By Scott Ross
Paper Moon is a gorgeous evocation of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the superb Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray. 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 yet which wears it, for the most part, lightly. It concerns Ryan O’Neal’s bunco expert Moses (“Moze”) Pray — he cons widows with Bibles gilt-embossed with their names, allegedly ordered by their late husbands — and the precocious orphan (Tatum O’Neal) he’s trying to take to her aunt’s house against her will and who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter.
Bogdanovich worked with Sargent on restructuring the screenplay, removing it from the Deep South of Brown’s book and essentially only filming the first half. The second, involving an elaborate con intended to fleece a supposedly rich old woman, feels less organic than the first, set as it is in New Orleans rather than small Southern towns and keeping Addie and Moses (called “Long Boy” in the novel) apart for long stretches. It was a smart idea of Bogdanovich’s as well to pay off Moze and Addie’s escape from the law by having the rather sinister Kansas Sheriff (John Hillerman) track them down in Missouri and give Mose a brutal beating — which, fortunately, the filmmakers don’t suffer us to watch.
The Sheriff and his bootlegger twin brother are far from the only examples of period Americana Addie and Moze encounter: There are also the widows on whom they fob off their Bibles (and to whom, in some odd way, they’re doing a sentimental kindness); the friendly shopkeepers and clerks on whom they perpetrate that bit of grift involving making change which, if you’ve ever been its intended victim, as I once was while working as a bookseller, you well remember the sensation of; a pack of strange sibling hillbillies led by Randy Quaid whose rattletrap truck Mose attempts to swap for the snazzy Ford V-8 he knows every lawman in Kansas will soon be on the lookout for; a gullible hotel clerk (Burton Gilliam) who thinks he looks like a matinee idol; and an outrageous cooch dancer-cum-part-time whore called Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and her adolescent maid Imogene (the astonishing P. J. Johnson). Although Johnson, no actress, does very little, she’s such a natural that her every word and gesture seem wonderful, and she’s aided immeasurably by her director’s cutting; her throwaway line about Miss Trixie (“I tried to push her out of a window in Little Rock once”) is even funnier for the abrupt cut that happens just as we’re wondering if we really heard her right.
Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie is so good she lifts the picture into the comedic stratosphere. At the director’s request, Sargent wrote Kahn a beautiful scene on a hillside, funny and unexpectedly touching, in which Trixie pleads with Addie for a brief shot at happiness. Kahn’s genius is evident from the way she segues from disingenuously coaxing Addie (“How’d you like a coloring book? Would you like that? You like Mickey the Mouse?”) to, after tripping and falling, shrieking, “Oh, son of a bitch!” and it was probably that sequence that got her a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination.
She might have won had she not been put in competition, foolishly, with Tatum O’Neal. Since O’Neal is in almost every scene of the picture, and at least as much of it as her father, I don’t know what she can be thought to be supporting, other than the movie as a whole; the novel wasn’t, after all, called Moses Pray. I had somehow misremembered what Bogdanovich and others had said about her performance and had it in my head that it was pulled out of her by her director and patched together by the movie’s editor, Verna Fields. This appears to be far from the case. She had, like Johnson, never acted before, and while certainly Bogdanovich had to work especially delicately with his 8-year old star, she was required to do too much, in too many of his trademark long, unbroken takes, for her performance to have been manufactured. In another of Sargent’s great scenes which have no antecedents in Brown’s novel, she and her father argue for two minutes while driving down a flat Midwestern road, filmed by Bogdanovich without a cut and during which the junior O’Neal must remember not only a complex dialogue sequence but a great deal of business involving a map and a cigar box while remaining in character and fluctuating between angrily sullen and sweetly agreeable. That’s a set of directions even accomplished actors would have difficulty pulling off; for a child her age, and without camera experience, it’s astonishing.
This isn’t the only sequence in which Tatum O’Neal exhibits almost preternatural range, but it’s perhaps the most illustrative. She’s especially endearing when she smiles — which Addie doesn’t, often. And why should she? Raised by a single mother, who is taken from her too soon, she’s saddled with a man who, while he might be her father, is anxious to dump her as quickly as he can, but no so anxious he doesn’t make some fast cash on her first. That two hundred dollars becomes the crux of the action in Paper Moon, as Moze first tries to pay the kid off and then realizes without admitting it aloud that they make a good team. (In Brown’s book, Long Boy is a much shrewder character, sending his money off to a bank account, but this might have made his movie counterpart seem both too slick and too well-heeled.) Tatum O’Neal has some of the quickness and ingenuity that marked Jackie Coogan’s performance in The Kid, and there’s a slight resemblance, especially in Addie’s boyish haircut. (Even her husky voice is one you might expect to come from the mouth of a little boy.) There’s a lovely scene in which she rises from bed, takes her treasure-box into the bathroom and poses in the mirror like her deceased mother that is a small marvel. Yes, Bogdanovich was off-camera, telling her what to do, but there’s doing, and doing well, and that makes all the difference.*
I vividly remember how, in the ’70s and early ’80s, any picture shot in black-and-white was deemed “arty” or “pretentious,” and that Paper Moon was likewise traduced. This is, and was, utter codswallop. You can film anything you like in monochrome. You don’t have to have a specific artistic-symbolic reason. For Bogdanovich, the 1930s setting simply demanded it. And while I would never go as far as his friend Orson Welles, who claimed that no great acting performance had ever been given in color, I’ve never been especially enraptured by color film, nor seen any great need for it, outside of travelogue and spectacle. Maybe it helps to have been born and grown up in a transitional period when television and movies were moving from black-and-white to full-time color, and having never in one’s own family enjoyed a color television set; I didn’t have one of my own until I was nearly 30. But whatever the case, color seems important to me only for big, splashy musical numbers or pictures like Around the World in 80 Days, and the black-and-white palette (which is indeed a palette) seems to me far richer and more expressive, especially for drama and for movies set in the recent past.
