Plus: A few words from the late Ben Johnson, and an exclusive excerpt from Larry McMurtry’s new novel Duane’s Depressed.
In the fall of 1970 the magic of Hollywood descended on Archer City, Texas, population 1,722. Director Peter Bogdanovich, 31, arrived with the cast and crew to begin shooting Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, a bittersweet, no-holds-barred story about growing up in Texas in the fifties. Tongue firmly in cheek, McMurtry had “lovingly dedicated” the novel to his hometown, and many of its citizens had not forgotten. Ministers railed and townspeople arched their brows at the sinfulness of this “dirty” book, which McMurtry’s mother was said to have hidden in the closet. And then, adding insult to injury, they were making a moving picture to go with it. One letter to the local newspaper spoke of both the end of an era and the wayward day dawning on the horizon, where wicked larger towns like Wichita Falls loomed: “I, for one, feel that Archer City will come out of this with a sickness in it’s [sic] stomach and a certain misgiving about the support the City is lending to the further degradation and decay of the morals and attitudes we foist upon our youth in this County…”
Undeterred, Bogdanovich and company persevered, and after ten weeks of production and a year of cutting by the director, their joint effort yielded an American masterpiece. (In 1991 Bogdanovich restored seven minutes of footage cut from the original film—three scenes in all—for a laserdisc letterbox edition, but this “director’s cut” version is no longer available.) The Last Picture Show won eight Academy award nominations and garnered Oscars for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman (best supporting actor and actress). The film also won three British Academy awards, one Golden Globe award, seven New York Film Critics awards, and one National Society of Film Critics award. In 1998 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry.
Nineteen years after making The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich and most of the original cast returned to Archer City to film its sequel, Texasville. This time a starstruck town embraced the celebrities and welcomed the influx of fresh money into an oil-slump-depressed economy. Several of the performers who had been young, unknown actors were now established figures: Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid. The production had the air of a high school reunion.
McMurtry’s latest fictional visit to Archer City, Duane’s Depressed, has just been published, taking up the stories of several characters from the two earlier novels (an excerpt appears on page 81), and so it seems a fitting time to revisit the making of The Last Picture Show, in the days before the Texas Film Commission, the Third Coast, and the current lively motion picture scene in Texas.
A film is the result of a vast collaboration over time, and what happens off