Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show (1971) - Supporting Actress Sundays

'Tis definitely an oopsie doodle that StinkyLulu's avoided seeing Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show for so long. Always knew 'twas one of "the greatest movies" blahblah, but something just kept it at bay. Perhaps the Texas-ness of it; perhaps the fact that it was shot in black and white; probably because the three leads inspire StinkyLulu with an overwhelming sense of "meh" (though my appreciation of one of the three has definitely grown as years passed). Whatever the reason, 'twas wrong to have so avoided Bogdanovich's opus but, screening it now, seems somehow fortuitous to have waited until I could identify with the "older" char/actors (most of whom were in their later 30s and early 40s when this was filmed). The movie's truly good, quite surprising really, and -- best of best -- 'tis just plump and juicy with fascinating performances of enthralling characters. The "younger" cast is good (even Miss Cybill) and the background cast of non-actors is fascinating. But the "older" cast? Zowie kawowie. And among this "older" cast of char/actors is one that StinkyLulu's just doomed to fall in love with, performed by one of the most versatile troupers of the last fifty years...

approximately 18 minutes and 2 seconds
14 scenes
roughly 14% of film's total running time

Cloris Leachman plays Ruth Popper, the emotionally and sexually abandoned wife of the town's football/basketball coach, a man who "prefers" the company of his young athletic charges.

Leachman's Ruth discovers comfort and distraction in the arms and eyes of a goodhearted seventeen year old, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms, in an almost surreally dimwitted performance that's nonetheless occasionally quite effective). In one another, Ruth and Sonny find a curious match. Each is a sweet, shy soul -- each more accustomed to being rushed past, even in a town as slow-moving and dusty as Anarene, than being really noticed.

The film stages the first real encounter between Ruth and Sonny in the context of Ruth's humiliation, which begins when Ruth's husband does not tell Ruth that he's sending one of his students to take her to a doctor's appointment for some unknown ailment (something "dreary" is all we're told). Her husband's disregard is clearly just another in a long line of casual cruelties suffered in her marriage, but it marks the beginning of a rough morning for Leachman's Ruth. Before the morning's over, Leachman's Ruth has a mini-nervous breakdown in front of Sonny. When he reacts not with scorn or cruelty, but with a misguided attempt at empathy, his tenderness is as a revelation to the emotionally impoverished Ruth.

So begins a tender love affair comprised of clumsy afternoon assignations.

Leachman utilizes her formidable comedic gifts to complicate Ruth's general patheticness. Hers is a performance punctuated with little moments that would be funny if they weren't so sad, including even a touch of slapstick in which Ruth just can't wriggle sexily out of her slip. It's a hilarious bit that, in Leachman's execution, becomes frighteningly poignant.

Leachman also handles Ruth's blossoming with sophisticated ease. Before our eyes, Ruth escapes the catatonic caul of depression, returning to life and beauty with a giddy thrill.

The love Leachman's Ruth showers on Sonny is a clumsy concoction: equal parts maternal devotion, schoolgirl crush, and ravenous sexual hunger...clearly a recipe for tragedy. But Leachman maneuvers the swirl with a surprisingly light stroke, never allowing the intensity to become overwrought. By maintaining Ruth's tentative tenderness throughout, Bogdanovich and Leachman remind us that, when -- inevitably -- Sonny does abandon Ruth, he does not do so because she has become too much for him, but because it's just way too easy to forget about Ruth when something or someone more exciting comes along.

And because Leachman's Ruth has never demanded anything of Sonny, because she expects so little for herself, Leachman subtly provides the emotional architecture for her showstopping freakout when Sonny arrives to her door after a three month absence. In this dizzying scene, Leachman's Ruth screams, throws things, spits cruel truths, and makes her first demand on Sonny (Look at me!), relishing the opportunity to kick this dog when he's down.

But when he does look at her, just as she had asked...

Leachman's Ruth finds herself first flummoxed, then compelled to reply to his need...just as he had hers that first day of her doctor's appointment: with the tender touch of empathy.

'Tis no real surprise that Leachman snagged the trophy with this turn. There's a lot of Oscar-bait here: Leachman uglifies; she transforms; she has a big explosive aria; she even gets to have an extended sex scene focused on her face as it registers almost anti-erotic feelings (a bit that, legendarily, helped Jane Fonda to Best Actress the same year). But in Leachman (as opposed to say, Burstyn or Brennan) her comedienne's gifts of levity and precision elevated what could easily have lapsed into maudlin sloppiness or manic shrillness. It's subtly brilliant work, an accident of casting that really delivered...


