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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Last Picture Show--Save a Seat for Me

I came to this AFI winner late--by about 37 years--but the popcorn was still warm and the screen still flickered its silver image, and I fell in love. How could I have missed this one?

It was like stepping back into the tired, dead towns that surrounded my country life in the 50's, though my drought-deadened, passed-by places had trees and hills rather than the flat Texas terrain. The terrain of the heart was, however, identical. Everyone wanted something they couldn't have.

It's a coming of age story, but screen writer Larry McMurtry's quirky sense of human foibles and clear-eyed observation of human interaction leaves the viewer with no rosy ending--everyone is trapped and no one escapes but Sam the Lion--the Ben Johnson role of the man who is not compromised by small town life. And Sam escapes by dying.

Sam the Lion.

Ben Johnson dominates the role and the role dominates the movie. Sam owns the pool hall, the movie house, and the diner, and holds the town together by the force of his character. In the central scene of the movie, Sam takes two boys fishing at a water hole that has no fish and reminisces about his past, a trysting time with a young married woman. The key to Sam is that he loved the woman, and continued to love her, but did not make the move that would have broken her marriage. He is a man of honor in a town of desperate intimacies. He is the bedrock character that redeems the town and the movie.

Cybill Shepherd is introduced in this movie, a small town Scarlet O'Hara who gathers hearts like other girls gather flowers, and who pulls them apart and discards them. Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms are poignantly young on the screen, two best friends set at odds by Jacy, the Cybill Shepherd character. Cloris Leachman plays a pathetically needy older woman who tucks Sonny, the Timothy Bottoms teen, into her bed. And Ellen Burstyn is convincing as Lois Farrow, the wife of the "rich" man who has no love for her husband, engages in sex with Abilene,one of his men, and advises her daughter to sleep with Duane, the Jeff Bridges character, in order to get it out of her system and move on. Clu Gulager is Abilene, the cold-eyed, hard oil hand who uses sex as power without compunction.

The interesting twist is that Lois Farrow is the woman with whom Sam has been in love and who has continued to love him. Both characters understand the difference in sex and connection, and both retain their honor--though Sam is the "good" man and Lois is the "bad" woman. McMurtry never disappoints.

When Ben Johnson was offered this role, he initially turned it down, considering the nudity and swearing "dirty," but when his scenes were rewritten, eliminating the language and elevating the character, he consented. His recreation of Sam illuminates the movie.

There is a cemetery at Foraker, Oklahoma--the little town where Ben Johnson was born. It's in the tall grass prairie, surrounded by blowing grass and blue sky. There's the most unusual grave monument I've ever seen there, a monstrous, misshapen chunk of rock with pipe and barbed wire and odd pieces of ranching paraphernalia embedded in it. It is solid and true though a little worn around the edges. It will stand after all the prettier stones are beaten into smooth-faced slabs by the Oklahoma weather. Johnson's character is like that stone. True to itself. Solid.

In a town that is losing its soul, Sam the Lion stands guard.

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