Fall/Winter 2016-17

Watching The Last Picture Show with Tom Ford

Director Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals) muses about Peter Bogdanovich’s astute choices on the timeless The Last Picture Show and why the film continues to resonate for him personally.

By F.X. FEENEY

Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) looks straight into the camera as she is introduced. (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

There is no room for waste in a film," says Tom Ford.

This is a healthy working philosophy made visible and even gorgeous in the two films Ford has directed—A Single Man (2009) and this year's Nocturnal Animals—but today he offers it in praise of Peter Bogdanovich as we watch his 1971 landmark The Last Picture Show, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry.

"I would've probably seen it as a boy, in the early '70s. I was 10 years old, and my parents used to take me out to see a lot of things I probably shouldn't have gone to."

Such adventurous child-rearing left an amusingly deep mark. As a Texas native growing up from age 11 in New Mexico—where to this day he owns a 20,000-acre cattle ranch—Ford was born as part of this picture's target audience. His own films argue this point. A Single Man, from the novel by Christopher Isherwood, maps a single day for its hero—quite possibly his last. Nocturnal Animals traces a more symphonic storyline. The woman (Amy Adams) at the center of the film, based on the Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan, is treading water inside a dead marriage when she receives an urgent, poetic message from the other husband she betrayed long ago (Jake Gyllenhaal). He has written a novel in her honor. This violent fantasy bears no outward resemblance to their bygone relationship, but she is mesmerized and even consumed by it.

Linklater points out that he began his first feature, Slacker, with a character (played by himself) rolling into Austin on a bus. As Dave and Ginny step off the vehicle, Minnelli frames them in a wide shot and lets the scene play out in a single take, ending with Sinatra’s blow-off of MacLaine as he gives her money and suggests she get herself back to the city. It’s a setup the director repeats throughout the film. "Minnelli is a master of CinemaScope; it was made for him," says Linklater, who similarly made use of a prolonged wide single take for a domestic squabble in a car in Before Midnight. "All the information in this scene is important, and leads right to the ending. Nothing is casual."


Picture Perfect: (Top) The first image we see of Billy (Sam Bottoms) is framed by broken glass; (Bottom), The local cad Abilene (Clu Gulager) confronts Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Of The Last Picture Show, Ford says, "Every single thing is deliberate." As the film begins it fades up on a desolate movie palace, already run-down in 1951 and pans to the left to take in the main street of a dusty Texas town. "This will also be the end shot, except in reverse." Billy, a simple-minded boy sweeping the street's endless dust, is glimpsed through a hole in a passing windshield: "And how does he die, at the end of the film? Hit by a car—and our first sight of him is framed by broken glass." Similarly, says Ford, when Duane (Jeff Bridges) gives Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) a wristwatch at Christmas, "She goes to a swim party, and jumps in the pool. The watch stops." She slaps her wrist. "As she's listening, her eye is caught by the rich boy she will marry. It's literally 'That time is over,' and 'a new one's begun.' Whether Bogdanovich planned these things out in advance—as I suspect he did—or discovered them on the editing table doesn't matter. Every character-nuance, every camera move, every cut is leading you somewhere."

The bleak austerity of the picture's sound design is often honed to a single effect of one kind or another—intensely blowing wind, the creak of bedsprings, sourced music (usually Hank Williams in this case; Bogdanovich uses no other score), even complete silence. "He does this to help us feel what those characters feel, that sense we have in life of one sense-impression taking over." Since much of Nocturnal Animals is set in the empty spaces of west Texas, Ford told his own sound designer, "Go back and listen to the wind in Last Picture Show." Yet such intensities are useless, he stresses, unless character-driven.

"Notice that nobody is making eye contact," he says of the interactions at the local pool hall, "until this moment," when the establishment's owner, Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) faces a local romantic rogue, Abilene (Clu Gulager). "I love the way these men look at each other. We find out later that they've both been involved with the same woman"—Lois, played by Ellen Burstyn—"and Sam truly loved her—but watch!" They eye each other so closely—even menacingly—that as Sam hands over the halves of a pool cue, Abilene deliberately fits and screws them together with a sexually suggestive intensity. "This one is currently screwing the love of that one's life, and so what's he doing with his fingertips?"

A studious film journalist throughout the 1960s, Bogdanovich never explicitly reveals his debt to his masters, yet their influence is lightly felt. There are two playful steals from Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, "The film I nearly chose to screen for this article," says Ford, "because it's exactly the kind of comedy I would love someday to make—dark and twisted." The first comes when Jacy sexily dangles a French fry over Duane's mouth, the second when she and her mother Lois enter side by side, wearing nearly identical Lolita sunglasses.

"This is a quote from a fashion designer, Coco Chanel," says Ford, "and I hate to link fashion and film, because I'm quite self-conscious about it." Ford made his first fame, and fortune, in fashion—revolutionizing the Gucci label with his own clothing designs and marketing sense before breaking free in 2004 and creating his own brand. "Chanel said, 'Creativity is the art of concealing your source.' You could take that in a cynical way, meaning that you copy things and try to hide it, or you could take it another way. Take everything in, let it become part of you, and trust that when it comes back out at some point, it will have your imprint. It may have touched you so deeply that you won't even realize you've made use of it until much later."


Show People: (Top) The sunglasses worn by Lois (Ellen Burstyn) are a subtle nod to Lolita; (Bottom) Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Ruth (Cloris Leachman) embark on an affair. (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment )

People's ache to connect with each other drives A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals, and forms a galaxy of gravitational fields in Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich maps these in fugitive moments of eye contact. Jacy looks straight into the camera as she is introduced. A kindred directness flares when the saddest and wisest of the town's youngsters, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), embarks on a love affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), a local housewife so neglected as to be a kind of spinster by default.

