Sunday, April 17, 2016

Cloris Leachman - Becoming Ruth Popper In The Last Picture Show (1971)

Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show (1971)
Director Peter Bogdanovich
In the decade of the 1970’s, American cinema culture was experiencing a trend of films catering to the younger generation with films such as The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever.  Gritty crime films with elements of film noir such as The Godfather I and II, The French Connection and Serpico were enjoyed in theaters throughout the country.  Full splashy color became the norm and big-name studios demanded it.  Blockbuster had its beginning in 1975 and was another money-making distribution option.  

But there were still a few directors who set their talent on the traditional black and white celluloid for their storytelling efforts.  Such is the case of Peter Bogdanovich with his film The Last Picture Show, released in 1971.  At the time, his decision to film the script in black and white was considered a big commercial risk, but his artistic instinct stood ground and that was what gave the film its monochrome richness and a more compelling intention with the period.  It’s such a beautiful form and the cinematography by Robert L. Surtees gave the film the luminance of the classics that can only be captured in black and white.

Faces in the film are bright, beautiful and dewy just as they should be.  Nothing could take away from the actor-driven drama of the coming of age bittersweet picture.  There are so many strong characters, yet one of my favorites in which a female lead shines is that of Ruth Popper.    

In The Last Picture Show, Ruth Popper greets Sunny at the door, “Hello Sunny, what you want?”  The scene opened with the immediate introduction of the young high school student Sunny, and the wife of the high school coach Ruth Popper, played by Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms, respectively.  The coach had asked Sunny to drive his wife to the doctor’s office, which she frequented often due to her “depression”.  The underlying yet unspoken background to the story of Ruth is that the coach was not affectionate with his wife and preferred the company of the star athletes of the football team.  Undoubtedly, the sad circumstance left Ruth in a loveless, dark and icy marriage.  

There’s an overwhelming power to the script and the deep-rooted story of The Last Picture Show.  There was an air of nostalgia and critical acclaim for the film that marked a brilliant portrayal of a small West Texas dusty town called Anarene.  The period is set in the 1950’s with original music playing in the background by country stars such as Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Phil Harris, Bob Williams And His Texas Playboys, and Lee Morris with his romantic song Blue Velvet, among others.  Hard gushes of wind blow thru the street into the pool hall and thus we’re transported to the stark, black and white scenes of the pain and boredom of the little town that is slowly dying economically and culturally.  

In a way, the blues ballad by Hank Williams, ‘Cold Cold Heart’ that carried scenes in the film mirrors the overall sentiment of Anarene society: A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart, why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart? 

It’s close to Christmastime and the cold wind is only one of the intricately woven elements to the multi faceted-film.  When Sonny drives Mrs. Popper back home from the doctor’s office, he asks her if it’s anything serious, to which she drearily reveals a small sentiment to Sunny of her deep, unspoken depression.   She’s tormented in a sexually abandoned relationship with a man that does not care for her.  It’s at that moment that Ruth discovers she can find solace and comfort in the company of the sad-eyed, seventeen-year-old Sunny. 

Sunny presumably has a home to go to, although distant from his father but his life centers around his old pick-up truck.  After breaking up with his girlfriend, he finds comfort in the fond way Ruth treats him.  In return, Ruth desperately needed someone to talk to and appreciated Sunny’s friendship.  Anyone would have sufficed, even if that meant a dimwitted teenager. 

Ruth Popper is slow and shy and she suffers a long line of marital cruelties.  Before the morning is over, she unveils a tear-filled nervous breakdown in front of Sunny.  Sunny reacts emphatically and his tenderness is appreciated by the lonely and emotionally impoverished Ruth.  From then on, they begin a series of afternoon appointments that complicate Ruth’s sadness and hunger for attention.

In the circumstances of the story, Ruth wants the friendship with Sunny to be healthy, after all, she’s much older than him, but she gives in to his arresting charm while she’s searching for acceptance and understanding of her loneliness. 

Ruth showers Sunny with affection that’s both motherly and at the same time romantic and sexually charged.  Nothing this imbalanced can stand a chance, not in a small town like Anarene where they became the subject of daily gossip.  It was doomed right from the beginning.  

Cloris Leachman & Timothy Bottoms in
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Cloris Leachman’s vital portrayal of Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show is delicately balanced and it opened individual intimate secrets of a small town that are often not talked about.  Everybody knows about them, they gossip about them behind closed doors, at the church suppers or tea gatherings, but no one takes out their dirty laundry to the rest of the world.  Small towns are like that. 

