19 June 2011

In The Last Picture Show -- It's Not What Happens to Sonny, But How He Responds To It

He breaks up with his girlfriend.
He has an affair with the coach's wife.
His mentor dies suddenly.
His best friend puts his eye out in a fight.
Another friend is killed by a truck.
He is dumped by the most beautiful girl in town, who has just ben using him anyway.
He returns to see the older woman, she's enraged because he ignored her for three months.
Through joy, tears, heartache, understanding and pain, he preserves.
At the end of the story he is left in a dead end mid Texas town. A recent high school graduate who owns the local pool hall but has to work on an oil rig to keep it open. He has no girl, no discernible prospects, no way out. But he'll be fine.

He is Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), the centerpiece of Peter Bogdanovich's incredible film, The Last Picture Show (1971).

As Ma Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people.

The Last Picture Show featured an extraordinary array of acting talent. Four of its cast members were nominated for Supporting Actor Oscars, two won. The winners were Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson and the nominees Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn. The cast also boasted Eileen Brennan, Cybil Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Clu Gulager and Sam Bottoms (Timothy's brother).

But Sonny is the character who proves the old adage that it's not what happens to us that is important, but how we respond to it. There is a conceit in this country that the ability to pick one's self up, dust one's self off and start all over again is a uniquely American quality. Or even that it is emblematic of hearty small town Americans. People in all parts of this country and the world as a whole have the ability to roll with the punches and take a knock down with being knocked out. In any case, Sonny personifies this quality.

But more than this Sonny is the type of character who dwells in many films and many actual towns and communities. Sonny lives within the eye of the storm. He is not endowed with special talents nor encumbered by debilitating defects of mind or body. No great deeds does he perform, no terrible crimes does he commit. But neither is he ordinary. Far from blending into the crowd, he seems to embody it.

Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry wrote the screenplay based on McCurty's novel of the same name. The story is set in Nowheresville, Texas from November 1951 to October 1952. The year in the life of a town, specifically members of its high school senior class. Like many a small town there is little to do and what is done becomes everyone's business. Sonny's affair with the older woman (Leachman) goes from gossip to common knowledge in the blink of an eye. There is a lot of sleeping around in such towns, providing as it does a relief of boredom and the marriages that so many rush into in dull places. Marriage gives a sense of empowerment to the newlyweds and escape from stifling home lives. So that they may ultimately create their own stifling domestic atmosphere.

Ennui is the currency in such towns. Relief can be found for some in church, others require football games, booze or a roll in the hay. There is also the picture show. The town kingpin is Sam the Lion (Johnson) who owns the pool hall, cafe and aforementioned picture show. He is wise, kind, respected and has taken Sonny under his wing. Sonny in turn looks after Billy (Sam Bottoms) a younger lad who doesn't utter a word and is generally considered a dim wit. So yes, there's Sonny in the middle.

Sonny's best friend is handsome and popular Duane (Bridges) whose girlfriend is the town's beauty, Jacy (Shepherd). When they break up, Sonny is ultimately caught -- where else? -- in the middle.

He's been, essentially, in the middle of a marriage too. He's in the middle of a gang that enrages Sam by getting Billy laid by the town whore, who slaps poor Billy when he spills his seed all over her.

But Sonny, even when beaten up by Duane and smashed in the eye with a beer bottle, does not play the victim. People who fall easily into the victim role are boring and unproductive in stories and whatever the hell real life is. Sonny don't play that.

Sonny does nothing in broad strokes, like so many "characters." Sonny is no shrinking violet either. He is doer. He is always there. The best in the "common" person who knows good and well the meaning of the word quit, but is not a practitioner. And in ensemble film like The Last Picture Show he is indispensable. The strength of Bottoms' performance is that he is an evident figure whose resilience shines as other actors are appropriately spicier. He is the one who we, as an audience, our drawn to, unknowingly. Our sympathies lie with him because he is us. He is the center that our extremes gravitate to.

Sonny is the people and he keeps a comin'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see the town as the patriarch of a family or community. The town is on life support and no one has the heart to pull the plug and end the suffering. When most of us leave our home towns, we do it of our own volition. These folks are being evicted one person at a time. They are forced into base behavior that can't be moralized, clinging precariously to anything familiar or familial.