Beyond the Lens
Psychology of The Last Picture Show
By Robert Rees, Contributing Editor
The old ways versus the new ways; the old west versus the "new" west. Certainly no discussion of the modern western would be complete without including today's "Zane Grey"--Larry McMurtry.
Pulitzer Prize-winning McMurtry is considered one of this century's most respected writers; several of his best books have been translated to film, including Lonesome Dove, Hud and The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry's prismatic view of the west doesn't feature simple heroes like Tom Mix or John Wayne, but rather focuses on complex, flawed heroes and anti-heroes alike, who are often coping with changing environments. Psychological themes abound, including alienation, identity crises, and adolescent development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the neo-classic film--The Last Picture Show, made in 1971.
This fine quasi-western starred Jeff Bridges (Duane), Cybil Shepherd (Jacy), and Timothy Bottoms (Sonny). It garnered Oscars for supporting cast members--the late Ben Johnson (Sam) and Cloris Leachman (Ruth).
I hope you'll lean back in your armchair, kick your boots off and indulge us both in a little pop psychology and then some.
The Adolescents' Behavior in The Last Picture Show
The film The Last Picture Show, concerns the behavior and interaction of many adolescents, and is therefore relevant to the study of Psychology--particularly adolescent psychology. The characters that interact, and conflict include: Sonny, Duane, Joe-Bob, Billy, Jacy, Ruth, and Charlene.
A brief summary of the main events occurring in this story is necessary. Sonny had a girlfriend named Charlene. She breaks their romance, after one year. Sonny is seduced by the Coach's wife, Ruth. A blonde girl named Jacy wants to marry a football player named Duane. They have an affair. She drops him, mainly due to her mother's wishes, and takes up with Lester, Bobby Sheen, and finally Sonny. Duane and Sonny fight over Jacy. Sonny and Jacy are married for a few hours, until the police catch them. Joe-Bob, the Preacher's boy, attempts to molest a small child. Billy, a deaf and dumb boy, is introduced to sex with a whore. The other guys had arranged it. By the end of the movie: Billy was run over, and killed; Duane was in the army; Jacy had gone to the big city; and Sonny and Ruth were still involved in their futile affair. This story took place in
Anarene, Texas in 1951. The advertisement for the film said, "Things haven't changed much". Anarene, and towns like it, are "Peyton Place"'s that are self-perpetuating, hard to escape from, and unfortunately reinforcing. The people are bored, have little hope, are lazy, and lonely.
It has been said that, "the main change in adolescence is the addition of the first new drive since childhood--sex." (Crow, 1965). This seems to be the central motivating force for all the citizens of Anarene. The plot revolves about the idea of who is having sex with whom. The adolescents' high drive state, along with the quick changes in society's attitudes, produce insecurity. These two things intensify the adolescent's search for his identity. The people search for gratification, fulfillment, and some for "love."
"In general, the boy or girl who matures sooner physically will mature sooner socially, and emotionally as well, and will evidence interest sooner than does the boy or girl who matures later". (Perez, Cohen 1969). Duane and Sonny were both early maturers. They were urged to grow up faster, as was Jacy. Duane and Sonny, both football players, had the opportunity to pick the girls they wanted. Pretty Jacy could pick the boys she wanted. The early maturers were pushed and reinforced. Society treated them more adult-like, and also expected more from them.
"The early adolescent often makes the assumption, mistakenly, that because he is mature physically, that he is also mature emotionally, socially and intellectually... such a mistaken assumption may result in a confusion in self-expectations". (Perez, Cohen 1969). Duane and Sonny were disillusioned with girls, particularly Jacy. Each thought that she loved him, only. Jacy was disillusioned with boys, particularly Duane, and Bobby Sheen. She loved each and wanted to marry him.
