Last week the Motion Picture Academy unveiled the digitally restored director’s cut of “The Last Picture Show,” celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. A deeply melancholic ode to 1950s American small town life, the Oscar-winning film based on Larry McMurtry’s novel boasts an ensemble of restless characters living, loving and grieving in withered Anarene, Texas. Following the screening, director Peter Bogdanovich, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms, who protectively helped Eileen Brennan with her mic, were on-hand for a Q & A awkwardly moderated by actor Luke Wilson (why not use professionals?). Highlights from the conversation are below.
Bogdanovich on his decision to make the film in black-and-white:
“We [initially tested with] 16mm color film, and it didn’t look as bleak… [Orson Welles and I] were having breakfast at his house in Beverly Hills, and I said, ‘I want to get the depth of field that you had in <b>Citizen Kane</b> and <b>Touch of Evil</b>,’ and he says, ‘You’ll never get it in color! Why don’t you shoot it in black and white? It’s an actor’s movie anyway. You know what I always say about black and white: It’s the actor’s friend. Because every performance looks great in black and white! Name me a great performance in color!'”
“A director is a man who presides over accidents.”
Midway through the film, pool-hall owner Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) delivers a moving monologue while sitting near a lake, with natural light imoving across his face at uncannily perfect moments. Bogdanovich credited this as a serendipitous accident: “That was the first take and that’s the one we used… I once asked John Ford about something in one of his pictures, and he said ‘Aw, that was just an accident. Most of the good things in pictures happen by accident.’ I had only made one picture at that time, and I thought, ‘Really?'” Again Bogdanovich quoted Welles: “A director is a man who presides over accidents.”
The nude scenes:
Cybill Shepherd recalled that for the film – her first acting job – she felt no pressure about the nudity in the script: “Peter always said I didn’t have to do the nude scenes. I asked Cloris, Eileen and also Ellen, ‘What would you do if you were me in this movie, would you do the nude scenes?’ And [they] all said yes.” Bogdanovich added that it was “more important to have Cybill in the picture than to do the goddamn scenes. Luckily, she did the scenes.” Leachman said that Timothy Bottoms was nervous about her and his age difference, in particular their scene in bed, in which they toss off underwear from under the blankets: “I was very middle-aged at the time. I still am!”
The beauty of listening.
Bottoms described his character Sonny, a quiet observer but arguably the main role in an otherwise ensemble film: “I got to listen to everybody in this movie. Did you notice that Sonny listened to everybody?” To which Bogdanovich replied, “The hardest thing to do is listen, and you did it beautifully.”
Fourth time’s a charm.
Bogdanovich recalled that Johnson turned down the role of Sam the Lion three times before agreeing to be in the film. Johnson’s initial complaints? The part had “too many words,” and it was “kind of a dirty picture.” But Bogdanovich was relentless: “He came into my office the following week, and it took me an hour, and finally I said, ‘Ben, if you do this picture you could win the Academy Award.’ He only worked ten days, but he was great. He was so authentic.” For his performance in the film, Johnson received the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 1972.
Remembering production designer Polly Platt:
Platt, who died in July of this year, was married to Bogdanovich at the time of shooting “The Last Picture Show.” “She was great on this picture, the design is superb,” said Bogdanovich. “She couldn’t take credit as production designer because she wasn’t in the union, so [for her screen credit] it just says ‘Design.'” Bottoms added, “She was our cheerleader. She gave us lunches, she told us what to wear, and she made us feel good… She was like a mom.”
While married to Platt, Bogdanovich famously fell for Shepherd while making the film, which broke up his marriage. Leachman addressed this: “She really blessed you two [Bogdanovich and Shepherd], because here they were, finding each other at the beginning of the picture and all the way through it, and we all knew about it.”
On getting older:
Brennan humorously captured the wistful spirit of the film, which deals with aging and the inevitable passage of time. She mused about her younger self on screen: “I had black hair, didn’t I?” And then, grabbing a fistful of her now-white hair and addressing the audience: “This is waiting for you!”
See the entire live-streamed conversation here.