The Stories Behind “The Last Picture Show”

Years ago, after The Last Picture Show was made in Archer City, Texas, my mother reported a couple of comments on the movie from a friend of hers from Archer City.

1) The film was misleading. Nobody had sex that much in Archer!

2) That director fellow — what was his name? Bogdanovich? — didn’t do all the work on the show. The person running the movie was really his wife, although nobody knew her name, either.

My mother never went to see the movie, given all the reports of too much sex and nudity. But I’ve seen it repeatedly over the years and loved it. It’s beautifully made, funny, tender, heartbreaking — and, unlike almost every other Texas-based movie I’ve seen — it actually gets the state and its people right.

Yesterday, with some friends, I went to see the woman who really ran the movie. Her name is Polly Platt. She and her then-husband, Peter Bogdanovich, made the movie in 30 days with a budget of $1 million. They had no idea they were creating something that would become a classic.

It was a new experience to see the movie with more knowledge about what went on behind the scenes — and how life imitated art a little too faithfully. During the short course of the filming, Bogdanovich left Polly Platt, who was then pregnant with their second child, for the off- and on-screen siren Cybill Shepherd. So we watched a cast full of men go ga-ga over Shepherd’s character, Jacy Farrow, ruining friendships, spurning other, more caring lovers, knowing there was more than acting going on.  (At least while the movie was being filmed, it seemed, there was a lot of sex going on in Archer City.)

We saw the scene that Platt insists won Ben Johnson an Oscar, as he talks about his earlier love of a young woman and the joy they’d taken in each other. We knew, too, that by the time the Oscar ceremonies rolled around, Polly Platt was in Texas, working on another movie. She watched the show on TV, glimpsing Bogdanovich and Shepherd sitting expectantly on the front row. When Ben Johnson accepted his Oscar, though, he thanked Bogdanovich and his lovely wife, Polly Platt.  Hee, hee, hee, hee.

“I don’t know what men see in Cybill Shepherd,” grumbled one of my friends after the movie was over.

“Her face isn’t even that interesting,” another friend said. “It’s too regular.”

“Don’t you just love what Ben Johnson did?”

We talked more and I guess it’s fair to say we weren’t about to start a local branch of the Cybill Shepherd fan club. But it made me wonder what life is like for Shepherd now, when she’s aging and not at all the siren she used to be. Does she ever look back and regret the people, men and women, she hurt?

Oh, and what about Bogdanovich himself? He was supposed to be the new Orson Welles, with a brilliant directing career. Except it didn’t quite happen. It began brilliantly, then sputtered to a stop. By then, Cybill Shepherd was long gone, of course.

“I don’t think his career ever recovered after he divorced Polly Platt,” a local film professional had said earlier. “He had no idea how much she did, how valuable she was to him.”

Which might be of some satisfaction to a few middle-aged women who gathered to hear Polly Platt, the woman who did all the work, who went on to have a wonderful career of her own that exceeded her ex-husband’s. But it wasn’t really that satisfying — the ultimately banal knowledge of what goes around comes around. It all seemed too predictable and sad. Too bad life can’t be more uplifting, too bad it can be as mournful as a black-and-white movie where the dust blows and the faces grow a little harder with grief.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

6 comments… add one
  • When my niece was 5 or 6 (living in Austin), she was irritated by all the ongoing construction delays, delays, detours, etc. – you know how Austin is, always under revision. She visited friends in Archer City, and when she came home from her trip, she told my sister, “You know what I like about Archer City? It’s finished.” I thought of The Last Picture Show, and those heartbreakingly empty, dusty streets.

    This comment isn’t really related to the heart of your lovely post, but it’s what I always think of when I hear anything about Archer City.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    One of the topics of conversation was how “universal” the movie is — that people from small towns around the world had all found commonalities. I always take a little bit of offense to that, thinking, no! It’s different and it’s worse in West Texas, where the wind blows dust and you want to crawl into a hole and stay there.

  • Susan Link

    Nice post! My partner and I saw the showing at the Paramount on Sunday. It was my first time to see the film. Polly Platt was there to speak a bit from the stage before the film began, but there was no mic, and we, sitting about two thirds back, couldn’t make out what she was saying. Was it Bogdanovich, behind the red curtain, still not wanting her to share the limelight?

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I think it was more the passage of time — instead of Bogdanovich himself — that was causing problems. She seemed a bit confused.

  • rachelbirds Link

    Loved Last Picture Show —
    a wrenching film for a kid
    from a small, small town.


  • Justin Link

    I find this story lacking in both substantive information as well as logic. First, you delivered very little information about the “stories behind the Last Picture Show,” which was the hook that captured my interest to begin with. Everyone knows about the Shepherd/Bogdonavich affair. It seems as if the only reason you wrote this is out of the spite and bitterness, and that’s a shame. I’m not denying that Patti had a large role in crafting this excellent film but to say she did all of the work and Peter took the credit is complete, unadulterated horse shit. Do some actual research before you blather off such crap. I recommend watching Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdonavich in Archer City, Texas. It’s a terrific documentary.

    Oh, and this spiteful (and jealous) rant against Cybil Shepherd is foolish in the extreme. I’m not condoning the affair, but the two of them fell deeply, madly in love with each other the result of which was a 9 year relationship. She was a young girl thrust into the kind of fame few achieve… and your negative words ironically make you sound like the gossiping, ignorant townspeople inhabiting Anerene, Texas.

    – J.

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