Dec 17, 2013

The Last Picture Show: Small Town Melodrama with Nudity and Gay Subtexts

I saw The Last Picture Show (1971) when I was trapped in Hell-fer-Sartain State College in far, far north Houston, and found it immeasurably depressing, in spite of the infinite number of gay subtexts.

It's about depressed young people in a dismal, windswept Texas town in the 1950s.  They try to find meaning in their sad little lives through tawdry affairs with people they hate and going to the movies, but they can't perform during the affairs, the movie theater is closing, and they're all leaving or dying.

Sad-eyed high school seniors Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are obviously into each other, no matter how much they try to triangulate their romance with girlfriends whom they can't perform for and affairs with older women whom they hate.  They split up when Sonny goes off to die in the Korean War.

Sonny has an affair with the depressed middle-aged Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman).  Why is she depressed?  Other than being trapped in a horrible small town, I mean. Because her husband, Coach Popper (Bill Thurman), is unable to...well, you know, and likes to smack his student athletes on the butt.  Gay, right?  You couldn't state it openly in 1971, but it's implied.

For that matter, an awful lot of the men in town are unwilling or unable to...well, you know.  It's as if the quiet desperation of their lives has resulted in impotence.  And a lot of gay subtexts.

Rich boy Bobby (Gary Brockette) invites them all to his house for a skinny-dipping party (he has a famous frontal nude scene that got the movie banned as obscene in several places).  He wants a girlfriend, but not if she's a virgin.  He doesn't want to have to worry about any of that icky sex stuff.

They take the young street sweeper Billy (Sam Bottoms) to a prostitute to lose his virginity, but it doesn't work out, probably because he's not into girls.  He is into Duane, however.  At the end of the movie, he's killed as he sweeps the streets, thus convincing Duane to return to the girlfriend he hates.  Is it because the only two eligible guys in town are gone?

Several of the performers, including Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman, and Cybil Shepherd (Jacey, who dates both Sonny and Duane), have become strong gay allies. Boomer Bridges went on to play in several gay-subtext dramas.

See also: The Fabulous Bottoms Boys.