a sensation with its frank depiction of teenage (and adult) sex and salvation in a dusty little North Texas town in 1951-52. Everyone I knew talked incessantly about the scene where the virgin Stacy, played by Cybill Shepherd, is taken to a naked swimming party and has to disrobe on the diving board before jumping into the pool. Whew, it was hot. Veteran character actor Ben Johnson, when he first read the semi-autobiographical script written by the book's author, Larry McMurty, and director Peter Bogdanovich, threw it down on the desk and said, "This is a dirty movie." He eventually acted in it at the urging of Director John Ford and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 1973, the city attorney of Phoenix banned the film as obscene (because of the skinny-dipping scene) and it took a federal court to declare it safe for viewing.
Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdanovich meet at the screening after many years!
During the sixties I had met film critic Bogdanovich, and he gave a good review to the first film that I produced, For Love of Ivy. In the summer of 1969, I came to L.A. to set a director for my movie of Lady Sings The Blues and met with the 31-year-old Peter (at my cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel; how pretentious does that sound?). By then he had directed his first film, Targets, and I had been impressed enough by it to offer him the directing job He declined, explaining that he was working on a film adaptation of Larry McMurty's 1966 book, The Last Picture Show.
His film came out 40 years ago, in late 1971, and was a huge hit, nominated for eight Academy Awards and winning two, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman, as the desperate wife of the high school's football coach who has an affair with our young lead, Timothy Bottoms.) Last night at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, they screened a newly restored (by Sony) version of the Director's Cut, whicb contained several additional minutes and scenes cut from the original release. Peter flew in from the East Coast for the event; he is now on the faculty of the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina. Cybill Shepherd was there, looking as radiant as she did in her beloved TV series, Cybill. Timothy Bottoms sat next to me at the screening, more handsome than ever, and Cloris Leachman arrived from an acting gig just as the screening began. Eileen Brennan, somewhat infirm, was very humorous. Afer the showing, they all gathered on stage for a question-and-answer session hosted by Dallas native Luke Wilson, star of the HBO series, Enlightened. I knew that Jeff Bridges wanted to be there but was out of town promoting his new country-and-Western album. Incidentally, the movie was one of the first to have a full score of contemporary songs, especially Hank William numbers.
Peter told the audience why he had decided to film it in black-and-white. "Orson Welles was staying at my house, and I told him that I wanted to get the deep depth of focus that he had achieved on Citizen Kane. 'Then film it in back-and-white,' he growled. It's an actor's best friend." Executive Producer Bert Schneider (an old friend of mine) agreed, and they did so. At the time of the filming, in McMurty's home town of Archer City in Texas, Peter was married to a talented production designer and film whiz, Polly Platt, whom I later worked with at Paramount. During the course of the filming, Peter -- who had seen model Cybill on the cover of Glamour Magazine and called her for a meeting -- began an ardent affair with the aspiring actress (this was her first role)... and although Polly was devastated, she continued to work on the film and "She even did my hair every day," Cybill said last evening.
A personal note: in the next-to-last scene of the film, Jeff Bridges, who had enlisted in the Army, came to say goodbye to his buddy and then boarded a Trailways bus for his ship to Korea, where we were at war. A shock of recognition permeated me, since Jeff was wearing exactly the same U.S. Army Signal Corps uniform that I wore when I took a Trailways bus to the fort where I would then ship out to Korea in 1952. It looked better on him. Ellen Burstyn played Cybill's wandering mother, and she looked as stunning then as subsequently, when we became friends. In the film the boys attend the last screening at the town's movie hall, which is closing, and the picture on screen is Howard Hawk's 1948 classic, Red River, the best Western ever made and my favorite film of all time. (Along with A Place In The Sun.) In 1998 the U.S. Library of Congress added The Last Picture Show to its list of culturally significant movies. After viewing it again last night, I can honestly say that Peter Bogdanovich's powerful Texas drama is as stunning and emotionally moving now as it was when I saw it in shocked silence in 1971.
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