My father encouraged me to watch this the last time he, himself, picked it up, but I inherited a distaste for starting in the middle from him and, though I’d only missed five minutes, I skipped on it. I vaguely recall some girl may have been involved in distracting me as well, at least in conversational form, but the end result (for whatever reason) was that I didn’t end up seeing it long enough to notice anything except Randy Quaid, Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges looking so darn young. I didn’t know who Timothy Bottoms was, and I suppose I still don’t really. I knew Peter Bogdanovich by name, but I’ve mostly seen his name, of late, in the film-based writings of Harlan Ellison, decrying Bogdanovich’s relation to the auteur theory. Still, I knew who Larry McMurtry was, at least by reputation, even if I’d never read anything of his, nor seen anything based on his work
Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Bridges) are best friends in the small town of Anarene, TX in 1951, Sonny dating the somewhat homely Charlene Duggs (Sharon Ullrick) and Duane dating the high school looker Jacy Farrow (Shepherd). The town as a whole is annoyed with the boys for their apparent inability to tackle in the last football game they will ever play for their high school, as this is the year of their graduation. Sam the Lion (John Ford standby Ben Johnson) runs all the entertainment in town–a movie house, a poolhall and the café, and otherwise it is an empty, dusty, tiny Texas town, with a population small enough that there are no secrets in town and everyone knows everyone, with Wichita, TX the local “big city” of sorts that is the aim of all those with high-falutin’ aspirations or money. A Christmas party sees Lester Marlow (Quaid) begging Jacy to join him at the home of Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), where prior years’ parties have led to skinny dipping. Duane is left dateless as Sonny stumbles into a relationship with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the wife of his coach (Bill Thurman). In their boredom and Duane’s frustration, the local boys encourage the mentally handicapped boy Sam takes care of, Billy (Sam Bottoms, brother of Timothy) to lose his virginity to local “woman of ill repute” Jimmie Sue (Helena Humann). And so we watch the slow and awkward aging process of entering society’s definition of adulthood for a group of teenagers leaving high school in a small town, and the ways their lives and especially that of Sam affect the town.
This film won itself two Oscars, one for Johnson and one for Leachman, as well as six other nominations, and it started Bogdanovich on a critically acclaimed career that crashed and burned in only a few short years with dismally received film after dismally received film, rendering his name more familiar than his works. I’m working very hard not to perceive Bogdanovich as a great ego, but I think my perceptions have been coloured pretty thoroughly by all the things I’ve read and heard, though thankfully I forgot he directed this film until it ended and I saw his credit. Still, I actually did end up finding something missing in this film (which was, for the record, the “definitive director’s cut,” the only way it has been released on DVD), which let it drag periodically. It was never a drag that left me wanting to wander off and do something else, but enough that I occasionally wanted something to happen, or for some greater clarity of character to occur. Sonny is clear, he’s sort of the blank slate protagonist that gives the audience a way into the story, well-meaning but naïve, occasionally meaner than we might like but generally a good person. He doesn’t seem to ever deliberately take advantage of anyone though, and is more guilty of failing to do things he should than choosing to actually do things he shouldn’t. Duane, too, is pretty clear, acting to contrast with Sonny, interested pretty purely in himself as one of the stronger voices behind the near-abuse of Billy that so offends Sam and fighting too willingly over Jacy without realizing her lack of interest in him.
The adults and their characters are excellent, without exception. Sam is clear as the guiding and mentoring voice to the boys, or at least Sonny, telling him about his own youth at the “tank” (a fishing hole) and discouraging the behaviour he thinks is wrong, with a strong personality and presence met with a distance in his eyes that fits perfectly with his twinkle-eyed remembrance of years past. Leachman’s Oscar, too, was well-deserved, as the perpetually sad housewife who never sees her husband (for reasons that are only subtly hinted at in the movie but apparently near blatant in McMurtry’s book) but finds a glimmer of hope in her affair with a boy less than half her age. Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), mother of Jacy, is an interesting mix of the maternal and the competitive when dealing with her daughter. On one hand she attempts to guide her into a comfortable life by encouraging her to pursue money and suggesting that Duane will lead to boredom and monotony, while on the other she is clearly not perfectly satisfied with her own life and eventually even competes over the (physical) affections of a man with her own daughter. That man, incidentally, is Abilene, played by Clu Gulager, who I know very well as Burt Wilson from Return of the Living Dead, but here is a contrast to the manipulative authority figure of that film as a slick, suave near-gigolo for the town of Anarene.
On the other hand, there’s a strange quality to Cybill Shepherd and especially her character which was clarified for me in reading what came after in her career. Jacy as a character is somewhat undefined; at first she defiantly claims to her mother that she is in love with Duane, then suddenly turns into quite the harlot, sleeping with any man she can find, it seems, coldly and selfishly manipulating all of them. It felt I was missing something in her character, especially in what her motivation was for this change. Certainly it was clear that what she was pursuing from Bobby Sheen and Abilene (incidentally, what an odd name–it sounds feminine and is the name of another town in the state!)–she was looking for stability, comfort, affection, love. Yet, her dealings with Duane and Sonny seem oriented only around manipulation. The reasons for her manipulating them seem obscure, no clear motivation coming from any of it. Cybill’s limitations seem to be the best explanation here (that or missing scenes omitted from the book). Everyone else, though, seemed to make clear transitions in character, or seemed fleshed out as someone–in the case of Lois–who would naturally flit from emotion to emotion and explanation to explanation.
There’s something to be said, though, of the technical and constructive aspects of the film, a soundtrack composed purely of popular music, but only played naturally within the film, generally a mix of 1950s country music (with a heavy lean toward Hank Williams, Sr.) helps to place the film in an appealing way. A few interesting camera shots, slow zooms and tight close ups in succession during arguments and conversations are very evocative of the exact moods they’re attempting to convey. The black and white choice of film (apparently an “of course” decision thanks to Orson Welles) is absolutely perfect, not in aging the film but in giving it the right absence of colour to show us even further that a town with dilapidated paint and well-worn signs is suffering and dying as a town almost, the death of youth and innocence at least at hand for our protagonists. Still, I felt in the end that some trimming (minor, not of whole scenes) would have helped tremendously–perhaps the original cut might improve my opinion, but I didn’t feel I was seeing the masterpiece I had been led to believe I would be, though a very, very good film all the same.