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Never latched onto any humor in Leachman's work here, possibly because the "doom" factor in Ruth and Sonny's relationship you refer to is apparent from their first kiss.

But maybe only for the film's duration. In the sequel, Texasville, Ruth is portrayed as a strong survivor who still watches over the forlorn Sonny as she enters her twilight years, very sound of mind and body (I remember Ruth jogging around town in that picture, the sweetest memory I retain from Bogdanovich's intermittently compelling 1990 followup to his masterpiece). I loved that things appeared to turn out okay for Ruth as she moved on with her life, while she also maintained her emotional connection with Sonny.

Certainly Leachman's work is excellent, but Ellen Burstyn's foxy, wry, yet vunerable performance as the no-nonsense Lois is my favorite femme work in this Show, and there's plenty of humor to be found when seen-it-all Lois is around (I'll never get over the way Burstyn replies to a challenge from a jealous wife with a cheerful, direct "Well, why don't you just kiss my ass?" after the sexy Lois has been caught flirting with the woman's hunky husband). Leachman, Brennan and, yes, Ms. Shepherd (she makes you like Jacy, managing to keep a suggestion of innocence in her performance even when the nubile Jacy starts being a bitch and driving her boyfriends crazy) are not too far behind Burstyn, though, each making solid contributions to one of the best ensembles found in a 70's movie.

StinkyLulu said...

To clarify: I didn't find Leachman funny (though if you were to take the slip scene entirely out of context, you might garner some laughs). The point I was trying to make is that Leachman's comedic abilities are visible in how she keeps Ruth from becoming a spinning vortex of gloom. SOMEHOW Leachman retains a light touch in crafting the film's most despairing character, and I suspect it's because -- as a comedian -- she understands the importance of precision and broad physicality.

I love the character of Ruth Popper, so I love Leachman for doing her well...

I don't entirely share your thrill at Burstyn's Lois, though. But that's for another (sun)day.

StinkyLulu said...

Oh! The other thing about Leachman/Ruth/Humor: I admire how Leachman plays her one joke (the line about her husband and his deer rifle). She manages to tell it badly, but still make it sorta funny. And just as it takes a skilled singer to sing badly on purpose, I consider it a similar skill when it comes to jokes.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Dear Stinkylu,

To clarify a bit myself, I understood the gist of your take on Leachman’s work as Ruth, and that you weren’t claiming she was aiming for laughs ala what she pulled off in something like Young Frankenstein but, rather, at times the actress was managing to infuse the character of Ruth with a touch of comic sensibility. I just don’t find much in the way of even a suggestion of humor/lighter moments/call it what you will in Leachman's performance. Much of my opinion stems from the nature of the role, but I also think the tone of Leachman's playing is deliberately ultra-serious. Nothing wrong with that, as she’s simply being true to the character of Ruth, who is the wallflower counterpoint to Jacy’s life of the party. I’m glad you found some lightness in her work, though, as it certainly is welcome amid all the turmoil the complex character is subjected to (and, again, I loved how Texasville showed Ruth as a well-adjusted lifeforce, casting off the tragic persona she inhabited in Show).

As for Burstyn, I don’t know if I’d characterize my feelings regarding her work as “thrilling” (Lois is too blasé and world-weary to fit that mold) but I certainly am enamoured by her adept performance. Don’t know how she’ll fare in the smackdown, but it’s easy for me to see how, although Leachman won the big one, Burstyn was a factor during the awards season in 1971-72 (Burstyn won New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics prizes).

newland said...

The Last Picture show boasts a handful of great examples of actressing at the edges (Burstyn and Brennan offer greatish performances, while Shepherd is adequate, which is enough for her) but Leachman is the standout here and one of the most deserving oscars ever.

I think her greatest achievements is to make the veiwer conceive what is happening onscreen as not only believable but also highly plausible. Her romance with Timothy Bottoms could have been highly artificial in the wrong hands. Ruth Popper is no Mrs Robinson, after all. But Leachman gives her character a quality that makes you see her through the young boy's eyes, and think of her as the sweet, (even sexy?) woman she is.

rich said...

Her performance was indeed masterful in this movie; never understood why she never garnered the props she so obviously deserved. Though she could do so much more, one of her most treasured qualities was/is an ability to be frail, faulted and real, yet still convey and make eniable a ripe eroticism and passion in her performances. A great soul in a sometimes less than deserving profession.

mary norman said...

I hadn't thought about it, but I definitely agree with you that Leachman's understanding of comedy likely informed her portrayal of Ruth. Comedy and tragedy have much in common, and she made Ruth sympathetic instead of simply pathetic.