Why I love Ellen Burstyn’s performance in The Last Picture Show

She inhabits the role of the frustrated housewife in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 drama with apparent effortlessness.


Rafa Sales Ross


From late-night naked pool parties in lavish mansions to extramarital affairs between a housewife and a high-school boy, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 drama The Last Picture Show is certainly not lacking for subversiveness. Though not particularly progressive for the 1970s, the decade in which it was made, the film is certainly progressive for the ’50s, the decade in which it is set.

The setting is smalltown Texas, where days turn to years in the blink of an eye. Here, the kids go from the single-screen cinema to the pool hall to the burger joint in an eternal loop as the adults mostly just hang about; their routines calcified by endless repetition. Trapped in this cycle is Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), wife of a local rich man and mother of Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the town belle. Her position within this intersection of money and beauty grants her the highest status the place can offer, and she milks it for all its worth, parading through shabby shops and soirees with charming indifference.

When evening comes, Lois carefully places a handful of ice cubes in a glass and pours herself a hefty dose of bourbon, snarling at her graceless husband, long passed out on the couch. When the alcohol kicks in, Lois decides to have some fun. She twirls on her feet and makes her way to her daughter’s room. “I thought if you slept with him a few times you might find out there isn’t anything magic about him,” Lois casually tells Jacy when commenting on her low-class beau Duane (Jeff Bridges). The shock on Jacy’s face the closest Lois will get to a thrill that night.

Lois is just as blasé when it comes to the prescribed rules of motherhood as she is about everything else in her unexciting life. Throwing off the shackles of tradition, she chats to her daughter about the contractual rules of relationships and the underwhelming nature of men as if they were old pals; an unconventional approach to alerting Jacy to the perils of navigating the world as a woman. Her candidness harbours no cruelty, however, even though her daughter stands as a reminder of the freedom she has long lost. Lois craves the youthfulness that smoothes out wrinkles but not the one that aids naivety. If she envies Jacy’s beauty, she also pities her guilelessness.

It would be easy for Lois to come across as cartoonish, switching gears between sarcasm and melancholy too abruptly. But Burstyn, whose career began on Broadway almost two decades before The Last Picture Show, bypasses mawkishness entirely, communicating even the most complex of emotions with the simple twist of a lip. From the slight lifting of a hand to the way she pulls her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose, nothing about Burstyn’s performance feels gratuitous. She is in complete command of her character, operating with a dexterity that is precise without seeming calculated.

Burstyn’s presence in the film may be scarce, but it is never scarcely felt. Whenever Jacy gets into mischief, there is Lois – a preamble to trouble. She is, in a way, trouble herself, bickering in bars and openly flirting with other men in a desperate attempt to see herself reflected in others – to be reassured that she does, in fact, still exist. To Lois, flirting is both a shield and a sword, a means of asserting and hiding behind her femininity. It allows her to be confident, intimate, even vulnerable.

“I’ll tell you, Sonny, it’s terrible to only meet one man in your whole life who knows what you’re worth,” Lois tells a teenage boy (Timothy Bottoms) as they sit in an open-topped car late at night after another of Jacy’s misdemeanours. She is remembering her one true love, and Burstyn imbues each word with so much compassion that it envelops them both. At the realisation of having spoken such an intimate truth out loud, she lets out a soft giggle before punctuating the statement with a simple “just terrible”, lowering her eyes for a brief second so as to avoid any mercy Sonny may offer in response. In this fleeting moment, under the bright stars of a not so bright town, Ellen Burstyn sizzles.

Published 22 Oct 2021

Tags: Ellen Burstyn Peter Bogdanovich The Last Picture Show

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