Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Viewer Guide: The Last Picture Show and Love & Mercy

May 26, 2021 | Richard Peña


Tonight’s classic is The Last Picture Show, from 1971, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Set in the early 1950s in Texas, the film was based on Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical 1966 novel. McMurtry and Bogdanovich adapted the story for the screen. The film follows a group of small-town teenagers coming of age as the town is dying, and the bereft adults who already know the lessons the teens have yet to learn.

The cast features an ensemble of some of the era’s finest young actors, including Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Eileen Brennan, Randy Quaid, and Cybil Shepherd. The ensemble also includes Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson and Ellen Burstyn.

Johnson plays “Sam the Lion,” a wizened local business owner. According to Bogdanovich, Johnson wasn’t keen on the part for a simple reason: it was too wordy. But Bogdanovich had his heart set on Johnson, so enlisted the help of legendary director John Ford, whom he knew well, having already done a book-length interview with the already-retired Hollywood master. Ford knew just want to say to Johnson, a longtime co-star of John Wayne’s, to get him to accept the part: “Do you want to be the Duke’s sidekick forever?” But Johnson continued to resist. Bogdanovich finally told him, “You, in this role, are going to get an Academy Award.” That, finally, seemed to do the trick. Even more impressive: six months after the film’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Johnson did indeed win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Hollywood veteran Cloris Leachman was determined to land the role of Ruth Popper, the lonely wife of the high school football coach. Her first reading so impressed Bogdanovich that he cast her on the spot. She, too, would go to win an Oscar for her performance in The Last Picture Show.

The casting of Cybil Shepherd is the stuff that legends are made from. Before The Last Picture Show, Shepherd was best known as a model, gracing the cover of numerous fashion magazines. Bogdanovich spotted her on the cover of Glamour, and saw something special in her expression that he knew would make her perfect for the role of heartbreaker Jacy Farrow. Moreover, he remembered that another one of his heroes, director Howard Hawks, had similarly discovered Lauren Bacall on a magazine cover.

The Last Picture Show was shot on location in Archer City, Texas, Larry McMurtry’s hometown. Bogdanovich’s choice of black and white was unusual in 1971, but immensely added to the film’s timelessness and depiction of a town whose days are numbered. In addition to Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson’s Oscars, The Last Picture Show received nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Jeff Bridges, Best Supporting Actress for Ellen Burstyn, Best Director, and Best Picture.

The Last Picture Show is a wonderful reminder of an extraordinary moment in American cinema: a time from the late ‘60s until the mid-‘70s when, although the industry was in a shambles and even was losing money some years, there was an amazing surge of creativity, perhaps America’s very own “New Wave,’ with key works by directors such as Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, Dennis Hopper, Brian De Palma, Bob Rafelson and a number of others promising a very different kind of cinema. Sadly, that promise was never fully realized, but we do have works like The Last Picture Show to show us the level of ambition to which American cinema, at least at one point, could aspire.


Tonight’s indie is Love & Mercy, the 2014 biopic of Beach Boys’ singer-songwriter Brian Wilson, directed by Bill Pohlad.

John Cusack and Paul Dano co-star in an alternating portrayal of Wilson in middle age as well as during his prime as the musical wunderkind of the Beach Boys, struggling to capture the eclectic sounds in his head for the group’s pioneering album, “Pet Sounds.” But when we first encounter Wilson through the eyes of Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, a salesperson at a Los Angeles Cadillac dealership, he’s just another anonymous buyer. Intrigued by his gentle eccentricity, Melinda also notices some men hovering nearby, with one of them introducing himself as Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson’s personal psychotherapist, played by Paul Giamatti. When Dr. Landy reveals that “Brian” is none other than the Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Melinda begins to think she now understands his curious behavior…that is, until she notices the words he has scrawled on her business card. And with that, Love & Mercy takes us on a mesmerizing journey into Wilson’s brilliant musical mind and turbulent life story, chronicling the Beach Boys behind the scenes family drama with Wilson’s budding romantic relationship with Melinda in the 1980s—all under the increasingly ominous surveillance of the volatile Dr. Landy.

A film biography of Brian Wilson’s turbulent life story was first proposed in 1988, with William Hurt as Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Landy, but the production never came to pass. After two Beach Boys TV movies, in 1999 Melinda Ledbetter—by then married to Wilson—tried to restart a feature film project with Jeff Bridges. Love & Mercy’s director Bill Pohlad—a film financier whose producing credits include Brokeback Mountain—became passionately inspired by the 1997 box set of “Pet Sounds” that contained rich detail on the album’s creation. After securing the rights to Wilson’s story, Pohlad was finally able to move forward with LOVE & MERCY by self-financing the production. Striving to avoid a conventional chronological structure, Pohlad originally envisioned the film as featuring three primary eras in Wilson’s life—with Philip Seymour Hoffman discussed to play Wilson during the three years he reportedly “lived in bed”—but Pohlad ultimately scaled back to the two alternating periods seen in the final movie. Although inevitable simplifications were made, the film was acclaimed for being mostly accurate, but the roles of several key figures in Wilson’s extrication from Dr. Landy—especially his brother Carl—were greatly reduced. Upon screening the final film, Brian Wilson reportedly became distraught by Paul Giamatti’s fierce performance, briefly convinced he was watching the real Dr. Landy, who died in 2006.

©2023 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489