The Love Song of Larry J. McMurtry: The Last Picture Show

by Greg Giddings, Midwestern State University

(Originally published in JASAT)

In 1966, Larry McMurtry (in)famously dedicated his third novel with these words: “The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town.”  Both readers and commentators through the years have assumed that McMurtry was speaking ironically in that dedication, as McMurtry’s description of Thalia, the novel’s fictionalized name for Archer City, is hardly flattering. In fact, Lera Patrick Tyler Lich, author of Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of Myth, claims that

The Last Picture Show was written at least in part to expel the hostility [McMurtry] felt for Archer City. Even though the stimulus for writing this novel may have been a recent visit to his hometown, an antipathy toward Archer City had existed for years. His experiences there as a youth and in urban San Francisco and Houston as an adult produced a bitter realism about small-town citizens and their values. The fictional consequence of McMurtry’s animosity is a satire on religion, manners, education, and sex in small-town Texas. (21)

downloadA majority of readers typically concur with Lich, noting McMurtry’s aforementioned use of satire, as well as parody and caricature in critiquing his hometown. Yet a few readers dissent, and those who do see past the vitriol to glimpse visages of hope in The Last Picture Show. In particular, Roger Walton Jones, author of  Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel, says, “Despite [McMurtry’s] unsparing portrait of Archer City, including its boredom, isolation, empty sex, materialism, inadequate role models, and above all, suffocation by fundamentalist religion, McMurtry found grounds for hope in the stubborn resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity for love” (25). As Jones clearly chronicles, McMurtry’s novel is replete with criticism of small town life. Nevertheless, Jones, unlike most, still relishes the novel’s occasional passages of hope and optimism.

Maybe most interestingly, McMurtry himself, in preparing to co-write the screenplay for the 1971 film version of the novel, found elements in his text that apparently were unintended: “In rereading the book, I had decided that, despite my efforts at savage satire, I had still somehow romanticized the place and the people” (Film Flam 22). Clearly, McMurtry had not intended to temper his satiric look at Archer City with sentimentalism.  And yet, that subtle hopefulness in the novel is emphasized in the film. In fact, because of this thematic shift and director Peter Bogdanovich’s filming, particularly the close-ups on hands, the film is significantly more aesthetically pleasing and hopeful than the novel.

On the surface, the film and novel seem to vary little, unsurprising considering Bogdanovich’s comments in 1999 about the screenwriting process that the director and novelist engaged in: “Writing the script was really not so much writing the script as going through the book and deciding what was going to remain and what was going to be cut out. . . . It was really a question of winnowing out what we were going to keep” (A Look Back). Besides staying true to the basic plot of the novel, the film also takes much of its dialogue from the novel as well, despite attempts to improve it. Bogdanovich explains:

All the basic dialogue was as it was–pretty much as it was in the book. When we were doing the script, I would say to Larry, “You know the scene. You wanna try another pass at it? I mean it’s good in the book, but, why don’t you do it again?” So he’d write it again.  I’d read it.  I’d say, “It’s better in the book.” He’d say, “Then use the book.” And that’s what happened numerous times. (A Look Back)

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The success of the screenplay is certainly ironic considering that the reputation of McMurtry’s novel has diminished over the years. Iain Crawford notes that The Last Picture Show and the other so-called Thalia novels, Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne, were “[m]uch praised upon their original publication . . . .[T]hey have come to be seen as the uncertain products of those apprentice years during which their author apparently wore a t-shirt [or sweatshirt] bearing the self-deprecating motif, “Minor Regional Novelist” (43).  McMurtry, who is infamously dismissive of his own work, says that during the screenwriting process he did not share Bogdanovich’s excitement about the original novel: “Watching this enthusiasm mount, for a book I could hardly stand, was a little like watching the approach of madness . . . “ (Film Flam 21).  But though this be madness, yet there is method to it, because, somehow, collectively, McMurtry and Bogdanovich were able to pare the novel’s story down into a much leaner and ultimately more satisfying film version of The Last Picture Show.

Certainly, the leanness—and decreased meanness—of the screenplay is one reason, to me, that the film is ultimately more successful and satisfying than the novel. Gone is the novel’s omniscient narrator, a voice inconsistent, often satirical, and sometimes downright juvenile. With the narrator absent and much of the dialogue still intact, the film improves substantially, mainly because the film privileges showing over telling.

