American Gothic

Antonia Quirke talks to Peter Bogdanovich about The Last Picture Show.

Forty years after the premiere of Peter Bogdanovich's exalted Last Picture Show, the 1966 coming-of-age novel by Larry McMurtry on which it was based has just been published as a Penguin Classic to coincide with the release of the director's cut of the film. Film and book are (almost) equally magnificent, blitzing you with one image after another of the town of Thalia - based on Archer City, Texas, where McMurtry grew up - a shabby nowherezone swirling with ribbons of dust.

It is 1951. Bored teenagers gloom over cheeseburgers. Nothing much interests them but the promise of sex, and thoughts of getting away from here. Adults dig miserably into their ears with matches as though to get to the many life mistakes replaying in their minds - all overseen by Sam the Lion, the cinema and pool-hall owner, a gruff cowboy, a consoler of troubles who could have been so much more, but didn't quite get away.

Bogdanovich was in his late twenties when he started adapting the book for the big screen with McMurtry. He's 71 now, reputedly a tricky but sometimes fantastically garrulous guy, and a compulsive mimic. I ring him in North Carolina, where he teaches film-making. It's been raining all day, he says. "Goddamn bloody rain. Will it never end?" Plus he's stuck in, waiting for a parcel.

A formless dread seems to be working anxiously within him. Today, certain things about the film interest him only vaguely - the process of paring the novel back with McMurtry ("I just asked him for more dialogue sometimes"), or the opinion of various critics that The Last Picture Show feels very nouvelle vague ("I never saw it as French"). But ask about performance and he stirs himself.

As a director, Bogdanovich doesn't rehearse too much with his actors and, like D W Griffith, sometimes he even dictates moment-to-moment emotions as the camera is rolling. Take the best-known scene in the film, at the end, where the gauche teenager Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) visits his depressed 40-year-old lover, Ruth (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her passive, wounded eloquence), and half-heartedly tries to make up with her after
a cruel split.

“So, she never really got on with Timothy, so I'm sitting at the table opposite her instead," says Bogdanovich, "and I say to Cloris, 'You got it - you got something you wanna tell him and the whole thing can be said in two words. If only you could find them you'd be done. And you've got 'em you've got 'em you've got 'em - but no! You're losing it. You can't remember. No, you can't find those words . . . you've lost them!' Hang on, there's someone at the door." It's the courier with the parcel. "Cool," I hear Bogdanovich say, somewhere far down a hall, signing for it.

Like the 1950s American teenager he says he never was but nails in the movie, he uses words such as "hip" and "cool" a lot. And the phrases "I kinda like" and "I dunno, it's weird". He calls his own films "pictures", but, respectfully, the movies of Howard Hawks and his one-time friend John Ford "films". "Red River I loved," he says. "Cows and everything. In the book . . . I dunno . . . the movie that's playing at the cinema in town - the last picture show itself - what is it? It's something lousy anyway. But then Larry doesn't like movies."

For someone who doesn't like movies, McMurtry has written plenty - Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain are among his 20 screenplays; he has also written 30 novels, three collections of essays and five memoirs. Some of the most memorable images in the film are lifted wholesale from the book: ready-crafted stage directions, just perfect: "Sonny held Charlene's breast in his hand as though it were an apple someone had given him just when he was least hungry." Even the characters' names are brilliantly rich and self-contained. The lumpen Charlene Duggs is as descriptive as Beryl Muspratt in Brideshead Revisited or Matthew Pocket in Great Expectations.

But where the book can drag, the film never once overdoes its own modest shape, somehow managing to feel languid yet transmitting the careless pace of youth. And unlike the book it gains an astonishing power from not trying to have too much meaning - if anything, its meaning is just a sad affection towards the past. Its casting is stunningly tender, too. Look at the 22-year-old Jeff Bridges as the none-too-bright quarterback Duane. Bogdanovich instinctively knew that someone "so likeable in life" would be able to make something substantial from what, on the page - in both book and screenplay - is an entirely callow, nothingy sort of part. (Watching it now, you are amazed at just how Bridges he is - that familiar openness and physical looseness. How he already knows to hold all the tension in his mouth, or that his left side is his best. You see that one of the marks of a great actor is how little he changes. Bridges has range in this way.)

It is bodies that interest Bogdanovich. Sure, the script is so tight, so ideal, it's like a slap on the face with a cold, hard hand as it shows us the ordinary purgatory of living with those we never quite reach, and yes, the composition of some of the shots feels like a conscious tribute to the black-and-white photography of the 1940s - but when his camera is fixed on the human form, you feel Bogdanovich's faculties miraculously quadruple.

At one point I mention Ben Johnson's Oscar-winning performance as Sam the Lion. Without pausing, Bogdanovich says: "Ben turned me down three times. He kept saying, 'There's too many words, Pete,' and so I finally called [John] Ford and I said, 'I've got a great part for Ben, but he says there's too many words.' And Ford says, 'Oh, Jesus, he always says that. Where is he?' I said, 'Tucson,' and he said, 'Give me the number - I'll call him.' And so he called him for me and called me back about 15 minutes later and said, 'Yeah he'll do it. I just said to him, Jesus Christ, Ben, Peter's got a good part for you, why don't you do it? I mean Jesus Christ,' and then about ten minutes later Ben called me from Tucson and said: 'So you put the old man on me . . .'"

And Bogdanovich is saying this as though he were reporting from the scene, and he's doing all the voices, too, and somewhere along the line he mentions John Wayne ("Jesus, Pete, I can't show that film to my family") and Orson Welles ("Reading your notices, Pete, is like opening presents at Christmas") and then back to Johnson refusing to say the word "clap" in case his mother went to see the picture and was shocked, and how he replaced it with the word "misery", which McMurtry thought was a better word anyway. Not that they kept it in.

As talking binges go, it's incredible, a pell-mell stream, coming at you like the fierce, warm wind off the flat earth of Texas. "God, Johnson was handsome," I say abruptly, buying myself a quick breather. "God, he was beautiful," says Bogdanovich, who goes quiet for a moment, remembering his face.

A new edition of "The Last Picture Show" by Larry McMurtry has just been published by Penguin Classics (£9.99)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?