László Kovács was such a wizard with light and shadow that he was able to produce glorious images in black, white and gray and deep-focus. (The director’s estranged wife, Polly Platt, did the superb production and costume design.) I disagree with Welles and Bogdanovich that the eye sees that way — you’ve only to consciously notice how you perceive foreground and background to know it doesn’t — but deep-focus not only gives the scenes texture and the objects in them contrast but allows for subtle juxtapositions, such as the way a forlorn Addie, glimpsed behind Moze, is contrasted in a reverse-angle shot of a train station agent by the two children happily playing in the yard behind him. The director’s penchant for long, complex scenes played in full, always satisfying, is given free reign in Paper Moon, and seeing them today is especially poignant because while few filmmakers refrained from a lot of cutting in the ’70s, almost no one does now. These sequences, which never call attention to themselves, are usually not noticed, especially by image-junkies who need speed and rapid-eye-movement editing to get their cinema fix. For Bogdanovich, even a 360 degree panning shot, during a highway chase, feels elegant and doesn’t call attention to itself. (Although I gather he complained that no one noticed. If you want the critics to see that sort of thing, you have to be one hell of a lot more obvious in the way you achieve it. Study Scorsese if you seek to learn Elevation to the Pantheon of Cineastes in 10 Easy Lessons.)†
Ryan O’Neal clearly learned a great deal about comedy from starring in What’s Up, Doc? for Bogdanovich. He’s cool and polished here, and not above showing us that Moze is not quite as smooth as he thinks he is. The mustache the actor sports, and his short period hair, also remove some of his prettiness, and his frequent comic contretemps with his real-life daughter are among the picture’s high spots. Among the many beautifully observed minor performances are those by Liz Ross, Yvonne Harrison, Eleanor Bogart and Dorothy Forster as widows conned by Moze and Addie, Rose-Mary Rumbley as Addie’s Aunt Billie, Dorothy Price as a garrulous and friendly old saleslady, and Dejah Moore as a pleasant but rather dim young salesgirl bilked by Addie out of a $20 Bill. As with many “road” movies, the ending of Paper Moon is bittersweet, and you may be forgiven for feeling wistful when Addie forsakes the obvious love and comfort she’d get from staying in her aunt’s home for the dubious charms of life on the road as a grifter with her possible father. But could Addie ever really be content with so sedate an existence after the excitement and fun of doing business with Moze?
The movie’s title was suggested to Bogdanovich by the great 1932 Harold Arlen/”Yip” Harburg song (Say, it’s only a paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea…)‡ he was considering for the picture’s diagetic background score of period recordings. The filmmaker instinctively understood, just from the title, how beautifully that paean to carnival make-believe fit the picture’s con-artist milieu. (Welles said the idea was so good Bogdanovich ought to forget making the movie and just release the title.) Meeting resistance to the title change from Paramount, the director got Sargent to write an appropriate moment involving a paper moon to their preexisting carnival scene, which also had the felicitous advantage of providing a lovely moment at the picture’s climax showing how much Moze and Addie mean to each other, without them saying so. The song also inspired the movie’s famous poster image. Of course, in the movie, the poignancy of Addie’s paper moon photo is that Moze is too busy ogling girls at a peep-show to sit with her. But that too has resonance; one of the emotions Moze must surely be feeling when he finally looks at it is regret.
*We live in such a weirdly Puritanical age just now that should any filmmaker today dare show a little girl in her underwear he’d doubtless be condemned as a pornographer, and worse. And if he got his child star to smoke organic cigarettes on cue…
†I don’t know whether Bogdanovich planned it, or if it was simply an unexpected gesture by his star, but there’s a fast moment when Ryan O’Neal slams on the brakes at a service station and both Tatum and P. J. Johnson bounce out of their seats that is absolutely hilarious. If Paper Moon was a slapstick comedy, they’d both have gone flying out of the car. But I don’t know that it would have been any funnier that way than it is.
‡Although credited to Arlen, Harburg and Billy Rose, “Paper Moon” was written by Arlen and Harburg for the flop Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler play The Great Magoo, which Rose produced. It was customary in those days for producers to claim song-writing credit they hadn’t earned, and Rose was one of the era’s biggest customers.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross