“The Last Picture Show” (1971)
Thanks to the somewhat surprising success of “Targets,” the road was paved for Peter Bogdanovich to go on to direct three bonafide American classics in a row — the filmscape of the bountiful 1970s would be forever changed for the better — starting with “The Last Picture Show.” One of the most profoundly felt coming-of-age stories to ever grace a silver screen, it’s the kind of slice-of-life that cuts deep into the gaps within existences, delicately focusing on those human interactions which have within them the power to change one’s perception of the surrounding world, woven together with soulful moments of amiable or poignant reflection. Based on Larry McMurtry‘s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Last Picture Show” grips you, but gently, novelistically, within minutes, making it instantly clear that its roots lie in literature, and its reach is deep. Young Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) is growing up fast with best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) and high-school prima donna Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, making her screen debut) in a Texas town that’s two blocks left of nowhere, at times interacting with, at times just standing witness to the town’s array of hopelessly sentimental (and sentimentally hopeless) characters. Of these, Ben Johnson‘s Sam “The Lion,” Ellen Burstyn‘s no-nonsense Lois, and Cloris Leachman‘s lonely housewife Ruth make a lasting impression on Sonny, while every single character — from Randy Quaid’s slow-witted schoolboy Lester to Eileen Brennan‘s quick-witted café waitress Genevieve — make a lasting impression on us. It’s no wonder many of them, like Shepherd, Leachman, and Brennan, would go on to become something akin to Bogdanovich’s rep company, appearing for him multiple times, usually to great effect. The director and his team treat the black-and-white canvas of “The Last Picture Show” with an impressionistic eye, conjuring up a sense of everlasting romance through moods, glances, and world-weary sighs. Burstyn, Bridges, Johnson, and Leachman were all nominated for Academy Awards, with the latter two walking away winners, but it’s the sum of all its parts and parcels that truly makes “The Last Picture Show” Bogdanovich’s “Citizen Kane.”
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)
The throwback tendencies of Bogdanovich’s latest, “She’s Funny That Way,” arguably make it feel old-fashioned, but the director’s most successful take on the screwball genre, “What’s Up, Doc?” managed to somehow refresh the films it was so obviously referencing. Then again, ‘She’s Funny’ really most references “What’s Up Doc?” so it can’t help but feel even more rarefied than this most artificial and constructed of genres usually does: Bogdanovich is perhaps at his best when homaging great filmmakers other than Peter Bogdanovich. “What’s Up, Doc?” however, endures — a magnum of champagne that has lost none of its cork-popping fizz in the intervening decades. Hanging a madcap romance on a labyrinthine plot involving four identical suitcases that contain underwear, Top Secret documents, prehistoric lumps of rock, and priceless jewelry, depending on which occupant of a particular San Francisco hotel they belong to, the film really exists to showcase Ryan O’Neal‘s best stuffy, Cary-Grant-in-“Bringing Up Baby” schtick and Barbra Streisand‘s proto Manic Pixie. As Judy, the rapid-fire, silky-haired, flibbertigibbet polymath who claps eyes on O’Neal’s Howard and decides to essentially bully, stalk, and misrepresent herself into his heart, hers is the quintessential behavior that would get you thrown in prison in real life, but that somehow seems charming onscreen. A lot of this is down to real chemistry with both stars on spritely, self-deprecating form. Streisand, still some way off her diva-ish years, even pokes fun at the national obsession with her nose in a fab rendition of Cole Porter‘s “You’re The Top.” And O’Neal sends up his romantic lead persona when Judy bats her eyelids and quotes, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” the inane catchphrase to his career-making hit, “Love Story,” and he fires back “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Funny because it’s true. With wonderful supporting performances from a flouncy Kenneth Mars and Bogdanovich secret weapon Madeline Kahn, an endless supply of quick-fire asides, and a genuinely funny slapstick climax featuring the San Francisco hills, a pizza delivery bike, a step ladder, and a sheet of plate glass, “What’s Up, Doc?” is the kind of featherweight pleasure that no one, not even Bogdanovich, sadly, quite makes anymore.
“Paper Moon” (1973)
The breadth of cinematic joy covered in “Paper Moon”‘s snappy hour-and-twenty-or-so-minutes is near-impossible to measure in words, so, here goes nothing. Peter Bogdanovich concluded his trifecta of ’70s masterpieces with an eternally adorable road-trip comedy-adventure featuring Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray and O’Neal’s 9-year-old daughter, Tatum, as Addie Loggins. Moses finds himself stuck with Addie after he pays respects to her recently deceased mother, and gets forced into driving her to her aunt’s place. With a name like that, it doesn’t come as a shock to either us or Addie that Moses Pray — a man who could be her father because they’ve “got the same jaw” — is a con-artist, swindling whoever he can whichever way possible (but mostly by peddling Bibles to widows). In a glorious twist that ensured “Paper Moon”‘s status as a well-ahead-of-its-time classic, Addie not only starts to participate in Moses’ finagles, but turns out to have an even more brilliantly conniving streak than him. The dynamic achieved between father and daughter O’Neal here is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The battle of wits over Nehis and Coney Islands, barroom dancers (Madeline Kahn‘s unforgettable Trixie), and $200.00, have the kind of symbiotic energy that takes the unassuming viewer completely off-guard, with the realization of just how boundlessly entertaining, heart-warming, and outright hilarious it all is always hovering one step behind the hijinks on screen. Tatum O’Neal famously became the youngest person to win an Academy Award, but it only takes one viewing to see how impossible it would’ve been not to award her. She is a total revelation as Addie; through gestures, expressions, and succinct line-delivery, she goes toe-to-toe with her dad (who is, needless to say, absolutely brilliant as well), often stepping all over him and making a strong bid for Strongest Female Character of the ’70s. Alvin Sargent’s exhilarating screenplay, Bogdanovich’s intricate direction, László Kovács‘ beauteous black-and-white photography, and all the supporting characters whose casual demeanors and idiosyncrasies seamlessly blend into the picture’s tenderness, make “Paper Moon” nothing if not a cinematic miracle.