As Twitter tributes rolled in after Cloris Leachman’s death today, she was most remembered for a comedy career which lasted decades, cemented by iconic roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Phyllis” in the 1970s all the way up to last year’s “The Croods: A New Age.” But Leachman’s dramatic performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 masterpiece “The Last Picture Show” not only earned her a supporting actress Oscar, it cemented her as one of the greatest actors of her generation.
The quiet heart of an indelible coming-of-age story, Leachman plays Ruth Popper, a lonely middle-aged housewife who finds solace in an affair with high school senior Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the film’s protagonist. Mining deep sympathy from a character whose actions could earn her deep scorn from her neighbors in the small Texas town of Anarene, Ruth finds an escape from her closeted high school coach husband in Sonny’s arms, until she’s unceremoniously abandoned when he gets attention from his beautiful classmate Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). As the movie unfolds, the romance with Jacy ends, Anarene continues its economic decline, one of Sonny’s friends heads off to war and another is killed in an accident. Distraught, Sonny heads to Ruth’s house once more, and Leachman’s most powerful moments on film light up.
Answering the door, Ruth’s eyes melt with shock at her returned lover, but as she lets Sonny in, she spins to anger.
“I wouldn’t still be in my bathrobe if it hadn’t been for you,” Ruth spits, shadows playing over her features as the camera keeps tight on her face. “I’d have had my clothes on hours ago. You’re the one made me quit caring if I got dressed or not. I guess just because your friend got killed you want me to forget what you did and make it all right.”
But then Leachman turns a third time, empathy all over her face as she realizes Sonny is a child who lacks her emotional intelligence. She’s speechless, searching, until the film’s striking last words: Ruth, rubbing Sonny’s arm maternally, soothing him by saying, “Never you mind, honey, never you mind.”
Leachman’s bravery in embracing the soul of this broken, isolated woman echoes even when she’s not onscreen, a world-weariness that hangs over the whole picture. Her small choices sing: It’s impossible to imagine another actress being able to turn so quickly from a woman fighting for her dignity to a deep empathy so naturally. It’s the performance of a lifetime in a career full of highlights.
Watch the brilliant ending of “The Last Picture Show” below: