Nickelodeon/The Last Picture Show
1971 (The Last Picture Show)
PG (Nickelodeon theatrical cut)
Not Rated (Nickelodeon Director’s cut)
R (The Last Picture Show)
122 Minutes (Nickelodeon Theatrical Cut)
125 Minutes (Nickelodeon Director’s Cut)
126 Minutes (The Last Picture Show Director’s Cut)
1.85:1 color anamorphic widescreen (Nickelodeon Theatrical Cut)
1.85:1 black & white anamorphic widescreen (Nickelodeon Director’s Cut)
1.85:1 black & white anamorphic widescreen (The Last Picture Show Director’s Cut)
English, French Dolby Digital 2.0 (Nickelodeon Theatrical Cut)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (Nickelodeon Director’s Cut)
English, French Dolby Digital 2.0 (The Last Picture Show Director’s Cut)
Subtitles: English, French (all three films)
Peter Bogdanovich is one of the more interesting and talented Hollywood directors of the past forty years, but all too often his work has been frustratingly self-indulgent. The multi-talented Bogdanovich has written several excellent books about the movie industry, including “Who the Devil Made It” (about film directors whose films display distinctive style) and “Who the Hell’s in It,” profiles of famous actors. He has been a successful character actor, both in films and on television. Bogdanovich also has led a tumultuous personal life. His marriage to his first wife, Polly Platt, ended in divorce in 1970. He fell in love with Cybill Shepherd on the set of The Last Picture Show, beginning an on-again, off-again affair which lasted for much of the decade. He once again fell for one his female stars, Dorothy Stratten, during the filming of They All Laughed. Stratten, of course, was then tragically murdered by her husband when she announced that she was moving in with Bogdanovich. In 1988, at the age of 49, Bogdanovich married Dorothy Stratten’s younger sister, who was 20 years old at the time of the wedding. That union lasted for approximately 13 years. Ultimately, however, Bogdanovich likely will be best remembered as a director who made one great film, several very good films, and a number of monumental flops.
This double-feature DVD includes Bogdanovich’s greatest film, The Last Picture Show, and what may be the best of his box office flops, Nickelodeon. There is little that I can say about The Last Picture Show which hasn’t been said before. Based upon the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name, it is a gritty look at life in a dusty Texas town in the early fifties. Bogdanovich explains that he first saw McMurtry’s book on a store rack and was intrigued by the title, but he lost interest when he saw that it focused on the lives of high school students. Later he was given a copy of the book by his friend Sal Mineo, who told Bogdanovich that he should make a movie of it. After reading the book, the director decided that he wanted to do it. In addition to Shepherd, the outstanding cast includes Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), Randy Quaid, Eileen Brennan and Ben Johnson (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Johnson, ironically, was a reluctant member of the cast. Bogdanovich desperately wanted Johnson to play the part of Sam the Lion, but it took the intercession of John Ford to convince Johnson to accept the role. Savvy film buffs will get a kick out of one scene in which a poster for Wagon Master, a 1950 John Ford western which starred Johnson, is on display.
The Director’s Cut of The Last Picture Show is actually the original, albeit unreleased, version of the film. At 126 minutes the studio decided that it was too long, and the director was forced to cut seven minutes of footage. This version appears to be identical to both the 1991 Criterion laserdisc and the 1999 DVD. Bogdanovich restored one scene in which Genevieve (Eileen Brennan’s character), explains the family situations of best friends Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges). A pool room scene in which Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) is ravished by Abilene (Clu Gulager) was mostly excised for the theatrical release, but it is fully restored here.
Nickelodeon is the director’s homage to the silent film era. Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) is a struggling Chicago attorney who accidentally meets an independent filmmaker, H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith). Based in part on fact, Nickelodeon explores an era in which “patent wars” pitted thugs against filmmakers who were using proprietary motion picture cameras without paying royalties. Harrigan inadvertently provides Cobb with a story idea, so Cobb hires him as a screenwriter and sends him west to provide scripts for Cobb’s California productions. Along the way Leo meets and becomes infatuated with Kathleen Cooke (Jane Hitchcock), a young ingénue. A love triangle develops when Kathleen finds herself attracted to Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds), who is hired by Leo to be his leading man. Others in the film company include the cameraman, Frank Frank (John Ritter), and Marty Reeves (Stella Stevens), a slightly aging leading lady who finds herself being supplanted by Kathleen. Also helping out is a spunky teenager, Alice (Tatum O’Neal, one of the best child actors in the history of American film).
Nickelodeon is something of a mixed bag. Bogdanovich wanted Jeff Bridges and John Ritter of play the roles which were given to Reynolds and O’Neal, and the role of Kathleen had been written with Cybill Shepherd in mind. However, the studio had concluded that Shepherd had become box office poison and insisted that recognized stars play the male leads. Shepherd then recommended that Bogdanovich use Hitchcock, who was a successful New York model with no film experience. Hitchcock actually does a reasonably good job playing the naïve Kathleen, although her limited acting range is evident. O’Neal and Reynolds were in fact a bit old for their parts, but they acquit themselves well. Stevens turns in an appealing performance and Tatum O’Neal is excellent as she more or less reprises her Academy Award-winning role in Paper Moon.
The real eye-opener here is the Director’s Cut, which restores several minutes of footage and is shown in glorious black & white. Bogdanovich explains that he always wanted to make the film in black & white, but the studio insisted that it be shot in color. In fact, the director’s instincts were correct. In color, Nickelodeon comes across as contrived and artificial. In black & white, the viewer really gets the impression of being in the silent movie era. The restored footage includes one essential scene in which Leo has a romantic rendezvous with Marty in her room. The scene was cut because it makes Leo come across as a rat (Marty and Frank had been lovers for some time), but it is an establishing scene for Marty’s actions when the company arrives in Hollywood. Also included is an unnecessary pie fight scene which adds nothing to narrative but which Bogdanovich likes. Finally, the scene of the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation includes additional footage from that controversial silent classic and a shot in which Buck surprisingly sheds a tear.
The result is an uneven combination of comedy, drama and slapstick. The reviews were mixed and Bogdanovich says that Nickelodeon barely turned a profit at the box office. However, on the whole it is an enjoyable if flawed look at the early years of the motion picture business. Whatever his faults as a director, Peter Bogdanovich is an unabashed lover of films, and that love shows through here.
Both versions of Nickelodeon look fine. The transfers are sharp and devoid of any noticeable flaws. The colors on the theatrical cut are somewhat muted, as was typical of films of that era, but they are accurate and are rendered without any bleeding or other anomalies. The black & white version is superb. Using the latest technical advances to convert the film to black & white, Sony has produced inky blacks with strong contrasts and excellent shadow detail. I would be interesting in hearing from Robert Harris on this, but if I had not known better I would never have guessed that this version was converted from color. On the commentary track Bogdanovich raves about how good the black & white version looks. Framing appears to be accurate and the grain structure on both versions is appropriately film-like.
I do not have the 1999 DVD of The Last Picture Show available to make a direct comparison, but others have noted that this transfer is a distinct improvement. I saw what appeared to be a slight amount of dirt on a few frames during the opening credits, but otherwise this transfer is terrific. The cinematography by Robert Surtees is absolutely first-rate and does a wonderful job of evoking the place and era. The film’s authenticity is enhanced by the fact that it was shot on location in Archer City, Texas, the town which was the inspiration for Larry McMurtry’s novel. This transfer displays solid blacks, crisp images and an appropriate level of film grain. Short of a possible Blu-ray release, this likely is a good as The Last Picture Show will ever look.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks offer nothing which will tax your sound system, but the mono sound is clear, intelligible, and devoid of annoying hiss and distortion. For both films Bogdanovich relied upon period music, and all of the tunes sound very, very good.
Peter Bogdanovich supplies commentaries for the The Last Picture Show and the Director’s Cut of Nickelodeon. He has a tendency to repeat himself (I lost count of how many times he complains about having to compromise on the production of Nickelodeon), but he also provides some interesting insights. The scene in The Last Picture Show which immediately precedes the Abilene-Jacy poolroom scene is a case in point. When Abilene comes to Jacy’s home and discovers that her mother is not home, the shots or Clu Gulager and Cybill Shepherd were filmed separately because Shepherd did not like Gulager. The gut-wrenching scene at the end involving Timothy Bottoms was filmed without rehearsal because Bogdanovich wanted it to look as spontaneous as possible, and Bottoms nailed it on the first take.
Also included is a fascinating documentary, “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back.” Most members of the principal cast appear and recount their experiences while making the film. Cybill Shepherd candidly describes how it was not until the last minute that she agreed to do two nude scenes. Cloris Leachman talks about how nervous she and Timothy Bottoms were when it came time to film their bedroom scene. Ellen Burstyn recalls how she received the most important acting lesson of her life while taking direction from Bogdanovich. The documentary closes with Bogdanovich recalling a discussion he had with Orson Welles about Greta Garbo. Bogdanovich remarked that it was too bad that over the course of her career she only made two really good films. Welles though about that for a minute and said "Well, you only need one."
Another extra is a new 13-minute interview with the director. He talks about his background, his style of making films, and his approach to film reviews.
A six-minute promotional short for the theatrical re-release of The Last Picture Show includes footage of a very young Peter Bogdanovich. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is shown in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The trailer is in excellent shape.
One thing that continues to be an annoyance is when Director’s Cuts are issued without any guidance as to where the changes have been made. Unless you are intimately familiar with the theatrical releases of these films, you will have to listen to the commentaries (or read my review!) to learn where the restored footage has been inserted.
This is a two-disc set, with each film (and its extras) appearing on its own disc. Both discs are secured in a DVD keepcase.
The Final Analysis
I have no idea if Sony plans to release these films on Blu-ray, but for now these are the definitive versions of these films. At a street price of $20 or so, owners of the 1999 DVD of The Last Picture Show may want to double dip for the improved picture quality, plus the opportunity to see Nickelodeon.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA-2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: Available Now (April 21, 2009)