screen gems

Can you spot the coded gay character in this movie masterpiece?

The Last Picture Show

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Classic: The Last Picture Show

Cinema lost one of its most interesting and talented filmmakers this week with the death of director Peter Bogdanovich at age 82. Though very (very) straight, Bogdanovich crafted at least two Great Movies with queer interest: What’s Up Doc?, one of the most outrageous screwball comedies ever made, featuring Barbra Streisand at her most hilarious and Madeline Kahn in her cinematic debut; and Paper Moon, a perfect comedy starring Madeline Kahn at her best and bisexual actress Tatum O’Neal, the latter of whom won an Oscar for her work.

Bogdanovich’s masterpiece–and indeed, the movie that elevated him to superstardom as a director–also features some LGBTQ interest, though of a more subtle variety. The Last Picture Show debuted in 1971 and scored eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Director and Best Picture. The movie, based on the novel by a pre-Brokeback Mountain Larry McMurtry, follows the goings-on of a small Texas town in the 1950s. High school seniors Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) bro out and vie for the affections of school beauty Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Meanwhile, the town hero Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the local movie house, prepares to shutter the theatre forever.

Describing the plot of The Last Picture Show is a difficult thing, as the movie isn’t preoccupied with an overarching sequence of events so much as the interpersonal dynamics of the characters. Jacy plays hard to get with Duane whilst reveling in her own sexual power. Sonny, by contrast, has an affair with his football coach’s spinsterly wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman, in a performance for the ages), just because it seems like everyone else in town already has a secret lover. Or two. Ultimately, love and friendship mean almost nothing to these townsfolk because they’re so damn bored. And, with the movie house about to close forever, this small Texas town will have one less thing to do outside of hooking up and cheating. It will also have one less source of dreams and hope. As with much of McMurtry’s work, the movie also has at least one implied gay character. Watch and try to figure out his identity: the solution to this riddle is as hilarious as it is creepy.

Though set in 1951, The Last Picture Show commented just as much about its setting as it did the early 1970s with its themes of sexual exploration, obsolete social codes, and dying small-town America. For that matter, the movie has a strange resonance in 2022 as well: as younger generations explore sex and gender with childish recklessness, small-town America rots away thanks to automation and corporatization. And, with movies increasingly replaced by one-note YouTube and Instagram influencers, the movie seems to ask: are we losing dreams as well?

Watch and decide.

Streams on Showtime, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube & VUDU.