Friday, June 2

Good 70s Films: Paper Moon

1973 Crime Comedy
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Ryan O'Neal
Tatum O'Neal
Madeline Kahn
John Hillerman
P. J. Johnson
Burton Gilliam

Here is a perfect blending of time and place with excellent writing and acting.  And the cinematography isn't too bad either. Who could ask for anything more?

Based on a novel by Joe David Brown and adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent, the film is set in Kansas and Missouri during the Great Depression.  It opens with nine-year old Addie and a handful of others at her mother's graveside funeral.  Who should arrive as it's drawing to a close but Moses Pray?  He's brought some flowers and with them the prospect that he may be Addie's father, which he denies. He is reluctantly talked into seeing to it that she is delivered to her only known relative, a maternal aunt, a state away.  The fun begins.

He has a job of sorts and doesn't need a child tagging along.  He cons a man out of $200 with the notion that it's for Addie (which the sneaky little thing overhears) and then he spends most of it. Then comes one of my favorite scenes.  It's not just because of the fun of it but because it's early on in the proceedings and we need a little something to define these characters.  And boy do we get it. Here, take a minute:

They could be father and daughter because in addition to a suspected similar jawline, both are fairly disagreeable and irascible. His first intention is to put her on a train but then he decides to drive her to Missouri because he sees that she might be helpful to him.  Moze, it turns out, combs the obituaries for men who have recently died so that he may fleece the widows out of the money that he falsely claims their husbands owes for bibles they purchased.

Addie is taking it all in and instead of being grossed out by what he does decides to join in.  It's great fun watching him teach her the ropes although there's no doubt she's a natural, perhaps more of a con artist than he is.  He knows he's got a great thing going having a kid along and she knows how to play it to the hilt.

Their adventures not only consist of the cons but of the people they meet along the way. Chief among them is Miss Trixie Delight, a harem girl at a carnival who comes equipped with great bone structure, she says, a jiggly chest and a teenage black maid, Imogene, who is paid in mere coins.  Moze, a little tired of little girls, rises to the occasion when he meets a big girl like Trixie, who decides to come along on the journey because she plans to sucker Moze into buying her nice things.

Addie takes an instant dislike to Trixie because Miss Bone Structure sucks the air out of everyone with her constant jabbering, her ceaseless need to stop for a tinky-winky and with her insistence in sitting in the front seat next to Moze.  Addie sulks when she's relegated to the back of the convertible with the maid. Ultimately, Addie refuses to budge from a rest area unless the seating arrangement changes.  Aw, let Trixie sit up front with her big tits, she implores.

When they stop at a hotel, the front desk clerk has the obvious hots for Trixie so Addie and Imogene set up a sting, arranging for Trixie and the clerk to not only have a little private relief but to get caught by Moze.  It works to a T and no more Trixie Delight.

Moze and Addie come into their biggest score when they decide to sell a bootlegger some of his own booze which he is unaware they they have stolen from him.  The cops in the hick town are a little more cosmopolitan that Moze reckoned on and he is caught and beaten up.

Addie is soon delivered to her aunt's as Moze bids her farewell but it doesn't work out that way and she is soon seen running down the road after him.  The film ends as it should, leaving one wondering what's next for the two of them?  More cons are likely. The ending also had the distinct feel of a possible sequel but one never came.

Sargent writes a deft screenplay.  Addie doesn't smile much and with good reason... there is nothing to smile about.  The poverty, desperation and hopelessness of the period is painfully felt, with an able assist from Laszlo Kovacs' stark, black and white 
photography. Sargent was quite right in not focusing so much on the con as on the two people committing them.

When the novel was first being considered as a film, John Huston was going to direct Paul Newman and one of his daughters in the lead roles but that all fell through. Bogdanovich came to the project when his production designer wife, Polly Platt, came across it and thought it would be something for both of them to do.  He agreed and immediately thought of Ryan O'Neal as the lead since they had just finished making the comedy What's Up Doc?  It was Platt who apparently suggested Tatum for Addie, interesting especially because she'd never acted before and it would be quite a formidable role for such an untested youngster.

She could barely read at her age much less memorize pages of a script for a scene and then have to master all the shadings necessary to bring the character to life. Bogdanovich and O'Neal both coaxed a performance out of her, using trickery to get to her do or say something than seemed beyond her ken.  There is probably little doubt that ace editor Verna Fields did some fancy stitching to make things look smooth. Tatum was so young and inexperienced that when her father, in character, gets cross with her, she would ruin a take by asking him if he was mad at her. 

Bogdanovich, never the most gracious of moviemakers, said that working with Tatum was one of the most miserable experiences of his life.  He must have recovered quickly, however, because a mere three years later he directed both O'Neals in Nickolodeon.

One thing Tatum most definitely had in common with Addie... and Bogdanoviches certainly knew it... is that both were survivors. At their young ages, Tatum and Addie had been through a lot and were tough little girls.

Both of the O'Neals were at the very top of their game for Paper Moon.  Neither has ever been better... certainly she never has been. She won a supporting Oscar for playing Addie becoming the youngest person to win a competitive one and the record still stands.  Interestingly, she was the second juvenile nominated that year... Linda Blair also got a deserving nod for The Exorcist.

I have never been a big Ryan O'Neal fan but I thought he should have gotten a mention from the Academy as well.  The competition was stiff in the best actor category that year (Brando, Pacino, Redford, Nicholson and the winner, Jack Lemmon) but I had been hoping to see his name among the nominees.  I expect he thought so too.

Madeline Kahn had just worked with O'Neal and Bogdanovich in What's Up Doc? as well. All actors in Paper Moon had bit parts except for the O'Neals but she was delightfully funny.  John Hillerman is properly smarmy in dual roles as the bootlegger and the cop.

Perhaps it bears repeating that I am not terribly fond of comedies... not because I don't enjoy laughing but because I got tired of watching them and not laughing.  But Bogdanovich, Sargent and all the actors, no matter how difficult it may have been, pulled this one off with great panache.

Next posting:
The directors

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