To describe this film in one sentence, I’d tell you to imagine a black and white American Graffiti in a dusty, run down little town, where the kids are jaded, romance is substituted for unsatisfying sex and if you don’t leave town young, you’ll live a miserably long life there. Don’t expect any warm fuzzy feelings, and if you’re not up for a very frank discussion, this film and review might not be for you.
High school seniors Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are best friends who try to keep busy in their little town. They hangout at the pool hall, the diner and the movie theater run by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson); there’s not much else still open in town. Sonny, who seems distant from his own father, bonds with Sam and his mentally challenged son Billy(Sam Bottoms). It seems everywhere the boys go, people complain about how terrible their football team is, one man just gives the boys a disappointed look and walks away.
They have girlfriends. Sonny and Charlene (Sharon Ullrick) breakup early on (I love how she brings up his horrible football team while she’s dumping him), but when the high school coach asks Sonny to take his wife to the doctor he starts a dangerous physical relationship with his wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Meanwhile, Duane and Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in school, make their first attempts at sex together just before graduation. With Jacy realizing she can get any boy she wants and her miserable, alcoholic mother pressuring her to find a rich boy at college, Jacy tries to attach herself to any boy in town before her parents make her leave for college.
A good portion of this film is watching the high school seniors, Sonny, Dunane and Jacy, come of age in their sexuality. Sonny’s first time with Ruth is very awkward, he’s clearly following her lead. But most intriguing is Jacy who shows one of the most honest portrayals of a modern teenage girl I’ve ever seen. She knows her mother is miserable and having an affair, despite her success at marrying a rich man, so naturally Jacy wants to do the opposite. In the beginning, she innocently believes she’ll marry Duane and that sex before marriage is a sin. He mother encourages her to try it to see that “there ain’t nothin’ magic about it.” Duane doesn’t seem to pressure her about furthering their relationship, so when she gets the chance to go to a naked pool party with Lester (Randy Quaid), she takes it. This a stepping stone for to further her desire to be a sexual person and to make Duane jealous. To escape the horrors of graduating high school still a virgin, she and Duane rent a motel room during the senior picnic.
Huge SPOILER ALERT: The motel room scene is the greatest “can’t do it” scene ever. Jacy just lays herself out like a platter and tells Duane to hurry. For some reason, Duane can’t do it. He remains calm and collected about, but Jacy is furious. She paces around the room, tells him, “Now I’ll never not be a virgin! You’re the meanest boy I ever saw.” Very mature. When she realizes that the whole senior class knows what they’re doing she says spitefully, “You just tell them it was wonderful!” The class of 1952 obviously had inadequate sex-ed.
In American Graffiti, this topic doesn’t get any more serious or bleak than when Steve and Laurie make out and he brings up how she saw her brother doing it. That’s only a moment, the sting is just a pin prick and is easily forgotten and forgiven by the end. But in The Last Picture Show all these actions and hurtful words have consequences. Nothing is glossed over, the gritty photography isn’t afraid to show all. By the end of the film, everyone has some open wounds, and if they don’t leave town all that dust flying around is just going to get in there and agitate them further.
I would not recommend this film for anyone who feels uncomfortable with very gritty and unromantic ideas on sex. I don’t think there’s not a drop of love in this film, but some very ugly and revealing truths that many young people will have to find out the hard way. If you can handle all that and are a Jeff Bridges fan, put this on your must see list. He got his first Oscar nomination here.
“Oh, quit prissing. I don’t think you done it right, anyway.”