Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A nostalgic drama of moderate-to-good quality.
What did I get? A glib simulacrum of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl, Paper Moon is weirdly elusive, all situations and surfaces and sounds, with human motivation and emotion largely sketched in — and yet, fairly affecting for that. For at its core is the roaring need of a neglected child, who, finding herself in a world bereft of love, turns to the grift in order to secure the emotional attention that is every child’s birthright.
Eight years old at the time of filming, Tatum O’Neal dominates the movie, and her Oscar — she was and is the youngest person ever to win an acting Oscar — was richly deserved. Addie’s adult affect is at once highly implausible, thematically appropriate, and enduringly mesmerizing. Tatum O’Neal’s acting is, in all honesty, a stunt that rewards our attention again and again. One might be tempted to say that Addie’s perpetual scowl necessitates little emotional range, but that does not do justice to the movie as a whole, and much of her dialogue is far from elementary. It was a hell of a performance.
Simutaneously a road movie, a con movie, a parent/child movie, and a period movie, Paper Moon is a mite overdetermined. The slenderness of the relationship between recent orphan Addie Loggins and her newfound surrogate pop, conman Moses “Moze” Pray, inevitably results in incoherent motivations for Moze, which is unfortunate but hardly fatal. Bogdanovich favors a stationary camera and tight closeups throughout, which often gives Paper Moon a static feel. With varying success, the movie at times borrows from the patter of vaudeville, parceling out information about as smoothly as an old-timey ticker tape machine.
That John Huston and Paul Newman once considered adapting the same material hints at the wildness and peril that are absent in Paper Moon. As in The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich’s framing and camerawork are immaculate, the details finely observed, and the overall effect bloodless and a wee bit patronizing. Paper Moon exchanges the intellectualized naturalism of Bogdanovich’s first feature for sprightly comedic set pieces, and the inclusion of a vulnerable tomboy leavens the proceedings considerably. By focusing on the duo of Addie and Moze, the movie accrues an emotional heft that The Last Picture Show, for me, lacked.
That emotionalism is curiously oblique; we’re forced to intuit Moze’s reasons for warming to Addie, while the true nature of Addie’s quest for connection is clear enough. It took multiple viewings for me to notice that the seemingly winsome middle section, which takes place in a hotel, is in fact a deadly serious battle between Addie and Moze’s latest fling (hilariously named Miss Trixie Delight), played with poignant zest by the reliably awesome Madeline Kahn. That Addie’s love refrain to Moze is “I want my two hundred dollars” is hardly an accident — concisely capturing the inchoate want underneath Addie’s pretense of ruthlessness; by the end of the movie, the line is an affectionate in-joke between the two.
Alternating between cocksure confidence and scarcely contained frustration, Ryan O’Neal’s Moze is set upon nearly as much as his Howard in What’s Up, Doc?. O’Neal is an odd actor, a very conscious actor — an excellent analogue to Bogdanovich as director, one might say. It must also be said also that the casting of the small roles in Paper Moon is fantastic — the shopkeepers and widows whom Moze and Addie defraud are uniformly perfect.
What here smacks of 1973? The commitment to intelligent stylization.
IMDB score: 8.1
My score: 8
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writer: Alvin Sargent
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, Burton Gilliam, P.J. Johnson, Jessie Lee Fulton, James N. Harrell, Lila Waters, Noble Willingham, Bob Young, Jack Saunders, Jody Wilbur, Liz Ross, Yvonne Harrison, Dorothy Price, Randy Quaid, Burton Gilliam
IMDB synopsis: Adapted from the novel, “Addie Pray” (1971) by Joe David Brown, PAPER MOON is the story of Moses Pray and Addie Loggins. With scenery reminiscent of “The Grapes of Wrath,” the film is set in the depression-era Midwestern region of the United States. As the movie opens, we see a small group of mourners clustered at a graveside. Among the mourners is Addie, the dead woman’s small daughter. Moses Pray — ostensibly of the “Kansas Bible Company” — approaches the group, as the service concludes, and two of the elderly women remark that the child bears some resemblance to him and asks if he might be related. “If ever a child needed kin, it’s now,” one lady says. With no knowledge of who her father is, Addie’s only haven is her Aunt’s home in St. Joseph, Missouri. Having identified himself as a “traveling man spreading the Lord’s gospel in these troubled times,” “Mose” is prevailed upon to deliver the helpless child to her Aunt since he’s going that way, anyway. Addie, wise beyond her years, soon discovers that Mose is little more than a scam artist traveling from town to town delivering unordered Bibles and charging exorbitant prices to recently widowed women whom he identifies through the obituary columns of local papers. Soon, Addie and Mose become a team, traveling from town to town, making money in every dishonest way imaginable, and looking for the ultimate score. The colorful characters they meet along the way make the film all the more interesting. Paramount among these is “Miss Trixie Delight,” an exotic dancer who Mose rescues from a traveling carnival and her minion, Imogene. The film is peppered with “regional” dialog. Perhaps one of the most memorable lines of the movie is uttered when Mose is forced to wrestle a backwoodsman in order to trade his new car for the hillbilly’s battered old truck. “Make him say calf-rope, Leroy!” one of the observers calls out.