Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment
I saw the DVD for The Last Picture Show at my local library, and I thought, “Damn, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this classic film…” This is weird, because I went to film school and have seen almost every movie under the sun. This was one of the gems that escaped me in my university years, and I am happy now that I have seen it. It was the jumping-off point for a lot of major talent, and the story is gratifying, haunting and very well-told.
First, the subject of the costume designer credit needs to be cleared up. In the opening credits, Polly Platt is simply credited with “Design”, an ambiguous title at best. At the time, Polly Platt was married to director Peter Bogdanovich, and served as his artistic collaborator. To say that she was the “designer” of the picture is accurate, but to be specific, it is worth noting that she designed both the sets and the costumes. Nancy McCardle and Mickey Sherrard are credited, curiously, as “wardrobe” – as in, maybe they are made of wood with hinged doors and a mirror. These costumers went on, after the show, to do some interesting things themselves. Mickey Sherrard went on to costume supervise Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and Nancy McArdle is still at it, having recently supervised costumes on Blades of Glory and Hairspray.
The film takes place in a small, fictional Texas plains town, Anarene – a wind-blown, one stoplight hamlet with a dim future at best. As a teenager, you would either grow up to be a roughneck – working in the oil fields, you would marry a roughneck, or you would leave. With prospects like these, what choices would you have? What kind of life would you lead, waiting to graduate high school, waiting for the other shoe to drop?
The film focuses on Sonny (played by Timothy Bottoms), a young, sensitive type, in love with his best friend’s girl. Duane (Jeff Bridges), Sonny’s best friend, is a poor-but-charismatic football player, on the perpetually losing team, that has somehow snagged the town beauty, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Jacy is not only beautiful, but rich and entitled. In this poor town, Jacy’s father is the only person making a profit, and it shows.
Jacy’s mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn) is a woman unfulfilled. She married Jacy’s father when he was but a roughneck, and miraculously, he hit black gold on the fields he owned. Lois stays with him for the material comfort and status that his prosperity provides her, but it doesn’t make her happy. Long ago, in fact, she had an affair with the town’s only entrepreneur, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). Lois tries to sway Jacy away from the seeming ne’er-do well, Duane, and in the process turns Jacy into more a reflection of herself than she realizes.
Meanwhile, Coach Popper (the high school basketball coach) has asked Sonny to take his wife to her doctors’ appointments. Sonny encounters a very lonely woman in Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), and together they embark on a sad journey of shared loneliness and raw sexuality.
Duane ends up joining the military to fight the Korean War. In the meantime, Sonny has fallen into the spindly arms of Jacy, who is too bored and lazy to look further for anything that would truly fulfill her. Duane returns to town, only to beat the crap out of Sonny at his discovery of their affair. Jacy goes on to seduce her mother’s lover, Abliene (Clu Gulager), and then leaves little Anarene for Dallas, the big city, for good.
The movie was shot in black and white, in an era when black and white no longer seemed a viable, commercial option for filmmakers. In the “special features” on the DVD, Bogdanovich talks about his struggle to get the studio to let him shoot in B/W, and it’s a good think he won the fight. The way that the film is shot, the graininess of the image, the style of the lighting, the bleak production and costume design – all of these elements come together to create a film that is simply evocative of the early 1950s period because it looks like it was SHOT in the early 1950s. Even today, in 2008, the movie looks remarkably clean in terms of its period representation.
There are minor flaws: sideburns on the men, some of the haircuts are too long, some of the prints on some of the fabrics post-date the period, but altogether, the film sells the period in a subtle, elegant way that suits the subject matter. The ubiquitous use of old country music (Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Eddie Fisher, and Hank Snow feature prominently), the thoughtful use of period vehicles (none are too new), and the beautifully clear distinction between the haves (Jacy, her family and friends) and the have-nots (the rest of the town) make this film seamless in its intention. Every element works in harmony to tell the story.
