Behind the scenes of 'The Last Picture Show'
Cybill Shepherd and director Peter Bogdanovich open up about their offscreen drama
”It was like a terrible war, one that you can’t stop. It was like a loose train. My marriage broke up right at the same time as my father’s death — in fact, almost the same weekend. Life just kind of takes you away. I felt that, really, from that moment on, life took me away.” — Peter Bogdanovich on the period when he made The Last Picture Show
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. Their modest $1.3 million effort received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Director Bogdanovich, 31, was hailed as the new Orson Welles, and Hollywood moguls started falling all over themselves for the right to fund his every cinematic desire. Similarly, the film’s young actors — Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Randy Quaid — all started their careers off in high gear. But the personal outfalls from those few months of filming went far beyond career advancements. They included the dissolution of a marriage and the simultaneous beginning of a romance that lasted eight long, scandalous years before it too ended.
A lot of tumbleweed has rolled through little Archer City during the two decades since then, but now, in the scorching summer of 1989, most of these same movie folks were back in town to make Texasville (set in 1984 and opening nationally Sept. 28), the sequel to The Last Picture Show (which was set in 1951). Like McMurtry’s characters, the moviemakers have aged and changed, and in many ways the changes in their lives rival the soap-operatic story they had returned to film.
For Bogdanovich and his ex-wife, Polly Platt, especially, the memories evoked by sorrowful and barren Archer City are as relentless as the mosquitoes that infest the sodden 105-degree air. In the midst of production on The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich left Platt, the mother of his two children and the movie’s brilliant production designer. In her place the director took up with his gorgeous 21-year-old leading lady, Cybill Shepherd, probably the most sought-after model of that time. And now, incredibly, the whole cast of that real-life movie drama is together again: the director; the director’s abandoned first wife (not to mention his present wife); their daughter, then a toddler and now a unit photographer for the new film; and the beautiful model- actress, who went on to movie infamy, TV stardom, and two failed marriages of her own. Welcome back to Archer City.
”It was difficult and I hated Cybill,” Polly Platt concedes. ”I was jealous — everything happened while we were shooting.” But the emotional shoot-out that was The Last Picture Show is history for her now: She and Bogdanovich have reconciled as friends, and she is visiting the set because other fences have been mended as well, inside and outside the family. ”Everything changed after Last Picture Show was finished,” her daughter Antonia, 21, says. ”After my parents came back, Peter never lived with us again. Children take it on themselves when things like that happen. So this film means a lot to me and my family. It’s very emotional. My parents haven’t been on the same movie set since Paper Moon.” (Platt continued as Bogdanovich’s production designer through that 1973 film, despite their parting.)
”I’m so happy that Polly came here,” says Timothy Bottoms. ”I was glad to see them talking again. They were so close and Polly was so important to the movie; then their lives broke up. There was a whole lot of pain.”
There would be plenty of pain to go around. Like Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, a few years after his triumph, proceeded to work his way down from the top. After three straight hits in three years — What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon followed Picture Show — he shot himself in the foot, with Shepherd’s help, by making two god-awful movies, Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975). With the honorable 1976 failure Nickelodeon, he hit bottom, at least professionally. Personally, there was still a long way to drop, as he soon found out. In 1978, eight years into their affair, he and Shepherd split up; she went home to Memphis and married a guy who sold car parts, and he went on to a tragic new liaison.
In his publicity heyday, Bogdanovich was fond of telling interviewers how he spotted Cybill’s lovely face on the cover of Glamour and decided he would make her a movie star. By 1978, he was flipping through a different magazine. This time his recruit was 18-year-old aspiring Playmate Dorothy Stratten: He met her at a Playboy mansion party, cast her in his 1981 comedy They All Laughed, and romanced her on the sly during filming. Once again, the director and his young beautiful star moved in together, but this time only briefly: Before the picture was even released, Stratten’s cuckolded husband, Paul Snider, murdered her.
Stricken, Bogdanovich tried to make Stratten a posthumous star — he bought They All Laughed from its producers and went bankrupt trying to distribute it on his own. ”After Dorothy was killed,” he remembers, ”it took a long time to make my life work, because it was such a bramblebush at the time. I was so discombobulated. I was so destroyed, it took me a long time to heal myself.” The crucial part of the healing process was moving Stratten’s teenage sister Louise Beatrice, known as ”L.B.,” into his mansion in 1981. In 1988, at 49, Bogdanovich married the 20-year-old.
This all-in-the-family romance does not strike him as unduly eccentric. ”It’s not that unusual as far as the history of the world that somebody dies and the sister or brother takes the place,” he says earnestly. ”The fact is that it’s not unusual. It works. There’s a whole bunch of books that have been written about it. May-December romances — it’s not unusual.”
Today, on the set of Texasville, the once and present Mrs. Bogdanoviches are members of a new and seemingly happy clan. L.B. casually snuggles with her husband while watching the dailies; she’s too shy to talk about their relationship, but the first Mrs. Bogdanovich is happy to do so. ”She’s kind of otherworldly,” Platt says of L.B. approvingly. ”Even though she’s my children’s contemporary, L.B. has taken on a role that’s sort of maternal.” Her daughter agrees. ”We kind of grew up with her,” says Antonia Bogdanovich. ”We were her family, and she’s really helped bring the family together.”
Not that Platt spent her time after the breakup moping and wringing her hands. The cowriter of Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (best known for 12-year-old Brooke Shields) and an executive producer of Broadcast News and the bitter divorce comedy The War of the Roses, which grossed $85 million, Platt’s recent success stands in sharp contrast to her former husband’s struggles. Bogdanovich, trying to clamber back from his 1985 bankruptcy and the stupefying 1988 flop Illegally Yours, starring Rob Lowe, is on the spot professionally and financially. But his ex-wife says he’s a better man than ever. ”Peter seemed to be a guy who hadn’t really lived his life when he started making pictures,” she explains. ”He never had any real interest in anything except film. Now he’s interested in people.”
