Friday, February 5, 2010

The Prettiest (and Bitchiest) Girl in Town

"Hey, Timothy Bottoms, why do you look so much like Nick Jonas? You don't know about him? Well, he'll be famous in 40 years. But by then, you'll hardly care."

There are film performances that simply resonate with you. They are few and far between, but fortunately, they exist.

For me, one of those performances is Cybill Shepherd's pitch-perfect portrayal of an attention-whoring, shamelessly manipulative small-town rich girl, Jacy Farrow, in Peter Bogdanovich's sexually-fueled coming-of-age story, The Last Picture Show. You may have heard of it.

The Last Picture Show is essentially American Graffiti, with more despair, anxiety, and nudity. That statement might be a slight exaggeration, though. It's a film I hated when I first watched it when I was 14. But here's a suggestion: Don't watch The Last Picture Show if you're a typical 14 year old. You'll hardly care, if you were anything like me. You'll hardly "get" the film, though whether or not you "get" a film depends on your cognitive development. Wait a couple of years, anyway.

It's been several years since I first watched The Last Picture Show, and boy, I'm surprised how much I don't hate the film anymore. Just say the title: The Last Picture Show. It's a beautiful title, isn't it? All the credit goes to writer Larry McMurty. The title itself strikes full-speed nostalgia and longing. A love letter to yesteryear. But really, it's one helluva title.

Enter Anarene, Texas, 1951. It's a classic small town. Everyone knows who's who. Yet the roads are empty. Tumbleweeds roll. Teenagers occasionally drive up to the local cafe to catch a burger. Or meet their dates at the local picture show. The local cafe, pool hall, and cinema are all owned by Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).

Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are best friends. Duane is dating Jacy (Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town. And of course, you really believe Jacy is the prettiest girl in town, despite her insane antics for attention and admiration. Shepherd illuminates the screen, like a black-and-white beauty. She's absolutely gorgeous. Even Sonny is smitten. Because Jacy is unavailable, Sonny begins an affair with the coach's wife (Cloris Leachman).

But back to Shepherd's performance. Even when I hated the film, I appreciated Shepherd's performance. Whenever the film's engines are about to slow down, Shepherd appears, prepared to steal the show. When Jacy tries to lose her virginity to Duane in the motel room, Shepherd voices her furstrations in such an anxious, funny, and uncomfortable way that I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe.

If portrayed by any other actress, Jacy would be just another snobby rich girl who toys with all the boys in town. But Shepherd makes Jacy something much more than that. Jacy is another insecure teenage girl. She wants approval from everyone she meets. She wants people to think she's fearless, even when she's not, as indicated by the pool party scene. Really, who doesn't want people to think they're the bee's knees? In a way, Shepherd even makes Jacy oddly relatable.

However, Jacy thinks that she can go through life with her looks--not an entirely universal concept, so, not so relatable--but she realizes that sometimes, the situation goes beyond mere looks. And that frustrates her because she almost feels vulnerable and worthless.

But that's what makes Shepherd's performance so admirable. Jacy is a queen bitch--an alluring one, indeed--yet there are so many emotional layers to dissect.

After the filming of The Last Picture Show, Shepherd got Bogdanovich (a doomed love affair) and Leachman won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. While Leachman was fine in the film (I have a feeling her last scene cemented her Oscar win), Shepherd pinched me on the shoulder whenever she showed up on screen. I know not everyone feels the same way as I do about Shepherd's performance, but it's a performance that seduced me. Shepherd should have been at least nominated. What a snub.

As for the film itself, it's rather slow. Sometimes I wonder why the town won't just go ahead and implode already. It's Edith Wharton's Starkfield without the snow. While it's beautifully shot in black-and-white, with a lovely soundtrack, the film is mostly character-driven--perhaps a little too character-driven. But Bogdanovich illustrates the feeling of desperation with just the right mood and tone. It's a feeling that is most proactive after the age of 14, trust me. Perhaps that's why I felt like I understood The Last Picture Show better in my second go-around.

But no matter. Watch The Last Picture Show for Shepherd's performance--along with Johnson, Leachman, Bridges, and Ellen Burstyn's performances. But mostly for Shepherd's. Because she's just pure electricity. Shepherd's Performance: A, The Last Picture Show: B


  1. Wow...great post! We just talked about this one for the 1001 Movie Club, and I really wish you had submitted this for it, since it's a rather insightful piece on one particular aspect of the film (Cybill's performance).

    Kinda makes me want to go back and re-write mine.

    the only thing I might have liked more than Shepherd in this film was the way Ellen Burstyn portrayed her mother. Her skewed world view gave you the impression that the apple didn't fall all that far from the tree!

  2. He does look like that Jonas guy. Scary
    I remember liking Burstyn much when I first saw it.

  3. @Mad Hatter - I wish I did too, but I knew I was going to miss the deadline. And I wasn't in the club.

    I thought your and Ryan's (of A Life in Equinox) reviews were excellent, though. No need to re-write yours!

    I agree. Ellen Burstyn is great in her role.

    @Andrew - I KNOW, RIGHT?

    Like I said before, Burstyn is great. Kinda wished she had more screen-time. She said so much by saying so little.

  4. another one of the greats - i've got to see it again.
    your comparison to american graffiti**** is interesting - something to ponder.

  5. @Richard
    The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti are both very nostalgic pictures. But one's darker and the other one's lighter. They have many of the same themes (end of innocence, coming of age, pop music, etc.) but presented in different ways.