"The late maturer may have feelings of inferiority, isolation, rejection, and a sense of being different. The nicknames attached to him, by his peers, often portray his plight. Because this adolescent still has the physical characteristics of his youth, he may still conceive of himself as a child and play with younger children". (Kuhlen, 1952). Joe-Bob, obviously a late maturer, was not mature socially, and didn't get along well with people of his own age. He was picked on, and made fun of. He was called a "damn goose" by his Coach. His emotional level of maturity was lower than normal. This was noticed in his anxious sexual behavior with Mrs. Clarke's daughter. He had attained only an infantile level of sexual expression. He felt safe only with an infant. He was not interested in sexual relations per se, just curious. Unfortunately, self-expectancy, self-fulfilling prophecy, and a system of stereotypes works to shape and reward this type of behavior.
Society sees the signs of physical change in the adolescent as criteria for changing their expectation about him. They view physical maturity as an indication that the adolescent is now able to take on more responsibility, to acquire greater emotional growth, and to improve his social awareness.
The concept of one's body is central to his self-concept. Social feedback forms the self-concept. Sheldon stated, "Variations in physical energy, in bodily effectiveness for assertive or dominating behavior, and in bodily sensitivity appear as important mediating links between physique structure and general behavior." (McCandless, 1970). Walker, Brodsky, Parnell, Staffieri, Washburn, and Hasaan have generally found Sheldon's stereotyping to be correct. The three main divisions of body build include: Endomorphy--short and fat people, Ectomorphy--tall and thin people, Mesomorphy--medium-sized, and muscular. Particularly in our society, early maturing mesomorphs are considered the ideal. They have opportunities open to them that others do not. Sonny, Duane, Bobby Sheen, and Jacy were mesomorphs. The mesomorph is considered to be a good athlete, independent, popular, wanted as a friend, a soldier type, aggressive and self-sufficient. Sheldon predicts that mesomorph girls are steered to social behavior, mesomorph boys to athletics. The theory fits the characters. The endomorph, Charlene in The Last Picture Show, is fat, least aggressive, selfish, can't lead, unwanted as a friend, and poor in athletics. The ectomorph, and often the endomorph, doesn't have the chance to get involved in social sexual behavior, that the mesomorph has. The ectomorph, Joe-Bob, is vulnerable, nervous, introverted, passive, and in need of friends.
"Unless a person can like himself securely, he is bound to feel uncertain of others' liking himů the greatest task in growing up is to weather time and changes while maintaining an inner sense of being worthy and worthwhile." (Baruch, 1953). All the characters in this story sought to find their identities, and boost their self-esteems. Sonny, Duane, and the other guys first attempted this by trying to win football games, which they lost. Failing here, and in school, they used compensation, in that they tried to "make-it" with the girls. Joe-Bob, afraid of girls his own age, instead undresses a small girl. Jacy, Ruth, and Charlene try to prove themselves sexually competent, and obtain money, security and if possible honesty.
Perhaps another reason for the identity crisis, and alienated feelings of the adolescents in this film is due to the fact that few opportunities, legitimate or otherwise, for "advancement" exist in Anarene. Durkheim, Cloward, Ohlin, and Morton feel that if a community doesn't provide its members with legitimate means of reaching goals they are taught to strive for--they are likely to become alienated. (McCandless, 1970). The result of alienation is deviant and/or delinquent behavior. Joe-Bob's behavior was deviant. The gang of guys that got Billy involved with a whore were delinquent. They might also be considered disadvantaged youth--culturally not economically. They were aggressive, anxious, bored, frustrated, and looking for kicks. It is questionable that the society (parents) of Anarene's adolescents filled their children with much desire for any goals. The adolescents had poor models to follow--their parents. They weren't encouraged to strive; and weren't motivated even by the school.
