Peter Bogdanovich is one of those directors who seems to be constantly in danger of being forgotten even by film buffs. If you look at his Wikipedia page, many of the works that he directed in the last fifteen years or so (since 1985’s Mask) are not well known; you have to go out there and hunt them down. There are really only two films in his body of work that grab you and let you know how great he his, and both were made almost 40 years ago: 1971’s The Last Picture Show and this week’s Movie Klub screening, 1973’s Paper Moon.
Tatum O’Neal became the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress) for playing Addie, a young girl who is attending her mother’s funeral in the opening shot. Also in attendance is a man who goes by the name Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal, Tatum’s real-life father) who bears a striking resemblance to Addie and may or may not be her father. It turns out that Moses is in the con game, change raising and selling faux Bibles to recent widows. Although he doesn’t especially want her around and she doesn’t like him much, it also turns out that Addie is a natural confidence artist, picking up the game from the very beginning.
Tatum O’Neal, who was eight years old at the time she was cast, is just unbelievable. Addie has an internal dialogue going all of the time, where she’s trying to figure out her next con, but it never gets voiced. It can’t get voiced because anyone around her could be the next target, even, in the movie’s best sequence, her own father. So O’Neal has to play “thoughtful” all of the time, which is a difficult enough thing even for adults.
To be honest, though, I feel like some of Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar could go to Bogdanovich. For one thing, he had to have a lot of influence on her acting – child actors can’t make a lot of performance choices on their own – but he also uses a lot of great visual storytelling to sell her internal monologues. In one early con, the camera adopts a child’s point of view to swing from the various expensive items adorning a mark’s house, to the rings on her fingers and the pearls around her neck. Addie then makes a lie designed to get more money out of the mark. That con itself almost becomes a short story, told with only a camera and the single line “twenty-four dollars!”
Bogdanovich is aiming for a very old-time Hollywood feel with a lot of the movie. Ryan O’Neal’s performance is almost out of a 1930s screwball comedy, with the rapid dialogue and the broad emoting. The film is also in black and white like those old comedies were, even though it doesn’t have to be – Bonnie and Clyde had its Depression-era thieves in color just a few years before – and for some time after this movie I was wondering why those choices were made.
Eventually I began to center upon the movie’s title, referring to the cardboard moons that one might have one’s picture taken with at a county fair. The con game is all about paper moons, and Addie and Moses’ relationship is obviously one such paper moon, something to make them look good in the eyes of the marks. However, I think Bogdanovich is using these filmmaking tricks to say that those older movies were themselves a paper moon: almost everything that happens in this movie is meant to undercut those the naive outlook of those old movies.
In a film from that era, Moses would reveal to Addie that he’s her father, the music would swell, they’d pull off the big sting to make them all rich and drive off happily ever after. Without spoiling too much, that’s not quite how it goes. It’s only fair, because Moses is barely bumbling his way through the small-time con and Addie, like most children, has “eyes bigger than her head,” unable to resist the big payday. There’s no way they could ever pull off the sort of big score that most movie con men always get away with and Bogdanovich knows it.
In some ways the ending of this movie is itself a paper moon: it looks happy, but it’s impossible to say that these characters have gained anything real or true. At first I thought that they will never be truly happy, since their relationship is built upon a false front, a paper moon. On the other hand, if they can appreciate their paper moon, aren’t they already happy together? It’s a question I’ll have to ponder much more. That’s how it is with movies this good.
Reviewed by Mark Young