Most of Ruth’s life is lived in her bleak home but things change when Sunny is invited into the bedroom where she transforms into a lovely, elegant woman that can smile for fleeting moments.  At least during Sunny’s visits, she forgets her loneliness and her beauty is full of sunshine.  

Inevitably, what’s doomed is doomed and when Sunny does finally abandon Ruth, she returns to her dark depression dressing in clothes that could be described as mourning dresses.  Sunny leaves Ruth for Jayce, a girl his age played by Cybill Shepherd.  Sunny is just a kid, and when Jayce came along, he behaved as he should.  

Sunny was conned by Jayce into marrying him.  They eloped after she convinced him, but he didn’t understand that Jayce only wanted to be in center stage and to be the subject of the talk of the town.  While driving to Oklahoma, they were stopped by a trooper and returned to Texas.  Thus his marriage to Jayce ended.  A few days later, his friend Billy, the simple-minded boy Sunny took care of was run over by a truck and died.  

Hurt, shocked and nowhere else to turn to, he drives for a visit to the long-suffering Ruth.  It’s been three months since they’ve seen each other.  Ruth is in her bathrobe and is not prepared to see him.  She’s angry, yet starts preparing a cup of coffee for Sunny.       

Cloris Leachman pulled all the right stops in her role as Ruth Popper in one of the most memorable scenes in the film.  The most pivotal scene takes place in the kitchen and it starts with Ruth’s hand trembling.  You can feel something terrible will happen.  She throws the cup of coffee against the wall, shattering it to pieces followed by the pot that drips dark coffee grounds on the refrigerator resembling thick black tears of disappointment. In her defense, she has a right to turn against him for rejecting and discarding her.  She lashes out at him in a strong, explosive voice:

"What am I doing apologizin' to you? Why am I always apologizin' to you, ya little bastard? Three months I be apologizing to you, without you even bein' here. I haven't done anything wrong - why can't I quit apologizin'? You're the one oughta be sorry. I wouldn't still be in my bathrobe if it hadn't been for you. I'da had my clothes on hours ago. You're the one made me quit carin' if I got dressed or not. I guess just because your friend got killed you want me to forget what you did and make it all right. I'm not sorry for you. Youd've left Billy, too, just like you left me. I bet you left him plenty  nights, whenever Jacy whistled. I wouldn't treat a dog that way. I guess you thought I was so old and ugly you didn't owe me any explanation. You didn't need to be careful of me. There wasn't anythin' I could do about you and her - why should you be careful of me? You didn't love me. Look at me. Can't you even look at me? (Sonny slowly turns and glances at her) Y'see? You shouldn't have come here. I'm around that corner now. You've ruined it and it's lost completely. Just your needing me won't make it come back"

With Sunny’s genuine capacity for love, he’s much more sympathetic to Ruth’s fragile loneliness and in a final friendly reconciliation, he reaches to touch Ruth’s hand that’s resting on the table.  No words are spoken, yet deep pain is suffered by both.  Sunny is grieving his friend Billy and Ruth her loneliness.  Each one needing the human touch.  

Even though Sunny touches Ruth’s hand, it’s a moment that eerily marks the end of their ill-fated friendship setting a distancing effect for the inevitable finish.     

Ruth Popper ends it all while taking Sunny’s hand to her face and saying, “Never you mind, honey, never you mind”.

For director Peter Bogdonavich, this was an extraordinary cinematic achievement.  The film is based on the novel written by Larry McMurtry and each scene was treated carefully so that it captured the alienation, the sense of revolt and the atmosphere of the period.  Long takes with a tracking camera encompass the slowness and emptiness of the town and the characters themselves.    
Cloris Leachman Academy Award (1972)
Best Supporting Actress - The Last Picture Show

“Doesn’t that tell you who you are immediately?  Ruth Popper…  You have to overcome a name like that, or live with it or suffer it if you think about what the kids must have done to her in school… With nicknames, I know what they did with my name in real life.”   “It really is amazing how you become your character, it was hard.”  - Cloris Leachman

The Last Picture Show remains Peter Bogdanovich’s most accessible and most popular film.  Cloris Leachman’s Ruth Popper showed her capacity to carry a scene with strength, naturalness, and bitter beauty.  The Academy of Motion Pictures awarded her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 1972.  This April 30th marks Mrs. Leachman’s ninetieth birthday.  Here’s to Mrs. Leachman and a celebration of her ninety golden years!  

Written By Leticia Alaniz © 2016