Apparently the schools in Anarene failed both in maintenance-actualization and training-acculturation. Some feel that school success is determined more by home and community than by the school. The schools overstress discipline and control, and bore the students. They stifle creativity. Relevant curriculum, good programming, and a democratic atmosphere seem to be most productive. The church had no apparent force at all on the people of this little town. Vocationally few occupations were open in the town. Sonny was the only adolescent who worked. He was a delivery boy. He inherited the pool hall, but did nothing with it. Sam the Lion had owned and run the town. When he died, he left Sonny the pool hail. That when Sam died, his dying town took its last breath. Farming seemed to be the major occupation in the town. Little incentive or motivation was given to the young people to change. The "town" encouraged people and standards to stay the same. The society rewarded and enforced whit it liked, and destroyed or punished what it did not.
"A good index of social and emotional adjustment is the adolescent's status with his reference group". (Adams, 1968). "Inside the secure peer group, the adolescent tries out differing self roles...the role of the playboy, athlete... Inside this group, the adolescent starts to act out his concept of adult behavior." (Blos, l941). Duane and Sonny were attempting the playboy-athlete images, but were losing at each. Unfortunately, the adolescents weren't acting out their perceptions of adult behavior, but imitating it as it really existed in Anarene. The peer group becomes a source for standards, when standards are confusing. Parents say one thing; the peer group another. Quite often an individual would not choose the behavioral reaction to an incident that the group would choose. If he were alone, he might respond differently. People often go along with the crowd because they are confused, have weak self-controls, and are afraid of being alienated or ostracized. Sonny would not have subjected Billy to the 'lay' arranged with the whore, as he felt sorry for Billy and was kind to him. However, when the power of the collective peer group came into play, along with the "booze", no place to go, nothing else to do--the situation just happened. Although the peer group guys talked a lot about sex, only some had really experienced it. Through watching Billy with the whore, the group could identify with him if he succeeded. But, as they expected, he didn't, so they jeered at him and the whore. The peer group had fears and anxieties about sex, and failing in it. By using Billy as a scapegoat, they could laugh at someone 'lower" than they.
Adolescents need social interaction. They like the people on whom they model. "The model reinforces positively one's imitation. The modeler often reaps the same rewards for himself as did the model." (Cole, 1967). These are reasons enough to see why the confused, anxiety-ridden adolescents followed the peer group ideals, and their parents' too.
The only youngster, who it could be said directly modeled her parents, was Jacy. She followed her mother's own values (her broken dreams) for money. Jacy's swim party behavior at Bobby Sheen's parallels her mother's loose behavior with men at the Christmas party that same night. (Jacy had seen her mother there.) Sam the Lion had had an affair once with Jacy's mother. Sam told Sonny, "being married is bad 80% of the time". Sam gave Duane and Sonny money to go to Mexico for "booze", and sex. When Duane couldn't have intercourse with Jacy, she said, "My mother was right. She said you couldn't do it." It could be that Jacy's doubt about Duane, that she go through her mother, was subtlely conveyed to him--so that in fact it was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. Ruth had given Sonny a wallet as a gift. Her values were money-oriented, as she reinforced his to be. The preachers' ineffectiveness, and "out of touch" orientation was obvious when he said to his son (Joe-Bob), "It's o.k. The Lord will help you." His dad said this after Joe-Bob was taken to jail for the molest matter. Jacy deliberately married Sonny. She did this in order to get more attention for herself, even if it was the negative type. Jacy's mother later gave Sonny some liquor. Her mother said to him, "Jacy's bad. Stay away from her." The adults obviously reinforced, shaped, and molded the behavior of the adolescents.
"The adolescent must learn to accept the fact that his parents have limitations." (Taylor, 1955). This fact seems especially hard for Sonny to accept. Though he accepts it intellectually, he can't emotionally. His irresponsible father, an alcoholic, loves his son at a distance. Sonny seems awkward, confused, and somewhat ashamed of his father. Jacy, on the other hand, abandons her shaky values of marrying a hometown boy. She accepts what her mother wants for her. By the story's end, mother and daughter are still unfulfilled bed-hoppers in search of millionaires and love.
