Entertainment

I Learned About Sex From the First Row of 'The Last Picture Show'

Thanks a lot, Cloris Leachman!

I saw my first R-rated film when I was 11 years old. I didn't need anyone to sneak me inside—my mother took me.

She was always looking for fun, interesting, cultural activities for us to do. From its title, she surmised that Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show," based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, would be a charming film about the old-time movie industry when films were referred to as "moving pictures."

We set off for the theater with my brother and very close family friends, who had a son and a daughter our ages. Our mothers were always game for new adventures and were often spontaneous about it, which is why going to the movies was a last-minute decision.

One small consequence to this spontaneity was that there were only six seats together by the time we got to the theater and they were in the front row. I quickly wriggled out of my navy plush winter coat and had just about made peace with the uncomfortable necessity of arching my neck when a young actress began taking off her top. Between my mother on one side of me, my 14-year-old brother on the other side and a bare-breasted woman on the screen in front of me, I thought, This is going to be interesting.

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Soon after, a depressed and lonely Cloris Leachman was having sex with an obliging teenage boy played by Timothy Bottoms. It was beyond my comprehension why he and this old woman (she was actually middle-aged) would find each other attractive. The film continued for the next two hours with a series of enlightening rites of passage and moving moments, to say nothing of more sex. I had seen plenty of movies and TV shows filled with sexual innuendo up until then, but it had all pretty much gone right over my head. Now I was facing it head on and my brain was lit up like a pinball machine trying to process it all.

Our school had added sex education to the curriculum a year before and I still remember when our teacher passed around a fetus bobbing up and down, immersed in a jar of formaldehyde. This was supposed to discourage us from "engaging in intercourse." I found it morbidly fascinating, but it was so disconnected from the act of sex, that its intention was totally lost on me. All they really needed to do was show us "The Last Picture Show." That would have deterred any elementary schooler!

I've seen the film a number of times as an adult and agree with its acclaim as one of the greatest movies of all time. It obviously left a lasting impression on me but also begs the question—why didn't my mother find the nearest exit and get us out of there?

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Forty years later, I decided to ask her. As it turned out, she hadn't been as bothered by this cinematic outing as I had. In fact, she barely remembered it and nonchalantly explained that at the time, she figured we didn't understand what was going on in the film anyway. And here I had assumed my mother never mentioned it because she was embarrassed she had taken us to see an R-rated film!

After telling this story to my husband, he told me about the time he and his grandfather went to see the film "Lenny" starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. My husband was a junior in college at the time and remembers squirming in his seat as one expletive and sex scene followed another. He thought maybe they should leave until he glanced at his grandfather and saw that he was asleep. Relieved, he stayed until the end, figuring even if his grandfather woke up, he wouldn't understand what was going on anyway.

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