Their shared solitudes are emphasized in sensitive juxtapositions. The way Jacy fumbles with her brassiere when she is peer-pressured into stripping at the swim party has its counterpart when Ruth undresses for the first time before Sonny. As their affair grows more intense, "Ruth becomes younger," observes Ford. "Her hair comes down. She puts on a different dress. She even walks across a room more youthfully." After Jacy scolds Duane, "Quit prissin'" ("That is so Texas," laughs Ford), then tosses her head, hair swinging in the breeze, Bogdanovich cuts to Ruth, tossing her head with just as much girlish abandon. "They look so much alike in this instant."

Sound design deepens their alikeness. The self-consciousness of Ruth's first sexual encounter with Sonny is underscored by creaking bedsprings. "Look at Cloris Leachman's face. Here we're just lingering on her, but we see so much feeling, her eyes are never a blank," yet her hopeless tenderness vies for our attention against those loud rusty squeaks. Similarly, when Jacy—tired of Duane's virginal fumblings—seduces her mother's lover on a pool table, the soundtrack goes utterly and thoroughly silent. "So powerful," says Ford. "Nothing makes you watch like the complete absence of sound. Look how sensuously she fits her fingers through the baskets of that pool table. You could say it's a cliché, but some clichés are just true."

At a dreamy close-up of Cybill Shepherd, Ford remarks: "My God was she beautiful. My God was she fresh. Of course Bogdanovich fell in love with her!" He doesn't see such an emotional connection as an impediment to artistry. "You have to always have a crush on your actors. I don't mean sexually. You have to love them, the better the more you work with them."

The rugged gentility of Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion could spark such a crush not just in a director but any onlooker. "I see such sensitivity, such kindness in his face," says Ford. Sam has brought Sonny and the disabled Billy out to the wide water tanks amid the plains of Mesquite. "First time I come to water the horses at this tank was more than 40 years ago," he reflects, and launches into a magnificent reverie about loving a young beauty he used to swim with. This moment won Johnson an Oscar—but Ford points out how Bogdanovich supports him with precise directorial technique: "As he starts to reflect, the camera pushes in. Obvious, yet graceful—it aids in our understanding of the story—but does so without most people realizing it."

"I brought a young lady swimmin' out here once, more'n 20 years ago," the old man continues, adding that this was "after my wife had lost her mind and most of my boys was dead. This young lady was pretty wild, and pretty deep."

"Here we go," says Ford. "Now there's nobody else in the frame." The camera lingers for a long moment as old Sam himself holds still in the realm of memory. "Oh, she growed up," he concludes. "She was just a girl then, really." And the camera begins to withdraw, returning without a cut to its original setup, framing Sam and the two boys. "So simple," says Ford, "and yet—why wouldn't you do that? Directing is choices, and there's a great one."

Those sharply etched details of Sam's seemingly loose discourse—that dead wife, and sons—speak to Ford's own approach, breaking down material for direction. He explores each scene of a novel for apertures through which his own memory and imagination can reach to give the film firsthand life. "Such intimate points of connection are vital in the final stages of a film, where you make this or that choice of where to cut in, or what to take out," Ford says.


(Top), Sam recounts his youthful indiscretions to Sonny; (Bottom) Lois reveals her love for Sam following his death. (Screenpulls: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

A prime example comes in The Last Picture Show. Sam says goodbye to Sonny and Duane as they depart for an evening's carouse in Mexico. "It's just a beat," notes Ford: "Right…there. And there: Sonny doesn't know it yet, but he's never going to see Sam again." The subtle interplays, as Bogdanovich cuts face-to-face, "tell us something is about to happen. When Sam dies, we can look back with Sonny and think, 'That was my last memory of him.'" An antiphonal effect comes at the end of the film, when Sonny and Duane meet in fragile truce after a blackout in their friendship—Duane having blinded Sonny in one eye during a jealous brawl over Jacy. Again, a back-and-forth of uneasy silences—mixed with guarded affection•communicates a well-timed sense, weighted by our memories of the halting scene before Sam's death, that these two old friends will likely never see each other again, even if Duane survives the war in Korea. "That is so much how it is for all of us in life," says Ford: "Which, again, is a choice by the director, drawing on life."

Sam the Lion's funeral is an elegant tableau of wide open sky and silhouettes. "I love that the coffin is white. Sam was a good man. This is a Western. Of course his coffin would be white!" The mourners are in black, Ford points out, with one exception: Lois. "She's in white—and crying over Sam's casket. We now realize exactly who it was that he'd taken swimming long ago."

Sonny appears to have a dim inkling of this. A sequence or two later, after the brawl with Duane; after he elopes with Jacy, who professes to love him but has her own sly agenda; after the parental posse heads off this doomed, afternoon-long marriage before it can be consummated, and Jacy is bundled off to finally wed her rich boy (as she'd planned all along)—Sonny and Lois have their only scene together. By force of narrative gravity this is a richly earned moment of mutual, peaceful recognition. "I get sad if I think of Sam for long," she tells him. "I loved him. He loved me, too." Close-up of Sonny: says Ford, "Now he gets it." "This scene pulls the whole film together," says Ford. "At long last we have a sustained moment of truthful, emotional connection. She finally opens up and Sonny learns a bottom-line truth about Sam, on his way to becoming Sam. He's after all 'the good one,' he runs the pool hall, he takes care of everybody. When she tells him, 'I can kind of see what he saw in you, too,' it's clear she sees that. They're both satisfied."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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