Spoilers for The Last Picture Show
Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.
Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.
The closing of the movie theater itself is what gives The Last Picture Show its title, the symbolic ending of an era and the death knell for Anarene as the young people increasingly move away, but the real end of the era is marked by the death of Sam the Lion. It happens off-screen, while we’re accompanying Sonny and Duane on a trip to Mexico. When they return and learn that Sam the Lion is dead, it’s like a punch to the gut, because it’s only then that you realize how important Sam is to the boys, to the town, and to you as the audience. Life goes on after Sam the Lion, just as Hollywood goes on after Hawks and Ford, and just as American society goes on after the uprootings of the 1950s and ’60s. But it will never be the same. And while some of those changes are good, some are to be mourned, and The Last Picture Show walks the line between the two as well or better than any other film.
Ben Johnson won an Oscar for playing Sam the Lion, and it was well-deserved. There are many parts of the film that stand out as great Sam the Lion scenes – his dressing-down of the boys who take advantage of Billy for their own amusement, his farewell to Sonny and Duane as they leave for Mexico, both knowing they’ll misuse the cash he gives them and willing to let them make their own mistakes – but I always come back to this one, his monologue on growing old and nostalgia for past love. Having seen the film several times, this scene can now reduce me to tears, even though there’s nothing particularly tear-inducing about it on its own. I also love the way Bogdanovich just holds the shot on Sam, carefully zooming in slightly as Sam gets more lost in his own memories, then back out as Sonny pulls him back to the present, but always just letting Johnson carry the scene, which he does perfectly.