This is not to say that everything the narrator tells the reader is satirical or inessential. Certainly the first line of the novel resonates, especially to someone like me who, like McMurtry, grew up in rural Archer County and attended Archer City High School: “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only living creature in the town” (1). The narrator quickly thereafter states that Sonny feels “strange and alone” because of “the look of the town” (1). So when adapting the novel to the screen, Bogdanovich and McMurtry had a decision to make: Ignore Sonny’s feelings or show the moviegoer Sonny’s isolation and loneliness visually? They chose the latter, reinforcing the starkness of the setting with black and white film.  And as much as McMurty’s first line resonates with me, I still prefer the opening scene of the film:  With the streets of Anarene (Thalia in the novel) deserted, Sonny tries to start his junky old pickup at the empty town square, while the background features nothing but blowing dust and rolling tumbleweeds.

Manipulating the mise-en-scene isn’t the only method Bogdanovich and McMurtry rely on to show rather than tell. The actors in the film were often expected to “show” the viewer the thoughts of their respective characters. In 1999, Ellen Burnstyn recalled her anxiety at portraying the complex emotions of Lois Farrow, specifically in the scene where Lois meets Jacy returning home after being seduced by Abilene. Burnstyn claims that she needed to demonstrate eight different emotions in the scene, without saying a word. When she expressed her concerns to Bogdanovich, he replied, “Think the thoughts of the character, and the camera will read it” (A Look Back). In the novel, the narrator tells the reader what Lois is thinking: “What Abilene had done hit hard, and her legs felt weak. . . . For a minute she felt like crying, but she felt too insignificant to cry, too valueless” (170). Conversely, the viewer of the film sees Burstyn show the complexity of Lois’s feelings, in a nuanced, sophisticated performance that is ultimately much more aesthetically satisfying. And of course, the credit for the film’s improvement lies, not only with the improved script, but with the actors as well, a point Bogdanovich is keenly aware of, saying, “Little gestures, sometimes, little movements, infinitesimal things that an actor or actress does makes you sort of see the character” (A Look Back). The brilliance of actors and actresses in the film was acknowledged by their peers. Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, as were Jeff Bridges (Sonny Crawford), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), and Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion). Leachman and Johnson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively.

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One characteristic that both the film and novel emphasize is the characters’ sense of alienation, so much so that they call to mind T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Certainly the physical environment of Archer City plays a role in this motif, and Larry McMurtry’s singer-songwriter son, James, underscores this idea as well, entitling his first album Too Long in the Wasteland. Furthermore, the cover of that album features James standing alongside an Archer County dirt road called Loftin Road, on which sits what is known as the old McMurtry homestead, the house Larry grew up in. James’ perception is not one from a dilettante. Larry says this about his son—without hyperbole: “James’ best songs are so good that I don’t think that my best novels really come up to them” (Du Lac). In particular, Larry admires James’ ability to say much with few words: “One element of music is poetry, and poetry is a lot harder than fiction. . . .  A lyric is the hardest form. You have to concentrate and squeeze those words. I respect James a lot for having found his own art and done it so well” (Du Lac). Ironically, the compressing of words that Larry admires in his son is quite similar to what Larry and Bogdanovich did with McMurtry’s novel: they edited it down to its essence, producing a much more aesthetically satisfying work.

Like Eliot’s poem, McMurtry’s novel features not just a physical setting of isolation, but a series of dysfunctional relationships as well. In fact, a close look at the couples in The Last Picture Show reveals that virtually every relationship is unhealthy, if not sickly. Ruth Popper’s football coach husband is cruel, distant, and a latent homosexual, to boot. Lois Farrow cuckolds her husband with a number of men around town, including, in the novel, Sonny. And living with a mom like Lois, Jacy doesn’t know what a healthy relationship is, as her actions and partners repeatedly reflect. Even Sonny and Duane’s buddy relationship disintegrates, leaving the boys so estranged that Duane avoids Sonny before leaving for the Korean War.