The “haves” are beautifully articulated in this film. Around them, the dusty Texas wind does not blow. Nothing is ever soiled or dirty. Jacy’s costumes are brand-new, light in color to emphasize their pristine-ness, precious and immaculate. The other “rich-kids” in the film are similarly untouched by dirt, wind and grime. Suit jackets: perfect. Light-colored khaki pants: no muss. Lois’ attire: accessorized to Texan perfection (meaning slightly too much), perfectly tailored; she looks hot, but in a controlled, refined way. There is a lot of visual contrast in the “haves'” costumes, more whites, more blacks, it seems, more distinction in color, creating a more graphic look.
To contrast, the “have-nots”: dusty, tousled, dirty, unkempt, slightly smelly-looking, and lots of shades of grey. Plaid flannel shirts worn by Sonny look like they have been around for twenty years, cowboy boots are crusted with God-knows-what, articles of clothing are thrown together rather than thoughtfully considered by the wearer. The high school girl “have-nots” look like dried weeds next to Jacy’s perfection. It’s astonishing.
This is a highly sexually-charged film, and there are plenty of scenes in the film where the characters undress. We get to see a lot of period undergarments, and for the most part, I think they did a fine job. The 1950s undergarments were not what anyone would consider sexy, and to see these un-sexy garments in such a sexualized manner is very interesting. It is almost uncomfortable, because as these characters lose their virginity, so to speak, these wholesome-looking garments hit the floor, lying in a lonely pile, never to be worn in the same way again. It is a very clever device, using the period elements to further emphasize the story point: the deflowering of the person mirroring the denouement of their innocence, the end to who they once were; the forlorn pile of underwear becomes their former self, in that sense. It’s fascinating, when you think about it.
There is a funeral scene for Sam the Lion, Lois’ old flame. Everyone from the town is there, and most of them are wearing black, except for Lois. She wears a white shirt-dress. The contrast in the construction of the group setting is interesting – the crowd amounts to a shifting tableau of deep greys and blacks, while in the middle, this white, bird-like dress on Lois commands our focus. Up to this point, it is unknown to the audience that Lois had had an affair with Sam, but the prominent use of the white dress hints to the viewers, in a not-so-subtle manner, that Lois is, in fact, the one who mourns most profoundly for the death of her lover. While it may seem counterintuitive to put the person most affected by death in anything other than black, Lois appears as a wounded dove, mourning the loss of her mate.
Cybill Shepherd is absolutely radiant as Jacy, and the cinematographer took clear glee in lighting her. In certain scenes of special portent, Jacy has a key-light on her that makes her look like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca – it is a heavenly, ethereal light that seems to suggest that behind her eyes lies either the disease or the cure for all the desperation in Anarene. Her hair is combed into a smooth, prissy page-boy hair-do, and she wears the bobby socks and saddle shoes that define the era. Jacy is the classically manipulative devil-woman that conjures the old folks’ warnings to young men. In her neat, meticulous costumes, this fiery succubus becomes even more a mystery, an ever more difficult puzzle to solve. And in the end, no one can seem to solve her; not even herself. Her costumes do not necessarily arc to tell her story; rather they clearly define who she is, in a subversive, strongly calculating way.
In fact, with the exception of Ruth Popper, most of the characters in the film have very little costume arc. We see Ruth’s journey from buttoned-up, emotionally constipated wife to loose-haired, sexually free woman, to spend-the-day-in-your-bathrobe kind of depression. It’s a beautiful arc, and Cloris Leachman is so brilliant in this role, I can’t think of anyone else who could have achieved what she did. Cloris looks very pretty in this film, even when she is supposed to be matronly or depressed – but her prettiness lends a certain vulnerability to this character, married to a gay man in the 1950s. Her lack of options, in terms of her life and her happiness, mirrors the lack of options for the characters graduating from high school. Her desperation is the same as theirs, and it is in this isolation that she finds sympathetic solace in Sonny.
The Last Picture Show is a film that is so good that the brilliant artistic departmental achievements are often overlooked. The costumes are an essential part of the success of the storytelling here, and they quietly do their job while no one is paying attention. While you will never walk away from this film remarking, “Wow, that dress that Jacy wore at the pool scene was so brilliant – where can I buy one?!,” the impact of that dress will have silently gelled your impression of who Jacy was at the moment she decided to turn a corner in her sexuality, in her life, and in the movie. And that’s a job well done.