Picture Perfect

Almost thirty years ago, tiny Archer City was invaded by Hollywood: Peter Bogdanovich and company came to town to film Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Here, Bogdanovich, Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, and others in the cast and crew look back at the moviemaking experience that changed them—and us—forever.

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 camera can have a crucial impact on what happens on-screen. On the set of The Last Picture Show, the private lives of the actors intersected with those of the characters they depicted; passions swirled around the picture with the same force as the winds that blew through the empty streets of the little Texas town. How the movie was made is a story best told by the participants: Peter Bogdanovich (director), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Sam Bottoms (Billy), Polly Platt (production designer), and Gary Chason (assistant to the director).


Bogdanovich: Well, the truth is that Archer City sort of picked us. We went down to look at locations, and Larry had volunteered to take us around Texas—he loves to drive around—so he drove me and the production designer, Polly Platt [Bogdanovich’s wife at the time], around. He met us at the Dallas airport, and he said, “Where you wanna go? You wanna go north or south? You wanna go to Archer City?” And I said, “Well, let’s go there last. Let’s see everything else that there is,” thinking that probably Archer City wouldn’t even be right. I thought, “That’d be his hometown. Why would that be right?” So we spent a couple of days driving around Texas, more than a couple of days, and we said, “Let’s fly back to Dallas and drive up to Archer City.” And the minute we drove into town, the minute I could see that stoplight blinking at me, and it was kinda getting a little late as we drove in, I said, “This is it.” And Larry of course said, “Well, it oughta be. It’s the town I wrote about.”

Platt: I was asleep in the back seat listening to Larry and Peter in the front talking about the movie, and I would sort of go to sleep and wake up and listen to their murmuring voices. It was very, very special. And we got into the town—it was a stormy, rainy, sleety March—and the town was as gray and ugly as you’ve ever seen. There were tumbleweeds blowing through the town; it was closed down. And we saw that it had the tank dam, it had the lake, it had the high school, it had the square—and even though the main square needed a lot of work, we decided to do it. We decided to do it there.

Bridges: It’s funny. When you’re making a movie like that, the place you’re shooting almost seems like a set. That whole town, we used that whole town as a big set, basically. It was wonderful coming back for Texasville, because the town hadn’t changed really that much at all. I think the only difference was this black glass bank that was stuck in the middle of all this other stuff.

Brennan: Shooting in the town did a lot of the work for the actors because the town is extremely bleak. Bogdanovich They were not happy that we were there. They did not like the book; the town was hostile

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