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The Real Story Behind ‘The Last Picture Show’

A small town’s gossip inspired Peter Bogdanovich’s classic film.
The Last Picture Show
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on August 24th, 2021

 Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true stories and figures behind Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

In a recent edition of this column, we took a look at the true story behind William Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece, The French ConnectionThat movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture over four other movie classics: A Clockwork Orange, Nicholas and Alexandra, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Last Picture Show. Needless to say, 1971 was a great year for film.

This edition focuses on the last of those other contenders. It’s based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, who also co-wrote the script with director Peter Bogdanovich. As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the film this October, here is a look at the true events and people that inspired the book and film of The Last Picture Show.

Anarene, Texas

Larry McMurtry sets his novel in Thalia, Texas, a fictionalized version of his own hometown, Archer City. Peter Bogdanovich shot the film in Archer City, but changed the name to Anarene. An ode to the fictional town of Abilene, Kansas, in Howard Hawks’ Red River. Not only is the name an homage to the classic Western, but the “last picture show” that the characters attend in Bogdanovich’s film is a screening of Red River.

At its core, The Last Picture Show is about the passage of time: high school students become adults; adults watch as the world in which they grew up becomes something new. The small ghost-town in which they all live is aggressively banal. The boys play football and haze each other. The girls cheerlead and dream of marriage. They all grow up and marry other people in the town. They have children. The marriages fail. The cycle repeats. Most people in town are miserable. Everyone knows everybody else. And everyone knows what everybody else is doing to cope with their misery.

In 1990, Bogdanovich directed an adaptation of the sequel that McMurtry wrote to the novel, which is called Texasville. At the time of the filming, Entertainment Weekly summed up the real town of Archer City:

“Only two notable things have happened in the history of Archer City, Tex. (pop. 1,862). In 1964, the high-school football team, the Wildcats, won the state championship. And in 1971, local boy Larry McMurtry turned his novel about low-down, real-life town gossip into a screenplay with Peter Bogdanovich, who turned it into a movie called The Last Picture Show.”

The People and Their Gossip

Larry McMurtry always insisted that the characters in The Last Picture Show have no real-life counterparts. But the people of Archer City always suspected otherwise.

Three teenagers are at the center of the film’s action: there’s the pair of best friends, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), both of whom play football, chase girls, hang around the pool hall, and haze each other and their friends. Sonny has an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), his basketball coach’s wife, and learns life lessons from her and Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the pool hall, local diner, and movie theater.

The other teenager the film follows is Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), one of the most beautiful and popular girls in school. She is from a wealthier family than most in town. And her parents want her to go off to college and have a better life than they have. But she wants to stay in town, marry, and remain at the center of the local gossip. She has flings with both Sonny and Duane in the film.

The Real Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson

According to the travel magazine Texas Highways, there is a picture in Larry McMurtry’s high school yearbook of him and a man named Bobby Stubbs. And Stubbs believed his life served as the inspiration for the Sonny Crawford character in The Last Picture Show. Per the article:

“Stubbs had a troubled home life and worked nights like Sonny, and he drove the same kind of pickup truck. He was also once hit in the eye by the boyfriend of a girl he liked. ‘It kinda pretty closely followed me,’ Stubbs used to say.”

Some speculate that the Duane Jackson character is based on McMurtry himself. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

“Bogdanovich cast twenty-one-year-old Bridges in the role because of his natural likability — you needed someone charming to play Duane, otherwise the audience would have hated him more than they did.”

The Real Jacy Farrow

Ceil Cleveland Footlick, who passed away in February of this year at age eighty-four, served as the inspiration for Jacy Farrow. In 1997, Footlick wrote a memoir entitled Whatever Happened to Jacy Farrow? and hoped the book would set the record straight. Footlick wrote (as quoted by the Dallas Morning News):

“In modern American literature, especially Texas literature. Jacy has become an archetype: a beautiful, flirty, teasing, bitchy blonde in a convertible … Now this Jacy wants to tell her story … my story.”

According to Texas Highways, Footlick “was very good friends” with Bobby Stubbs and had been voted the “Most Beautiful Girl” in her class. She always confirmed that Jacy was based on her life. But she would make one thing clear: “I was a good girl.”

Larry McMurtry was supportive of Footlick’s book. According to the Dallas Morning News, she said:

“He’s given me a great blurb. I think that if he thought it was disgraceful, he would have taken his character back.”

The Local Reception of The Last Picture Show

At the time of The Last Picture Show‘s release in 1971, members of the town traveled “en masse to Wichita Falls, twenty-five miles north, for the opening.” They were not pleased, as reported years later by the Los Angeles Times:

“The Baptist preacher said the movie was sinful and urged his followers not to read the book or see the movie (although it was not certain he had done either). Some locals accused McMurtry, who was graduated from Archer City High School in 1954, of being a Benedict Arnold, and reporters from around the country traipsed into town to see if Archer City truly was the end of the earth as Hollywood had portrayed it.”

In the wake of the fallout, McMurtry wrote a letter to the local paper and offered to discuss and debate the film at a public forum. No one accepted his offer. But eventually, the town moved on and “embraced its only literary son.” As Bogdanovich prepared to shoot Texasville nearly twenty years later, the then-local high school principal, Nat Lunn, told the Los Angeles Times:

“The bad taste that the movie left for some folks, that’s gone now … They’re looking forward to being filmed again. Especially with money being short in town, they’re ready for another dose of Hollywood.”

The Picture Show

The movie theater depicted in the film — you know, the one where they watch the town’s last picture show — is a real place: the Royal Theater in Archer City.

In 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported that, just like in The Last Picture Show, the theater had closed:

“[Royal Theater] stands as a skeleton of three walls, and no one can figure out whether it’s worth the expense to rebuild it. The theater had closed well before the filming of the movie and it was brought back to life only by Hollywood wizardry.”

After the theater closes in the film, the characters feel lost. As one of them asks, what is one to do in town without the picture show? It feels especially cruel that the movies, so often a temporary reprieve from the struggles of our own lives, can go away.

In the years since then, however, the Royal Theater has become a tourist destination. While the front of the theater has been restored, all that remains, according to Texas Highways, is a “burned-out hull, popular for weddings, photoshoots, and occasional performances.” Film tributes to McMurtry’s work have been screened at the theater in recent years.

In Texas Highways, Michael J. Mooney writes of the theater:

It looks just like it did in the movie, the image that begins and ends the film. It’s haunting and beautiful, weathered and damaged — but still here, still standing, still looking at that single blinking light swaying in the wind.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.