Best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) are on the verge of manhood in the small Texas town of Anarene. With no real parental guidance, they depend upon Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) the wizened owner of the town’s pool hall, diner and movie theatre to be their moral compass. Duane, who is good-looking and popular is dating Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd), the prettiest and richest girl in town. Sonny, who has a secret crush on Jacy is the more sensitive and caring of the duo. As their last year of high school drags on, Duane is tested by Jacy’s ulterior motives and Sonny falls into an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the middle-aged wife of his coach, Coach Popper (Bill Thurman).
When Duane and Sonny return from a road trip to Mexico, they learn that Sam has died of a stroke, leaving the town's movie theater to Miss Mosey (Jessie Lee Fulton) who ran the concession stand, the café to its waitress, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), and the pool hall to Sonny. Things begin to unravel when it becomes apparent that Jacy has a wild streak in her just like her mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) is very bored with her rich husband. Secretly Lois was in love with Sam whom she had an affair with years ago. Jacy dumps Duane in the hopes of catching the eye of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette). However, Bobby runs off to get married and after a failed seduction of town playboy Abilene (Clu Galagher) who was also her mother’s lover, Jacy sets her sights on Sonny. Needless to say, Ruth gets the boot and Duane and Sonny have it out. Jacy whose more excited by the attention the town gives to Sonny about the fight pretends to be impressed with Sonny’s gallantry and suggests they elope. When they are stopped by a state trooper on their way to their honeymoon, Sonny realizes that Jacy really just wanted the attention. Her father separates them and Lois admits to Sonny that he would be much better off with Ruth anyway.
Duane and Sonny eventually make up when Duane stops back in town before being shipped off to the Korean war. To pass the time they take in the last picture show to be seen at the movie theatre since Miss Mosey has decided to close it. With Duane and Jacy gone, high school over and only the future to reflect upon, Sonny is given another blow when his friend Billy (Sam Bottoms) is hit and killed by a truck. Thinking of leaving the whole town behind, Sonny leaves but is pulled back by the memories and comfort of Ruth. After three months of not seeing her, he returns to her home where she berates but ultimately forgives him.
A very realistic portrayal of a small town of people bored and jaded by life, The Last Picture Show was filmed in black in white in order to feature the players and not stark background they lived among. This was apparently Orson Welles suggestion to director Peter Bogdanovich who was a big fan of both Welles and John Ford. Read Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors or watch Directed by John Ford if your interested in some interesting discussions. The trick worked and raked in eight Oscar nominations and won both Johnson and Leachman and Oscar for their supporting roles.
Bogdanovich had a hard time convincing Ben Johnson to play Sam. Ben thought the part had too many words and more importantly, had too much sex and cursing in it. After a conversation with John Ford who encouraged him to take the part, Bogdanovich also offered Johnson the opportunity to change any dialogue he did not like.
The last scene in the film between Sonny and Ruth-and possibly the most touching- was done in one take. Though Leachman wanted to rehearse, Bogdanovich thought he would get a better performance if she went in raw.
Tonight on TCM!
Humphrey Bogart! Looking forward to The Caine Mutiny!