To some on the scene, all of these trials play, perhaps not by coincidence, very much like Texasville itself. Says Annie Potts, a newcomer to the cast who plays Bridges’ outrageous wife, the movie is about ”people who come from nothing and then become fabulously wealthy and lose it all, ultimately finding that the only thing that matters is family.”
Cybill Shepherd, after two divorces and three children, has come to the same opinion. Bustling around her vast, posh trailer brewing yoghi tea, she seems many degrees warmer than the icy-bitch roles she played so perfectly in The Last Picture Show and Moonlighting. In fact, according to her costar Cloris Leachman, also back from the original cast, she’s not like those characters at all. “People who think she’s cold don’t realize she’s very nearsighted,” says Leachman. “She doesn’t even know who she’s looking at until they’re very close. First impressions are often deceiving.”
Perhaps, but it seems more likely that Shepherd’s personal odyssey has also occasioned growth and change. There are parallels in her life to the tribulations of her Texasville character. Jacy Farrow is now an actress in her late 40s who returns home after the devastating loss of her child. When 39- year-old Shepherd arrived on the set, her custody arrangement obliged her to send her twins to L.A. to stay with their dad — her second husband, chiropractor Bruce Oppenheim, from whom she filed for divorce last year. Although her separation from the twins will be temporary, she feels aggrieved about it. ”I’ve never been forced in my life to be away from my children like this,” she complains. ”I would never leave little babies. I was still nursing the children when I had to give them up. There’s nothing worse than not being able to be with your children. There’s no reason for this ever. There’s no excuse. Suffice it to say that I would never keep a father from seeing his children.” She adds that this custody dispute exemplifies the theme of Texasville: ”It has to do with men and women trying to cross the gulf that exists between them. Men and women speak different languages. It’s about the Gulf of Misunderstanding.”
Despite the absence of her children, Shepherd is getting a kick out of being an aging actress, both on screen and off. ”I have an affinity for Marilyn Monroe,” she muses, ”because I know what it’s like to be a sex object. People think that there’s nothing inside going on. Now, I’m older and I’ve survived the years that Marilyn did not survive and I find it’s amazing to see how I’m aging.” She sips her tea, then sighs. ”Marilyn had one of the saddest quotes — you know — that last quote about being a ‘thing.’ I don’t want to be a thing,” she drawls softly, reclining gorgeously on the sofa.
The passage of time has been kind to Shepherd in other ways: Texasville is her first working reunion with Bogdanovich since they broke up. And this time the couple who heated up the set in their previous pairings are just two old friends working together. She says of those heady days, ”It was like, ‘Us against the world!”’ and her admiration for Bogdanovich’s talent is as strong as ever. ”He’s very open to suggestions [on the set],” says Shepherd. ”It’s a real pleasure to work with him after all these years. He’s definitely one of the best. He’s underrated — he’s made some great movies.”
Back on the set, dust devils swirl across a sprawling lawn as Bogdanovich sets up a shot of the mansion of Jeff Bridges’ character, a jock-turned-millionaire oilman. The 36 crew people scurry around arranging equipment; Bridges and Shepherd fidget, hiding from the sun under umbrellas attached to their director’s chairs but unable to escape the suffocating humidity. Shepherd inspects her script. Bridges uncomfortably endures a makeup touch-up; he looks like Huck Finn forced to undergo a haircut for some silly grown-up occasion arranged by Aunt Polly. Like Bottoms, his onscreen rival for Shepherd’s affections in Picture Show, Bridges feels he’s come a long way since ’71. ”I think then I wasn’t as sure of myself,” he says. ”I didn’t trust my intuition as much?back then, both of us were green.”
Bottoms, with 20 films behind him, looks back on that period with a veteran’s grin. ”It was a scary time,” he says. ”I was just starting to have relationships with women and all of a sudden I had to get into this bedroom and have sex [on camera] in front of 20 guys. I was so afraid of having an erection that I put on two pairs of underwear, a bathing suit, and a jock strap.”
Bogdanovich surveys the mansion set, oblivious to the chatter and the blistering weather: Unsweaty and unmussed, he doesn’t notice the dust spiraling upward from his cowboy boots as he paces. But he is feeling the heat. His future may depend on how well this movie does at the box office, and if he doesn’t get this shot soon, he’ll lose the light. The scene begins: Shepherd, whose character had twisted Bridges around her little finger in The Last Picture Show, is flirting again — this time displaying the skills of an old-time coquette. Bogdanovich likes what he sees and cries ”Cut!” decisively.
As Shepherd strides back to her chair, she spies Polly Platt heading her way. The two former Bogdanovich lovers embrace fondly and vigorously, openly putting two decades of tension to rest. It is an emotional moment, but Bogdanovich characteristically sees it in terms of his work. ”This echoes a couple of my pictures,” he murmurs. ”They All Laughed has ex-girlfriends getting together. It’s sort of a theme that’s gone through some of my films, the idea of friendship surviving despite impossible adversity.”
Afterwards, there are expressions of relief from several of the women in Peter Bogdanovich’s extended and fission-prone nuclear family. “It was very nice for Polly to be here,” says Shepherd, visibly moved. Antonia, betraying no bitterness toward the woman who took her father away when she was 3 years old, says, ”Just now, I felt like a weight was lifted off me. Everybody’s friends now and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Her mother sounds happiest of all. ”There’s something very healing about this experience,” says Polly Platt. ”To see my daughter working on this film with her father?” She pauses, searching for an image to match her emotion. ”It’s a full circle.”