Paul Simon wasn’t there (but he should have been) to gently coo the adjusted lyric to his classic song “Still Crazy After All These Years”, as Cybill Shepherd — the femme fatale in question — took her bow on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. The occasion was a sold-out screening of The Last Picture Show, celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern American classic.
No, not director Peter Bogdanovich’s movie — or at least that’s not how it was starting to seem at the Academy that night. No, we were here to revisit another Hollywood classic: the director’s notorious on-set extra-marital affair with his leading lady, carried on under the nose, literally, of his wife and creative collaborator, Polly Platt, who was also the film’s production designer. Hollywood, like the elephant it is, and all protestations to the contrary, never entirely forgets sins a little too close to hearth and home.
The affair ended her and Peter’s marriage, and was the scandal of the day. And now, forty years on, it was almost as if no time had gone by, no water had flowed under the bridge, as cast members pointedly teased and taunted Bogdanovich and Shepherd about their off-screen shenanigans all those years ago. Clearly “The Last Picture Show starring Pete and Cybill” still got the thumbs-down.
The evening had started out as a more conventional anniversary celebration of one of the best American movies the 70s have to offer, with a gorgeous, newly struck print and the presence of cast and crew luminaries, but by the end of the Q&A the only thing anyone (cast and director included) was talking about was how Miss. Shepherd was still getting it done. By getting it done, I mean getting her co-stars all riled up about those far off days of high jinks, and still looking so hot that her director seemed about ready to melt into his younger self (and Cybill) right there and then on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And could we blame him? I mean, Cybill — damn!
Of course we’d all caught the fever from the movie we’d just watched, which portrays the sexual fumblings and tumblings of a 1950s small town citizenry as the last gasp of lives and of a town – of a picture show – that were all essentially over long ago. It’s just that the inhabitants don’t yet fully grasp the fact of their own obsolescence, and keep going through the motions anyway. This is a place where watching movies and getting laid are the only escape from the inexorable, slow-motion death of hope. Maybe we’re not so far from Beverly Hills after all…..
Film companies out on location are like two years of high school crammed into a couple of months. The intensity of the work, the long hours, the isolation and distance away from hearth and home combine with flammable egos and jacked-up emotions to create a unique petri-dish of carnal possibilities. It was probably inevitable that the film’s makers would be drawn into the vortex of lust games they were laboring to capture onscreen. To judge from its effect at the Academy on that night four decades after the shooting, the film hadn’t lost any of its power to combust and discombobulate. By the time the lights came up, the air was heavy with a potent mix of melancholia and yearning for lost innocence, combined with that musty, close aroma you get in a basement where a bunch of teenagers have been heavy petting all night.
How uniquely Hollywood, I thought, as the director and cast members variously ambled, staggered, and stumbled onto the stage. Here they are, our stars of the movies, destined always to be confronted by these giant images of their own eternal youth and erotic angst, alive but also embalmed up there on the silver screen. Yet each day, every day, looking into the mirror — that other silver screen — they must bear witness to their present, mortal, in some cases almost unrecognizable, selves, the fragments and remains of those same immortal images up on the bog screen. Alive, “live”, in the flesh, but now being photographed and filmed again for the Academy archives, they have lived long enough to become archives for the archives.
You go to one of these Academy get-togethers and it’s like finding yourself sitting next to both Dorian Grey and his portrait at the High School reunion dance. What a dilemma. Which one is real? Who do you take out onto the floor for a spin? The young beautiful one with skin like warm silk, who promises to reconnect you with your idealized younger self; or the one sitting in film-noir shadows, his deep eye-wells of experience daring you to dance with him into the dark, and beyond? It’s the kind of situation or dilemma that is compelling, fascinating, a little unsettling, and absolutely one of the reasons why I love living in L.A., because this kind of weirdness is going on all the time. It’s what powers this town: the primal energy derived from protons of illusion gun-barrelling towards nuclei of reality.
The other thing that is clearly going on all the time is Cybill Shepherd, who sweeps down through the audience and onto the stage like she has a story to tell. And boy does she tell it!
Notions of the passing of the years softening her libido, or of her youthful indiscretions being a thing of the past be damned. Cybill looks about ready to pick up right where she left off on that diving-board 40 years ago, awkwardly stripping down to her panties in front of a room of drooling teenagers, then casually flinging her last shred of modesty to the waiting pack of celebrity watchers before plunging into stardom and beyond: the black hole of fickle fandom. And the Academy audience, already plugged-in and jacked-up on its two-hour, black-and-white make-out session, is primed and ready to wave her into home base.
So Cybill marches up onto the stage and sits right next to Peter Bogdanovich — naturally. She gives him that “You know I’m still a gorgeous movie-star, don’t you?” look, straight in the eye: “Go on. I dare you”.
You can feel the tension ripple through the cast — naturally, for this was the woman who destroyed the life of their friend and colleague, remember, with sex. Young sex. Young blonde sex. The room goes quiet. We’re all teenagers back in that swimming-pool, waiting for the blonde in her skivvies to prove she’s the real deal. Is she really going to do it? Is she really going to take it all off?
Lights! Camera! ACTION!