The title of The Last Picture Show has an obvious referent within the film: the single movie theatre in the tiny Texas town Anarene (not a real place, but based on real places) closes during the course of the film, and two of the main characters attend the final show. Yet the actual fact of the cinema shutting down does not, on the surface, seem to be important enough to rate its titular status. The characters aren’t cinephiles. There’s no great outcry against the closing of the cinema. The characters only go to see one other movie during the film, and they spend the majority of it trying to make out with their girlfriends. But writer/director Peter Bogdanovich is not merely choosing a title and event sure to interest his cinema-loving peers. Rather, the closing of the picture show serves as a tangible sign of the shift in American cinema and culture that the film as a whole presents. That shift is most clearly seen in the death of Sam the Lion.
Ben Johnson won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of town entrepreneur Sam the Lion, who owns the cinema, cafe, and pool hall. The “supporting” designation is accurate, since the younger generation led by Sonny and Jacy are the clear protagonists. On the other hand, it’s a tiny bit misleading, because Sam the Lion is the central, the foundational figure in the town and in the film. Sam represents the last of the classic Hawksian or Fordian heroes. (It’s no accident that Hawks’s Red River, starring John Wayne, is the last picture show.) He doesn’t talk too much, but when he does, it’s worth it. He protects Billy, the young boy who’s not quite all there, from the other kids who bully him. He lets Miss Mosey keep her job at the cinema long after she’s ceased to be useful in it. He comes down hard on Sonny when he joins in a humiliating gag on Billy [see clip below], but is quick to forgive him when the time comes.
It’s far too simplistic to suppose that Sam the Lion’s death half way through the film is the catalyst for the breakdown of the town. Jacy was off chasing college men at risque parties and Sonny was carrying on with the coach’s wife long before that. Sam doesn’t particularly comment on these goings-on, in fact. He’s the moral center of the Anarene world, but he’s far from a sermonizing moralist. Yet there is a relationship between Sam’s death and the loosening behavioral mores. Sam’s passing is inevitable because he belongs to an earlier generation. Not a perfect generation, or a generation that never sowed any wild oats – his monologue about Jacy’s mother shows that [see clip below]. But a generation with the inner strength and sense of personal honor that characterizes the heroes of Golden Age westerns and war films. (It’s not quite just a generational thing – at the very end of the film, no-one in the town, from old men to sheriff, is willing to stand up for Billy. Only Sonny keeps a glimmer of Sam’s love for the boy alive.)
When Sonny and Duane go to Mexico, Sam gives them extra cash, even though he knows they’ll probably spend it unwisely. When they return, barely able to sit up, they immediately try to find Sam, knowing that he’ll know the best way to stop their illness [see clip below]. But the sight of Sam waving them off to Mexico, half-sad that he couldn’t go with them, half-worried about them, but knowing that they had to do crazy stuff in order to grow up, was the last one they’d ever have.
From that point on in the film, Sam’s absence is a gaping hole in the life of the town. It’s not that everyone talks about him incessantly, or that everything falls to pieces without him, or that very much happens that wouldn’t have if he were around (nearly all of the events at the end of the film are set almost inexorably in motion before Sam’s death), but his absence is felt constantly by characters and audience alike. Before, there was always Sam to go back to if things got out of hand.
Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show in 1971, right in the middle of the “New Hollywood” renaissance in American film; it wasn’t his first feature, but it was his first major success as a filmmaker, after having been a noted film critic. He set it in the early 1950s, when the first post-World War II generation was coming of age. Thus, the film represents two crucial periods in American history – the shift in American culture in the 1950s and moving into the 1960s, as social mores started to change (see contemporary films like Rebel Without a Cause), and the shift in American filmmaking in the late 1960s and 1970s, led by Bonnie & Clyde, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (among others). Sam the Lion is passing in both. He belongs to the pre-war generation as well as to Old Hollywood. A trademark of New Hollywood is the combination of respect for Golden Age directors with a desire to push the envelope and find new ways to make films. This was the first generation of filmmakers who grew up studying films – the first set of American cinephiles, if you will. They knew their Hawks, their Ford, their Nicholas Ray, but they also knew that for American filmmaking to compete artistically with the Europeans, they had to find new heroes for a new time. Bogdanovich’s nostalgia for a time when Sam the Lion could be a viable hero is palpable. In fact, it’s much stronger than his assumed nostalgia for small-town America – to me there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love lost between him and Anarene. About the only good thing about Anarene might be that Sam the Lion was there. Without him, there’s little left in the town and most of the main characters move away as quickly as they’re able.
So The Last Picture Show really is the last picture show – the visible sign of the toll that Sam’s death has taken on the town, the death knell of Old Hollywood, and the passing of a uniquely American type of hero. It’s nostalgic, but it accepts the inevitable.