Paper Moon (1973)


By Scott Ross

A gorgeous evocation of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray. (Although Brown set his book in the South.) Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off the one-two punch of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, engaged the great cinematographer László Kovács to work magic in black and white. Together they made a serious comedy, one whose imagery bears comparison to the 1930s photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. It concerns Ryan O’Neal’s bunco expert — he cons widows with Bibles engraved in the names of their late husbands — and the precocious orphaned brat (Tatum O’Neal) he’s trying to take to her aunt’s house against her will.

Along the way they encounter such examples of period Americana as a bootlegger and his Sheriff twin (John Hillerman) and an outrageous whore (Madeline Kahn) and her adolescent maid (the astonishing P.J. Johnson). Kahn is so good she lifts the movie into the stratosphere, and the hillside scene in which she pleads with Addie for a brief shot at happiness should have won her the Academy Award. That it went to Tatum, whose performance was coaxed from her by Bogdanovich and patched together by the movie’s editor, Verna Fields, must have driven Kahn mad.

The director’s then-wife, Polly Platt, did the superb production and costume design. The movie’s title was suggested to Bogdanovich by Orson Welles after seeing the film, a nod to the period Arlen-Harburg song (Say it’s only a paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea…) that accompanies the main titles. It also inspired the iconic poser.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


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