Nevertheless, like the carbuncular man of “The Waste Land,” at least a few characters in The Last Picture Show, despite their lack of success, aspire to closeness and satisfying relationships. This desire to connect that Sonny and others feel permeates both the novel and film, particularly in both media’s concentration on hands. In the novel, McMurtry’s repetition of the word “hands” in a number of scenes suggests their symbolic importance. During Sonny’s “parking” scene with Charlotte, McMurtry emphasizes Sonny’s hands. Not only does the narrator chronicle Sonny’s groping, but the dialogue also calls attention to Sonny’s hands. Charlotte says to Sonny at the first of the scene: “Ech, your hands are like ice” (18). The scene continues with Sonny dispassionately fondling Charlotte’s breast. When Sonny attempts to move his hand downward, apparently attempting to “celebrate”  the couple’s one year anniversary, Charlotte thwarts his progress, claiming, “What are you trying to do, Sonny, get me pregnant?”  Stunned, Sonny replies, “My lord. . . . It was just my hand” (18). With his hands, Sonny clearly is reaching, hoping to touch someone, both literally and figuratively. But as the scene reveals, closeness and connection is not what Sonny finds, not surprising considering that his hands are “cold.”  Instead of being closer and connected to Charlotte, his handsy-ness actually contributes to the couple’s breakup.

Later, after Sonny and Ruth return from her first trip to the doctor in Olney, McMurtry again emphasizes hands, fingers, and touching:

[Ruth] got up, came around the table, put out her hand, and traced her fingers almost to his mouth.  Her fingers were cool.  She put her hand on his head for minute, felt his hair against her palm and between her fingers, and then quickly reached down for one of his hands and pressed it against her cheek and throat.  She held his hand there for a moment and then laid it back on the table as carefully as if it were a piece of china. (44)

Ruth Popper’s marriage has produced nothing but frustration and alienation for Ruth. So presented with the opportunity to touch a young man, she seizes it, despite the immoral implications. In fact, Ruth’s loneliness has been so acute that she risks divorce and ridicule in order to touch someone and be touched. Alienation and isolation are too painful for her, so she searches for connection with Sonny. This physical, as well as burgeoning emotional connection, is symbolized by the hands of the characters.

Now interestingly, this scene in the film differs substantially from the novel. In the film, Ruth and Sonny do not touch.  The reason they don’t is clear. Without question, the most intimate moment in the film occurs at the conclusion when, after Billy’s death, the camera, in the longest of any close-up shots, lingers on Sonny and Ruth holding hands. Despite the film and novel’s emphasis, some would say obsession, on sex, no sex scene even vaguely approaches the poignancy of Ruth and Sonny’s holding hands. Most of the physical scenes with Ruth and Sonny feature kissing and/or intercourse, but ironically, the squeaking bed and anxieties of the couple during sex only reinforce their emotional distance. Yet when they simply hold hands, their closeness is never more apparent.

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Conversely, Jacy Farrow engages in a series of dysfunctional and ego-centric relationships. She is not concerned with love or intimacy, but with the excitement her scandalous behavior can generate among her peers and townsfolk. But Jacy eventually meets her self-absorbed match in her father’s roughneck employee Abilene, a man who also engages in an affair with Jacy’s mother, Lois. When Abilene seduces Jacy in the pool hall, both characters are motivated to have sex, but neither character is really interested in the feelings or emotions of the other.  In the novel, during the sex on the pool table, the narrator says, “[Jacy] was still ignored. [Abilene] was just going on, absorbed in himself, moving, nudging, thrusting—she was no more than an object” (169). And later, post coital, the narrator adds, “[H]e kept ignoring her. He didn’t even help her find her clothes” (169). Even by Jacy’s selfish standards, Abilene’s behavior is distant and self-centered, so much so that Abilene’s attitude differs little from the bestial behavior of the high school boys during the scene in which they copulate with a blind heifer. While Jacy clearly isn’t as helpless as the heifer, Abilene’s refusal even to accept Jacy’s goodnight kiss suggests that his contempt for her feelings is every bit as calloused and cruel as the boys’ feelings toward the young cow.

Again, the challenge for Bogdanovich and McMurtry in writing the screenplay would be how to convey the narrator’s ideas via film or dialogue.  Interestingly, the actual pool table seduction scene was not included in the original film. In 1999, it was added to the DVD version in the “Definitive Director’s Cut.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that the original sound to the scene was lost. Consequently, the scene contains no significant sound and absolutely no dialogue.  So particularly in this scene, the camera and its framing are paramount in conveying the story to the movie’s audience. Especially noteworthy are the close-ups on hands in this scene. The scene’s close-ups on Abilene’s hands show them moving in a methodical, utilitarian way. He moves the blanket and the pool balls. Then he essentially moves Jacy into position.  He never caresses her, and at times his hands are nearly forceful, especially when parting Jacy’s legs.

