By Cody Climer
Imagine a small American town in the ’50s the way cinema would portray it. What do you see? Perfect storefronts, immaculate house wives going to butcher shops and hair salons. It would probably be in fall with leaves changing in that golden fire way that only happens in New England. The cars shine as they roll slowly down the streets and the sidewalks are bustling with activity. I’m sure there are even church bells ringing. It’s an image of America that has been on the silver screen or television sets for more than 50 years now, one that as a lonely kid in the middle of West Texas in the ‘80s was completely drenched in. I saw it in so many places on TV or in movies and it was antithetical to what I saw when I stepped outside or how I lived. In the real world I was used to empty streets with tumbleweeds, decaying and closed store fronts, all the signs of decline that were missing from popular cinema. I don’t mean to say my childhood was a Dorothea Lange photo–it wasn’t anything that dramatic–but it wasn’t idyllic by any means. I don’t think I was particularly unique in my childhood either. There are many groups that have been excluded from being recognized in movies and television. But, I have found movies that do a much better job of evoking and describing my culture, many of them recently, as I have become more adventurous in watching movies.
Recently I saw two movies that were shocking to me in there diametrically-opposed views of 1950s America, yet both scathing rebukes of its monolithic nature. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is about a widowed housewife in suburban Connecticut who falls in love with the young enigmatic man that cares for her trees. It confronts the 1950s ideals for women’s roles and responsibilities. The other movie is The Last Picture Show (1971), which more closely describes my own childhood. Set in 1952 in a small West Texas oil town, it follows a group of teenagers as they graduate high school and move towards their life after graduation. The Last Picture Show also shows a lonely housewife’s affair—the wife is played by Cloris Leachman, in an Oscar-winning performance–but it’s a bleak story of her love for one of the high school athletes. In All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman’s character Cary is essentially excommunicated from her community when she falls for Rock Hudson’s Ron. The movie portrays the townspeople as little better than the children in Lord of the Flies when they find out about the affair. The Cloris Leachman character’s affair with Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show is treated with a certain inevitability by her peers. For me this is interesting. While in high school there was a rumor of one of the high school teachers having an affair with a football player. In our small town it made few waves other than being a mild piece of gossip.
This is the idyllic town from All That Heaven Allows. Nice, eh? (Frame capture from the film).
What’s the major difference between the New England town in All That Heaven Allows and The Last Picture Show’s bleak Anarene, Texas? It’s less of a difference in geography or population density than economics. Cary’s neighbors, who so disapprove of her relationship with Ron, are prosperous doctors, lawyers and university professors. Cary has lots of money from her deceased husband. Is it really the age difference between her and Ron that the neighbors disapprove of, but the fact that he is a common gardener? In The Last Picture Show, everyone in town is poor except the parents of the Cybill Shepherd character. There’s not as much a gulf between the high school teacher’s wife and the boy she has an affair with. They’re both stuck.
Comparing the ‘50s to the ‘80s to some may be a stretch, but Jane Wyman’s second husband was president in the ‘80s, elected on a platform of bringing back a more wholesome mid-century culture; while Rock Hudson died from the American AIDS epidemic. The two decades have a lot in common. As for The Last Picture Show’s place in all this, it was made 20 years after it was set, in a time when deconstructing the myth of the ‘50s was a common theme in movies. It was based on a script by Texas native Larry McMurtry which I think did an excellent job of capturing the emotional desolation that is woven into the very fabric of West Texas, no matter the decade. West Texas in the 1980s had almost bipolar economics. The oil business builds and crushes empires so swiftly that it can be mind boggling. My dad was laid off several times through the ‘80s because of it. The stable old money wealth shown in All That Heaven Allows is about as far as you can get from that.
Compared with the above scene, Anarene, Texas, shown in The Last Picture Show, may as well be on another planet.
By the end of All That Heaven Allows, the town realizes it doesn’t care as much as they thought if Cary marries Ron, and she goes to seek his forgiveness. In The Last Picture Show, Timothy Bottoms goes to Cloris Leachman to be consoled when tragedy strikes and he realizes there’s no escape from Anarene, Texas. In All That Heaven Allows, Cary is given a pass by the townspeople after being absolved by Ron, and I think this resolution steals some of the film’s biting take on suburban culture. While The Last Picture Show accurately shows the bleak despair of being trapped in society, the film’s conclusion also seems a little oversimplified.
The mid-20th century in America has a strange hold on our culture. Popular culture created an image that describes an incredibly small group and tried to have it fit all of America. We revile and love it all in the same breath, many are ostracized from it but still want to be part of that imperfect, never true mono-culture. It’s taken getting older and wiser to see my place in society, the small privileges I receive, and the walls I run against. Seeing these movies has helped me understand that.