The French Connection (Directed by William Friedkin)
The Nominees: A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra
The Last Picture Show (Directed by Peter Bogdanovich)
My Nominees: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah), Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger)
William Friedkin's The French Connection was the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture within my lifetime. Ironically, it would later become the first Best Picture winner that I saw. When I saw it as a teenager, I loved it, but revisiting the film recently, I found that much of it's impact was gone.
At the time, the story of a cop on the edge, in this case Gene Hackman's Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who is willing to put the public in danger to bring down a cartel of drug smugglers, was something new. The action scenes were brilliant especially the famous chase between a private car commandeered by Doyle and a suspect on an elevated train. Yet sadly, much of the film's originality is now dated as the film would spawn a generation of inferior Cop- On-the-Edge action pictures.
For 1971, I much preferred the other great Cop-On-the-Edge picture Dirty Harry, with Clint Eastwood turning in the first performance as one of the screen's most durable anti-heroes. Both of these films were symbols of their time, a time when the wounds of Civil Rights, Attica, Kent State and the Vietnam War had given the American public a mistrust of authority. It was no longer good enough to simply watch a criminal sent to prison, the crime films of the early 70s simply had to end with the criminal lying in a pool of his own blood. This was part of the new era of American film that was born after the collapse of Hollywood's production code in the late 60s.
My favorite film of the year was part of the new freedom that came in the wake of the code's collapse. Peter Bogdonovich's The Last Picture Show was a film that could not have been made five years earlier with its nudity, foul language and seamy subject matter. Even still, it is one of the best films of the decade. The academy nominated it for Best Picture and for six other awards, including Larry McMurtry's screenplay, Robert Surtrees' beautiful black and white photography and supporting awards to Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. The cast contains a gallery of established stars and actors who were just on the edge of breakout success. Their names are instantly familiar today: Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid and Eileen Brennan.
Yet, this is a film that goes beyond awards. It is a piece of filmmaking artistry. It establishes a tone and a mood of a particular time and place, of a town that is slowly dying in the wake of World War II. It takes place in 1951, in the town of Anarene, Texas, a small town where the wind blows blistering cold in the winter and blistering hot in the summer. It is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows everyone else's business. Almost everyone in town seems to be committing adultery or some other transgression, and within this small population, they have no hope of keeping it quiet.
Whatever life and energy Anarene once had has long since been swept away. The diner, the pool room and old movie house called "The Royal" are the centers of activity. They are owned by the town's papa bear, a man known as Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). Our focus falls on several high school kids. We meet Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), who are on the high school football team but apparently aren't very good. The day after a game, the town's unforgiving gaggle of crabby old men waste no words in reminding them of how badly they played. Sonny takes his girlfriend Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart) to The Royal in order to spend some time in the balcony making out. He goes out with her, but he doesn't really love her, he is envious of Duane who gets to make out with the town beauty Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepard).
Sex seems to be a past-time in this town, everyone seems to be either having it, talking about it or trying to get it. In an early scene, Charlene strips topless to make out with Sonny while being felt up but she won't go all the way. Sonny soon breaks up with Charlene and we learn that he is having a love affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), an older woman who is married to Sonny's football coach. Their relationship is based on mutual need: Sonny has a need to have sex and Ruth has a need to have some passion and feel desired.
Jacy is the town beauty, now 19, and beginning to feel the power of her sexuality over men. She first uses that power during a Christmas party when the goofy Lester (Randy Quaid) invites her to a pool party at the home of a rich kid in a neighboring town. She's heard of this party, there are rumors that the kids get naked and when she arrives, she finds that the rumors are true. She claims to be a virgin and the rich kid (whose looks remind me a little of George Harrison) tells her to come back when she isn't a virgin. With that, she tries having sex with Duane but it turns out to be a disaster. So she begins fumbling around with Sonny and he is so delighted to finally have Jacy's attention that he forgets about Ruth. That leads to a sad moment when he sits in the car with his dream girl and the film cuts to a scene of Ruth sitting heartbroken on the side of her bed.
Standing like a patriarch in this town is Sam the Lion, who owns the pool hall, the diner and The Royal which are the well-springs of life in Anarene. He speaks truth and wisdom and tells of his life experience. There is a beautiful moment in the center of the film when Sam takes Sonny and the retarded kid Billy (Sam Bottoms) down to The Tank, a small river that contains nothing but turtles. In a beautiful monologue, he tells Sonny about a moment long ago when he brought a girl to this very spot and they swam and rode horses. He doesn't regret not spending his life with her; when he tells the story his expression is that of a man who is just grateful for the experience.
He is a man who has been around. When Duane and Sonny head off for a weekend south of the border, the old man warns them about the water and then, unsmiling, gives them a stern warning about the clap. When they come back they find that the old man has died. This single event gives the film its center section. There's a sadness at Sam's funeral as we feel that a giant has passed and the life and soul of Anarene has gone with him.
The closing scenes of The Last Picture Show are probably the saddest that I can remember. The night before Duane heads off to Korea, he and Sonny go to see Red River at The Royal, the very last picture to be shown there before the place closes for good (the new obsession with television is causing the folks to stay home). Sonny sees his friend off to the bus and to a very uncertain future, then walks around and sees that the sparks of life in Anarene are gone. Sam the Lion has died, Jacy and Duane are gone and the wind blows through the main street like a ghost town.
The Last Picture Show is about the death of the American landscape, of how the changes in the world swept the life from small town America. After World War II, the invention of television and air conditioning kept most Americans at home and so places of social interaction like those in Anarene became desolate. The kids in the town move on because there is nothing left. The film is shot in black and white, and there are scenes that look like an old photograph. I believe that film a great visual memory, it captures times and places that are long gone. Films put a time stamp on times and places and attitudes and moods. The Last Picture Show captures a moment in time, a piece of America that is now gone forever.