Blog Directory CineVerse: We're over the moon about this 50-year-old classic

We're over the moon about this 50-year-old classic

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Paper Moon, released 50 years ago in 1973, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and produced by Frank Marshall and based on the novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown, is admired for being shot on location in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois and for the casting of Ryan O'Neal and his real-life daughter Tatum O'Neal. The film was a critical and commercial success, receiving four Academy Award nominations and winning one. Remembered fondly for its witty screenplay, excellent performances, and nostalgic atmosphere, Paper Moon still resonates five decades later. 

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse film discussion group’s conversation last week about Paper Moon, click here.

What makes Paper Moon a cut above? This is one of the finest performances by a young actor in Hollywood history. Nine years old at the time of filming, Tatum O’Neal won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Addie. She outshines her father, Ryan O’Neil, in nearly every scene they share. The performance is even more impressive when you consider several extended/uninterrupted shots in which Tatum must remain plausibly in character. Likewise, the chemistry between these two is palpable because they are actually father and daughter.

The decision to shoot in black-and-white paid off. Paper Moon reflects the stark, austere landscapes of the time and the downtrodden vibe of the Great Depression thanks in large part to its monochrome canvas. Director Peter Bogdanovich somewhat invokes the look, techniques, and vibe of films made by many of his key influences, including John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Roger Ebert wrote: “The two kinds of Depression-era movies we remember best are the ones that ignored the Depression altogether and the ones like “The Grapes of Wrath” that took it as a subject. Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” somehow manages to make these two approaches into one, so that a genre movie about a con man and a little girl is teamed up with the real poverty and desperation of Kansas and Missouri, circa 1936. You wouldn’t think the two approaches would fit together, somehow, but, they do, and the movie comes off as more honest and affecting than if Bogdanovich had simply paid tribute to older styles…Paper Moon” doesn’t come off, then, as a homage to earlier beloved directors and styles (as Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” did - and his “The Last Picture Show,” to a smaller extent). No, it achieves something quite different: a period piece that uses generic conventions only when they apply, so that we see the Depression through the eyes of characters who are allowed to be individuals. Whatever Addie and Moses do in this movie, we have the feeling it’s because they want to (or have to) and not that the ghost of some 1930s screenwriter is prompting them.”

Bogdanovich also employs a simplistic style in filming and editing Paper Moon, opting to use deep-focus photography, long takes, and crosstalk dialogue. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson wrote: “Bogdanovich finds a classic camera style in Paper Moon, holding many scenes in extended takes, and cutting as infrequently as possible. A car chase is confected to use one single camera position for several screeching turns, for instance. The style sometimes resembles John Ford, particularly at the beginning. Dialogue scenes, like one in an ice cream parlor, use real street backgrounds as if they were rear-projections in a 30s studio film. Many exteriors have classically-composed wide shots showing the terrain and the horizon as might Ford. But scenes do jump across cuts, and there are many more closeups and wide angle shots. Bogdanovich's restrained camera, the lack of color, and the source music he uses for a soundtrack, place us firmly in the dust bowl years without the period oversell of the many imitators of Bonnie and Clyde.”

What’s more, the movie avoids being saccharine, cloying, cutesy, or politically correct. We see Addie smoking, hear her use profanities, and watch her engage in adult games of cat and mouse, revealing a precociousness that results in great comedy. Also, the film isn’t afraid to explore the subtopic of racial subjugation and the diminished societal status of Blacks during the Great Depression.

Paper Moon is organized tidily into three acts. Act I introduces Addie and Moses and establishes their dynamics and personalities. Act II involves Moses being preoccupied with Trixie Delight and Addie befriending Imogene. Act III focuses on the bootlegging scheme subplot and getting Addie home.

One prevailing question viewers may have after the film ends: Would Addie have been better off remaining with her aunt, or does forcing Moses to take her along again feel right? Consider what film critic Emmanuel Levy wrote: “Paper Moon features anarchic philosophy with a twisted view of childhood, one that could be just as harmful as growing up within a suffocating Milieu since both education and domesticity are rejected. Glamorizing deviance and legitimizing Addie’s status as a child-monster, the narrative fails to provide a clue as to how Addie is going to make the inevitable transition from childhood to maturity and womanhood.”

Major themes abound in Paper Moon. One message is “Fake it till you make it.” Moses and Addie must con and grift to get from point A to B and survive in a hardscrabble era. They also sometimes must pretend to be father and daughter, or pretend not to be if he truly is her biological patriarch, to accomplish their goals. Another moral to the story? Appearances are deceiving. Despite Addie’s young age, tomboyish qualities, and dependence on Moze, she’s a crafty and devious yet goodhearted kid who can easily fool grown-ups. Likewise, Moses uses this setup of appearing as Addie’s father to hoodwink marks.

A further takeaway is that familial bonds help us endure life’s hardships. While it is never confirmed that Moses is Addie’s father, he becomes a father figure to her and the pair form a symbiotic relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and loyalty. Interestingly, Addie seems to protect and rescue Moze more than the other way around. Even if Moses doesn’t believe he is her father or admit it, he comes to love and appreciate Addie in unspoken ways, and that feeling is reciprocated – as evidenced by Addie’s giving of the photograph to Moses. If this attachment proves mutually beneficial at a time when nearly everyone around them is suffering.

Similar works that come to mind after screening Paper Moon include:
  • The Grapes of Wrath

  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • A Perfect World
  • Nebraska
  • The Kid
  • Little Miss Marker, a 1934 Shirley Temple film
  • A Simple Twist of Fate
  • The Professional
  • Con artist films like The Sting, The Grifters, Matchstick Men, and The Flim-Flam Man
  • Road movies such as Thelma and Louise, Little Miss Sunshine, and It Happened One Night
Other films by Peter Bogdanovich include:
  • The Last Picture Show
  • What’s Up Doc
  • Targets
  • Mask
  • Runnin’ Down a Dream

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