Sunday, April 19, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: The Last Picture Show

The Set-Up: What is this thing called love? As fragile as a whisp...a remembrance of a perfume or after-shave. As powerful as the way the sun shines bright and ignites the light of shadowed memory.

Which brings us to The Last Picture Show.

Ben Johnson didn't want the part. The old veteran of John Ford westerns from horse-wrangler to stunt-rider to lead-actor had been doing mostly character-parts and was alright doing that. He was particularly memorable as one of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but this one he didn't want to do. There was too much bad language, nudity and whoring around in the screenplay for his taste (The Wild Bunch didn't?). "Oh, come on, Ben," said film historian-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich. "If you play this part, you'll win an Academy Award!"

Bogdanovich gambled. Sam "the Lion" was a pivotal part of Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show," but not a big part. And not just anybody could play it. It had to be an old war-horse, a veteran cow-poke who had dust in his lungs, dirt in the lines of his face, and a lot of years under his belt. And integrity. It couldn't be just anybody. And Bogdanovich, who idolized John Ford and revered his pictures, couldn't think of anyone more right than Ford's star for Wagon Master, and also Ford's seemingly ageless Sgt. Tyree of the Cavalry Trilogy to play the role. Johnson was film-history to Bogdanovich, and so he was history. He had to be Sam "The Lion."

So, when it came to this monologue, Bogdanovich wanted it to be special. He wanted it to be in one continuous shot (and it would have been if not for a blown cue--there's an edit and a second, less crisply focused take continues the scene). But, miracles can't be stopped. When Johnson starts his reminiscence on the first take, the sun pokes through the overcast and lights on Johnson's back and shoulders bathing it in a glow. It's a quiet, spooky moment, and don't kid yourself: Bogdanovich saw the light changing and wanted to catch whatever it did—he gambled—as his heroes Ford and Hawks had on previous pictures. That it should happen at that precise moment, lighting Sam's reverie, is something that can't be love.

Or omens.

And Ben Johnson won the 1971 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role.

The Story: There's one man the boys (and ladies) look up to in Anarene, Texas. That's Sam "the Lion" (Ben Johnson). He owns a block of store-fronts in the downtown (or what passes for downtown). The picture show, the hardware store, the diner. There he holds court over the old folks, who hang around without much to do, and the high-schoolers (who hang around without much to do). The kids with money and their parents—they go out of town. Not the arid dustbowl of the old downtown.

Sam has had a falling-out with the local boys over some foolishness they played with Billy (the late Sam Bottoms), the kid who's a bit simple, but that's over and done with. Put away. And Sam and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms, Sam's older brother) and Billy go out to the fishing tank (long since fished out) to spend the day and talk like men.


(Sam the Lion pulls out rolling papers and a tobacco pouch, and looks at Sonny and Billy skipping stones)
Sam: I thought you boys wanted to fish? C'mon, keep an eye on them corks, Billy!
Sonny: I don't think there's anything in this tank 'cept turtles.
Sam: That's what I like 'bout it, tell ya the truth. Wanna try one?
Sonny: Sure!
(Sam finishes making his cigarette)
Sam: Never liked to clean fish, or eat 'em, either. Spend half your time pickin' out bone.
Sam: Yeah, I just come out here to get a little scenery. Too pretty a day to spend in town.
Sam: You wouldn't believe how this country's changed.
Sam: First time I seen it, there wasn't a mesquite tree on it...or prickly pear neither. I used to own this land, you know. First time I watered a horse at this tank was...more than forty years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I'm just as sentimental as the next fella when it comes to old times.
Sam: Old times. I brought a young lady swimmin' out here once, more than 20 years ago.
Sam: It was after my wife had lost her mind and my boys was dead.
Sam: Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess. In pretty deep. We used to come out here on horseback and go swimmin' without no bathin' suits. One day, she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was ridin' didn't want to take the water. But she was always lookin' for somethin' to do like that...
Sam:...Somethin' wild. I'll bet she's still got that silver dollar.
Sonny: Whatever happened to her?
Sam: Oh, she growed up. She was just a girl then, really...
Sam: Here, let me help you with that.
Sonny: Why didn't you ever marry her after your wife died?
Sam: She was already married.
Sam: Her and her husband was young and miserable with one another like so many young married folks are. I thought they'd change with some age, but it didn't turn out that way.
Sonny: Bein' married always so miserable?
Sam: No, not really. About 80% of the time, I guess. We oughta go to a real fishin' tank next year. Naw, too late to think about things like that too much.
Sam: If she was here, I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain't that ridiculous?
Sam: Naw, it ain't really. 'Cause bein' crazy 'bout a woman like her's always the right thing to do.
Sam: Bein' a decrepit old bag of bones,that's what's ridiculous...
Sam: ...gettin' old.

The Last Picture Show

Words by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich

Pictures by Robert Surtees and Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show is available on DVD through Sony Home Video and the Criterion Collection.

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