Jacy’s hands are no more intimate than Abilene’s. While maybe erotic, suggestive of passion, Jacy’s hands do not underscore sensitivity or connectedness. In fact, she does not even caress or touch Abilene during the short scene.  Instead, Jacy, arms spread wide, grasps the leather corner pockets of the pool table. During actual intercourse, Jacy opts to use her hands to physically connect with an inanimate object rather than her sexual partner. Clearly both Jacy and Abilene are having sex, but only incidentally with each other. What Bogdanovich wordlessly captures in this scene is a motif that Donald Fritz notes in McMurtry’s novel: “Of the numerous sexual relationships in the book, not one is a mutually rewarding experience; sex is a matter of giving and taking, never sharing. There may be a degree of satisfaction for the giver and the taker, but satisfaction is experienced in isolation” (189). Certainly, the film eloquently captures this pervasive isolation, without the narrator’s intrusive commentary, and, as in this scene, with visual images only.

A few other scenes in the film focus exclusively on hands, all occurring toward the last quarter of the movie. In one of these, Jacy decides to disrupt Sonny’s relationship with Ruth Popper, not because she is attracted to or interested in Sonny, but just because she can. Bogdanovich highlights this selfish manipulation with a close-up shot of Jacy reaching and touching Sonny’s hand as he rests it on her car door. At first, Sonny resists Jacy’s invitation to “drive around a while” because he is supposed to tryst with Ruth Popper. But when Jacy squeezes his hand, an action accentuated by a close-up, Sonny gets into her car, a victim of Jacy’s cold, calculating cruelty. But these close-up shots don’t really reveal anything new about Jacy. Instead, what Bogdavonich does is foreshadow Sonny’s last scene with Ruth. As soon as Sonny slides into Jacy’s front seat, only seconds after the close-up on his and Jacy’s hands, the scene quickly shifts to a contrasting close-up on Ruth Popper’s hands, as she smooths the new wallpaper in her bedroom. Sonny has opted for the feigned and false connection with Jacy, while a woman who really cares about him is left alone after sprucing up both herself and bedroom in preparation for Sonny’s visit.

These wordless connections and contrasts that Bogdanovich constructs are particularly effective in showing the audience the story, a characteristic that A.O. Scott notes in his praise of the film: “Now if McMurtry’s writing is what grounds the movie in reality, it’s Bogdanovich’s direction that infuses it with lyricism. Bogdanovich tells the story efficiently. But more importantly, he’s always aware of and knows how to take advantage of the emotional power of the cinematic image.” And certainly the most powerful cinematic image in the film occurs at its aforementioned conclusion. At this point, Sonny’s alienation is at its apex. Sam the Lion’s dead. Jacy has left town for Dallas. Duane’s gone to Korea. And Billy, the mentally challenged symbol of innocence in film, has just been run over by a cattle truck. Sonny drives to Ruth’s house, although he has not visited in three months. Unsurprisingly, Ruth is furious, lashing out at Sonny, as he silently submits to her tirade. But then Sonny plaintively reaches across the table for Ruth’s hand, emphasized of course, with a close-up shot of the characters’ hands. What follows is nearly two minutes of silence in which Bogdanovich alternates between the characters’ faces and close-up shots of their hands caressing one another. What makes the scene poignant is the complexity of emotions that their silence and actions imply. If I were to attempt to describe the characters’ convoluted feelings, I couldn’t.  And that’s the point; that’s why the film is much more successful than the novel.  Instead of a narrator attempting to transcribe Ruth’s and Sonny’s thoughts, Bogdanovich lets the camera reveal the scene’s pathos.

