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Cloris Leachman won her first and only Academy Award for playing Ruth in The Last Picture Show. But she might not have won it had her co-star made a different decision.
Before she was cast, director Peter Bogdanovich was very impressed with Ellen Burstyn and gave her the option to choose which female part she wanted – Genevieve (played by Eileen Brennan), Ruth (played by Leachman) or Lois (the part she chose).
Recalling her choice, Burstyn said, “I was going through a divorce at the time, and I was miserable. I didn’t want to play someone unhappy like Ruth. He told me that Ruth was the 'Academy Award part.' And I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
But Bogdanovich found his Ruth in Cloris Leachman.
He said, “Cloris came in like a whirlwind, all over the place and scattered and seemed completely wrong for the part. But she gave a great reading.”
Reflecting on the part, Leachman said, “Ruth Popper – don’t you love that name? Doesn’t that tell you who you are immediately? You have to overcome a name like that or live with it or suffer it. If you think about what the kids must have done to her in school with nicknames. I know what they did with my name in real life!”
Leachman enjoyed the part and had fun with her co-stars. A dialect coach taught her how to speak with a Texan accent, and she and Burstyn would continue using it when they were talking to each other off-camera.
Cloris’ big moment in the film comes in her last scene through very dramatic dialogue. Interestingly, the scene was done in one-take.
She said, “I was mad that Peter only let me do that scene once. When it was over, I went, ‘No, Peter, wait, we have to do it again. The first part I didn’t do right.’ He said, ‘Yes, you did. You’re going to win an Academy Award for it.’”
He was right too.
Bogdanovich said, “I knew she couldn’t possibly do it better. She could hardly breathe.”
Jeff Bridges said, “What about Cloris’ last scene? Isn’t it powerful?”
Despite the prediction, it was life as usual for the actress.
“When I came back for the next season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I told them I'd done this film in Texas. And that was the end of that. I didn’t even think about it. Until I got a call that I’d been nominated for an Oscar,” Leachman said with a laugh.
“The only thing I was thinking when they called my name was: They got it wrong.”