‘Paper Moon’ – Conning their way through the Depression on Max

Peter Bogdanovich was Hollywood’s golden boy in the early 1970s. His somber, black-and-white, small town drama The Last Picture Show (1971) earned eight Oscar nominations and took home two acting awards and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), his contemporary update of the screwball comedy, was a crowd-pleasing hit. For his next film, he paid tribute to the rural 1930s films of his hero, John Ford.

Paper Moon (1973) stars Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray, a shabbily slick con man who survives the Great Depression by fleecing widows and other bystanders in the rural Midwest for small change. Then he’s saddled with Addie (Ryan’s real life daughter Tatum O’Neal, in her film debut), a stubborn, cigarette-smoking, smart talking orphan who just may be his daughter.

Their journey takes them through the dusty back roads and small towns of Kansas and Missouri where Moses becomes smitten with a brassy showgirl (Madeline Kahn), whose hold on Moses threatens to break up the father-daughter act and prompts Addie into sabotaging the romance. And it ends up in a bootlegging con with a wicked hangover, courtesy of a brutal sheriff played by John Hillerman.

Moses is no con-man with a heart of gold—the only reason he drags Addie along is to collect a fee when he delivers her to relatives in St. Louis—and as a grifter he’s strictly small time. But Addie proves to be a quick study, a born improviser, and a sharp student of human nature. In other words, a better crook than her mentor. Perhaps it’s fitting that the low-key, deadpan performance by the ten-year-old Tatum O’Neal steals the film from her movie star father.

The rich, black and white cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (shot the film on location in Kansas and Missouri) evokes the dust bowl photography of the WPA as well as the Americana films of the 1930s. Just as importantly, Bogdanovich refuses to redeem the clumsy, cocky hustler who isn’t half as smart as he thinks he is. Maybe that’s his charm. On a list of fantasy criminal masterminds, Moses’ tawdry talents and tinny values feel authentic. The mix of hard-times drama and cheeky humor sets off the touching relationship between the two survivors.

Tatum O’Neal won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in her film debut, making her the youngest performer to will an Oscar (she was ten at the time), and the film earned nominations for fellow actor Madeline Kahn, Alvin Sargent’s screenplay adaptation of the novel ‘Addie Pray’ by Joe David Brown, and sound.

Rated PG

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Paper Moon [DVD]

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The DVD feature commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and featurettes.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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