The Last Picture Show’s Meditation on Masculinity

Movies Features Peter Bogdanovich
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The Last Picture Show’s Meditation on Masculinity

At the end of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) sit at their local cinema and watch Howard Hawks’ iconic Western Red River. Above all else, Red River is the ultimate ode to masculinity. Barren, virginal terrain stretches behind a hunky, gun-slinging John Wayne. A mysterious, brooding Montgomery Clift effortlessly mounts a horse. Beautiful women fawn for their attention.

But what is so potent about Sonny and Duane watching this film in 1951, exactly a century after Red River’s 1851 setting, is that kind of masculinity is rapidly becoming obsolete—and even passé. This was largely a product of the swift suburbanization of America that followed the post-World War II industrial boom, paired with the introduction of television into the American household, which changed the way we watched Westerns forever. These changes ultimately left men whose identities relied on a heightened sense of masculinity feeling stranded. Men like The Last Picture Show’s Sam the Lion, for example, the town’s middle-aged cowboy (portrayed by legendary Western actor Ben Johnson) who bask in memories of how life in Texas used to be, knowing full well that their days are numbered, and that they are among the last of their kind.

For near high school graduates Sonny and Duane, this cultural shift makes finding footing in the world difficult. And so they do everything they can to cling to masculine ideals: They play football, they disappear to Mexico on a bender, and, of course, they chase after girls. Unsurprisingly, their relationships with women are pivotal to their relationship with their own masculinity. Up until that point, ingrained in their society was the expectation that a “manly man” be a chick magnet—bonus points if he’s in a relationship with a woman where he acts as the provider.

Both men chase after the most beautiful girl in town, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). But unbeknownst to them, Jacy is already living in a post-masculine world. While Sonny and Duane romanticize their faux-Western lifestyle by playing pool and driving a rickety pick-up truck, Jacy is comfortably settling into her life as one of Texas’s first suburbanites. Sonny and Duane frequent the movie theater; Jacy watches sitcoms on her television set. But what is perhaps most revolutionary about Jacy isn’t the fact that she’s embracing a life that’s totally divorced from small-town ideals, but rather her attempt to embody a new kind of woman. When invited to a party by wealthy Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), she doesn’t hesitate before stripping naked and getting into his pool. By doing this, she defies what were—in the stifling, conservative society she grew up in—considered vital characteristics in young females: Modesty and fidelity.

Subverting these norms, Jacy is in control. And she’s not the only woman in Anarene, Texas, who wields power over the men. Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the football coach’s wife, seduces Sonny at a party. Not only does she use her age and stature to attract him, but her infidelity and disregard for their age discrepancy is a bold act of liberation, as it rejects the standard, limited family dynamic. And even those who don’t appear to be defying conventions on the surface have their secrets: Jacy’s mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn)—who seems at first to be the picture of suburban, domestic normalcy—admits to Sonny that she had an affair with Sam.

But after World War II, even the most standard American family suddenly defied conventions of classic manhood. While their husbands were away at war, women were brought into the workforce to keep the economy rolling. And when the men returned, their wives weren’t ready to give up the newfound agency work had afforded them. This muddied the waters of the reestablished roles within a marriage significantly. And, to make matters more disconcerting for the returning soldiers, many families were forced to move from the country to the city or the suburbs to be closer to their metropolitan jobs. This sweeping migration left the American small town largely obsolete.

So it makes sense that, by the time Sonny and Duane start coming into adulthood, Anarene almost feels like a parody of itself. The landscape is flat and barren, shown frequently in wide, languid pans. A lone Texaco stands tragically in the middle of a parking lot. Tumbleweeds lazily dance through the empty streets. Stoplights creek in the breeze. Characters wear cowboy hats. And it’s no coincidence that Bogdanovich chose to shoot the film in dusty black-and-white. Like its protagonists, the film is stuck in the past. But where Red River’s small towns appear as stoic landmarks that pop up on the way to a new frontier, The Last Picture Show’s small town is lonely, sad and looks a lot like a novelty town that was restored for contemporary visitors as a landmark—a gimmick.

And, as seen in the way television changed the Western, the decline of masculinity and the decline of the small town went hand in hand. The television set was a uniquely suburban invention. It was a staple of the modern American household, and was built largely for people who had the time to watch it, and weren’t working on a farm or a rig all day. Once television came into play, the Western genre saw a flood of unbearably kitschy cowboy TV shows, the likes of Gunsmoke and F Troop. And while, of course, undeniably great Western films were still being made during this time—The Searchers, came out in 1956, for example, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly came out a decade later—attempting to watch them on the small screen both deprecated and commodified the cowboy significantly. Though this had already been happening for a while, the placement of the cowboy on TV made it into something to be mindlessly consumed. Suddenly, the whole idea of “the cowboy” was quickly approaching kitsch.

But just because their culture is propelling itself away from past masculine ideals doesn’t mean that Sonny and Duane are happily moving along with it. After Duane and Jacy break up, Jacy starts a relationship with Sonny. We have no evidence that Sonny likes Jacy in any meaningful way, but as a young man with a lot to prove, he would be remiss if he turned down the most beautiful girl in Anarene. But upholding masculine ideals in a society that is leaving them behind doesn’t come without consequence. When Duane discovers that Sonny has been seeing Jacy, the two get into a physical altercation. And while the big showdown-over-a-girl moment is a staple of a lot of great Westerns, the pair aren’t reminiscent of John Wayne or Gary Cooper in this moment. Rather, they look like a couple of schoolboys getting into a brawl on the football field. They haven’t asserted their manhood—the only things they have really accomplished is a rupture in their friendship and an eye injury for Sonny.

Just like Sonny and Duane emerge from their brawl unvictorious, things don’t look too hopeful for them at the end of The Last Picture Show. Duane leaves Anarene to fight in the Korean War, and Sonny discovers that his affair with Jacy has deeply hurt Ruth. Both dismal endings are a result of the boys’ needs to assert their masculinity: Duane goes to Korea voluntarily and it’s likely that Sonny likes Ruth better than Jacy, but believes that he should be with Jacy. Ruth’s anger toward Sonny in The Last Picture Show’s final scene suggests that she is aware that he did not have to choose Jacy—that gender roles and dynamics have changed, and that he doesn’t need to use a relationship to prove himself to the world anymore. But then, Ruth switches to comforting Sonny like a mother would comfort her son, and we cut to an image of the lonely town of Anarene. Although we don’t know what’s next for Sonny, we do know that Sam the Lion left him the pool hall when he died. But where John Wayne and Montgomery Clift’s co-ownership of the Red River cattle brand signified the promise of a new beginning, Sonny’s ownership of Anarene’s pool hall suggests that he is merely stepping up to helm a dying generation.

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.