This is not to say that the scene’s broader implications are not, at least to careful viewers, apparent. In the scene prior to Ruth and Sonny’s ostensible reconciliation, Bogdanovich again reminds the audience of film’s wasteland-like setting.  Echoing the first scene in the movie, Billy’s death occurs in the midst of an audible wind and blowing dust, providing the only sounds in the lengthy shot in which Sonny drags his dead friend to the steps of the theater. When Sonny drives to Ruth’s house in the following scene, Sonny’s utter alienation is fresh on viewers’ minds. As Sonny has previously demonstrated, he is not simply looking for sex, but more significantly he is looking to connect with another human being.  Unfortunately for most, the novel is so replete with sex scenes and graphic narrative descriptions that readers “miss” the tinge of hopefulness that Ruth and Sonny’s rapprochement implies: Maybe, just maybe, despite the obstacles and oppressive environment, these two characters can connect, if not with each other, then at least at some point with another similar sensitive soul. Instead, many readers, according to McMurtry himself, remember only the sex. Writing in his brilliant collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry says, “By far the commonest local response to my three novels [the Thalia trilogy, which includes The Last Picture Show] has been: ‘Well, I like the story but I wish you’d left out that other crap,’ the other crap being presumably the sexual description” (62). Well, that “other crap,” at least a significant part of it, is exactly what is missing in the film.  And the film is better for it.  While McMurtry clearly resists and rejects the local gentry’s prudishness and dilettantish literary criticism, ironically, the film’s lack of narrative sexual description, coupled with Bogdanovich’s emphasis on key images, actually does facilitate the “telling” of the story, resulting in a film that continues to impress and enthrall contemporary viewers from around the world.

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GregGiddingsGreg Giddings grew up in rural Archer County and attended Archer City schools.  He graduated from Midwestern State University with a BBA in Accounting (of all things) in 1985.  He followed his undergrad education with several years of basketball abroad, with stops in Sweden, Israel, and Australia.  Upon returning stateside, Giddings earned an MA in English at Midwestern and began his teaching career at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. Eventually, Giddings returned to MSU, as both English instructor and basketball coach. After seven years, Giddings retired from coaching and returned to teaching full time, eventually completing a Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Texas-Dallas.  He now serves as Assistant Professor in the English Department at Midwestern State.

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 Works Cited

Crawford, Iain. “Intertexuality in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (1993): 43-54. Print.

Du Lac, J. Freedom. “His Songs? Bleak. His Future? Bright.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 1 June 2008. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

Fritz, Donald. E. “Anatomy and The Last Picture Show: A Matter of Definition.” Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook. Ed. Clay Reynolds. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1989. 186-92. Print.

Jones, Roger Walton. Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel. College Station: Texas A&M P, 1994. Print.

The Last Picture Show. Screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich. Dir. Peter Bogdanovich. 1971, Columbia Pictures, 1999. Film.

The Last Picture Show: A Look Back. Written by Laurent Bouzereau. Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. 1999. Columbia Pictures, 1999.Film.

Lich, Lera Patrick Tyler. Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of Myth. Austin, Eakin, 1987. Print.

McMurtry, Larry. Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. New York: Simon, 1987. Print.

—. In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. Austin: Encino, 1968.

—. The Last Picture Show. New York: Dial, 1966. Print.

Scott, A.O. “Critics’ Picks: The Last Picture Show.” Youtube. Youtube, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2013

One thought on “The Love Song of Larry J. McMurtry: The Last Picture Show

  1. Giddings’ discussion is a fascinating analysis of the ways filming and writing narratives are related crafts, and it rings through to one of the most valuable revelations that have grown out of my graduate studies: people understand stories the way they understand films.

    I had the opportunity to listen to Bill Marvel, Dave Tarrant, and my professor George Getschow (a perfect journalism coach trifecta) as they bantered back and forth about the craft of writing. George had been teaching us how to make our profile subjects into characters that come alive for the reader. Our guests vividly verified that in order to write a great story you have to think like a movie producer: give your readers a close-up on the pertinent details and a wide shot when context would be helpful. If you’re telling them about a specific character, move about the room and reveal several different angles of the character so that character becomes a three-dimensional character and not a cardboard cut-out.

    Another professor, Kathie Hinnen, told me once that good journalism creates a moving picture in the reader’s mind—a series of scenes that play clearly as the story is read. If a scene jolts, your language wasn’t bang-on. If the reader doesn’t get a moving picture in their mind, the story does not relate to him or her. But when executed well, great writing that creates scenes in readers’ minds will stick, and the next time that reader encounters any word from the headline of your piece, that little mental film scene will pop back into their mind. She was right, I thought! Journalism that sticks with readers is cinematic in effect.

    As a journalist and non-fiction writer I always felt a closer affinity with documentary filmmaking than with broadcast journalism. I am interested in artistic non-fiction of all kinds, and ours is the art of creating in-depth, documentary artifacts of our times. Now I understand why filmmaking is so attractive to me as a writer. I’m grateful for professors and professionals who were able to help me understand how to make characters come alive on the page and stick in the minds of readers. And thanks for this great work full of insight, Greg!

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