"Power is the capacity for rewarding, and the forming of behavior that the imitation shows." (Nelson, 1970). "A person is said to posses power if he has an article, that a potential modeler is afraid of or desires." (Conklin, 1935). "The person who molds himself after a winner, must know that the winner possesses power, and is willing and able to share it." (Ruch, Zimbardo 1971).
Power in The Last Picture Show consists of the following categories: physical, sexual, comfort giving, expertness, and prestige. Duane, Bobby Sheen, and Sonny represented to Ruth and Jacy the physical and sexual powers of real men. It might also be said that the boys represented some sort of expertness, and prestige, because they were football players. Sonny comforted Ruth. She was lonely. She was sex-starved, and cried through most of the film. Jacy, a two-faced hypocrite, seeks a rich expert with prestige. Jacy provides comfort, both physical, and sexual to all those she is involved with.
The characters show more or less, proper sexual identification. The boys are very masculine; and the girls are very feminine--in the traditional stereotyped ways. Sonny is the only character that one can feel has a heart, or conscience. He is basically a nice guy. The rest of the town's inhabitants selfishly exploit for their own gain. Perhaps because Sonny is more nurturant, and emotionally expressive; it might be said that is somewhat feminine and cross-sex identified. This is only possible if one limits himself to strict unwavering definitions of masculinity, and femininity (i.e., Men are silent and tough; women are passive and emotional). While Sonny apparently is not maladjusted, Joe-Bob definitely is. He molested, in a manner of speaking, Mrs. Clarke's daughter. He seems to have some serious "hang-ups", both sexually and morally.
"Following one's conscience and ideals is considered the highest level of moral development". (McCandless, 1970). The people of Anarene seem to have rather "low" aspirations and/or ideals. Again, the only character showing trust, and concern in the story is Sonny. He shows more progress toward high moral development than the other characters. It should be remembered that this evaluation is in comparison with the other people of Anarene. Sonny truly loves Jacy. When she jilts him, he returns to Ruth. He comforts her. Sonny remains friends with Duane--even after Duane beat him up so badly that he ended up in a hospital. Sonny nearly lost an eye in the fight, but he "turns the other cheek". Sonny shows interest in Billy--the mute. When Billy is run over, it is Sonny who carries away his limp body, and puts his jacket over him. Sonny cried during this scene. One of the none-perceptive adults said, sure got a lot of strange kids around here, when he saw Sonny cry. Sonny has grown up somewhat, and has developed a sense of values. As for the other characters--they show no improvement at the story's end, and seem bent on a way of life that parallels their apathetic, weak, boring parents.
In summary, I enjoyed The Last Picture Show. It was very interesting to me. I liked to find out the possible motivations, and reasons for the adolescents' interactions, conflicts, reactions, and general behavior. It is very valuable to try to understand ourselves, and others in order to live more effectively.
Adams, James P. Understanding Adolescence, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1968.
Earuch, Dorothy W. How to Live with Your Teenager. New York: McGray-Hill, 1953.
Blos, Peter. The Adolescent Personality. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1941.
Cole, Luella. Psychology of Adolescence. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1967.
Conklin, Edward S. Principles of Adolescent Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1935.
Crow, Lester D. and Crow, Alice. Adolescent Development and Adjustment. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.
Kuhlen, Raymond G. The Psychology of Adolescent Development. New York: Harper and Row, 1952.
McCandless, Booted R. Adolescents--Behavior and Development. Illinois: Dryden Press, 1970.
McCary, James Leslie. Human Sexuality. New York: Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1967.
Nelson, Jack L. Teen-Agers and Sex---Revolution or Reaction? New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Perez, Joseph F., and Cohen, Alvin I. Mom and Are Me. California: Brooks/Cole, 1969.
Ruch, Floyd L., & Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. Illinois: Scott, Foreman and Company, 1971.
Taylor, Gerald J. Adolescent Freedom and Responsibility. New York: Exposition Press, 1965.
Comments? You can email Mr. Rees at
mysterease@Lconn.com, Katy, Texas USA. Also visit his web site at web.Lconn.com/mysterease
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