Cloris Leachman won an Academy Award on her first and only nomination to date for her performance as Ruth Popper in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. Set in a small Texas town, the film explores the lives of the town's numerous residents and goes out of its way to attempt and portray them in as realistic way possible. Cloris Leachman plays Ruth Popper, the depressed wife of the town's football coach who finds herself falling into a relationship with one of her husband's players, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms). Of the two nominated ladies, this performance is definitely the more baity role, and it gave Cloris a chance to really show off her range as an actress. Her role is also very sympathetic and has become something of a symbol for the movie and when I think of Cloris or The Last Picture Show, her final scene immediately comes to mind.
All that being said....I wasn't as crazy about this performance as many, many other seem to be and I really am not completely sure why. I have my suspicions that it is the beginning of the performance, along with Timothy Bottoms as a limp costar that makes me more skeptical about this one. Timothy Bottoms being an absolutely drag to watch and sucking the life out of nearly every scene he's in is not really Cloris's fault, but I thought the chemistry they had was just really, really awkward. Cloris never got to act next to Ellen Burstyn or Jeff Bridges or even Cybill Shepherd which was a shame. When we first meet Ruth Popper she might as well have been a zombie, and Cloris played her a little too robotic to start at the beginning. Her approach worked in getting across that this woman was not very happy in her marriage and is shut off from the rest of society, but didn't succeed in making an emotional connection. A majority of the exchanges in the film that were meant to make you feel for Ruth Popper just left me slightly uncomfortable and annoyed with her.
The performance improves vastly once Ruth and Sonny's encounters become a common thing, and the Cloris Leachman persona we are all more familiar with is allowed to peak its head out. Cloris seems more relaxed and lays on her typical charm while remaining in character and I finally felt some sort of emotional and empathetic connection with Ruth Popper. So far I feel I've been quite critical on Cloris, but I'd like to say that she does give a good performance but just not one that I warmed up to. All of her acting choices are solid if unspectacular, and I do think by the end of the film she salvages some of her early mistakes into that final explosive scene where Sonny returns to Ruth after leaving her for Cybill Shepherd. It's easily the best scene in the entire film as the emotions that Ruth has built up explode into a rampage on Sonny. It's the only truly startling and phenomenal part of Cloris's performance. I just feel like Cloris is making all the right moves but they just don't come together they way they should.
Ultimately, I feel like I have to apologize for not liking this performance because it is one that every else seems to infatuated with. She's saddled with an awful costar and turns out a technically adept but not emotionally rich performance. It's impossible not to love Cloris Leachman, but I don't think her dramatic gifts are nearly as good as her comedic ones. Her Oscar win for The Last Picture Show isn't the worst, but isn't where I would have gone this year. 3/5 Thelmas.