Nov. 13, 2009
Paper Moon (1973)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Stars: Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Madeline Kahn

What it's about. There are three important facts about this movie that you almost certainly already know. Yet I will tell you anyway, just in case you don't know them, and I would hate to be amiss.

Fact #1. The two stars of this movie, Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal, are father and daughter.

Fact #2. 10 year old Tatum O'Neal became the youngest winner ever of a full-fledged Oscar, in the category of Best Supporting Actress. Non-competitive "junior" Oscars had been awarded previously to younger child actors, such as Shirley Temple.

Fact #3. Tatum O'Neal won as a supporting actress despite being in nearly every scene.

Fact #4, which you don't need to know but we throw in just for fun. At the time of writing (2009), Tatum O'Neal last made headlines for getting hit on by her dad while he was at Farrah Fawcett's funeral.

With such facts behind us, we can now actually discuss the film. Paper Moon is a nostalgic look back at the Great Depression. It was filmed in black and white, as was another memorable Bogdanovich period piece, The Last Picture Show. A soundtrack of vintage phonograph recordings and radio shows provides circa 1935 atmosphere.

Pre-adolescent Addie (Tatum O'Neal) is left an orphan when her mother passes. Her closest relative is several states away, in Missouri, but because nobody has any money, Addie has no way of getting transportation to her aunt. But it turns out that Moses (Ryan O'Neal), a former lover of her mother attending the funeral, is headed to Missouri. Moses, who just might be the father of the child, is pressed into giving Addie a ride.

Moses, who makes his living as a con artist, is at first eager to dispose of the child at the first opportunity. But Addie is a quick learner, and soon becomes as good a grifter as her presumed pa. The two fleece widows and storekeepers across the Midwest, and times are good for Addie until Moses becomes infatuated with floozy Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn).

Addie teams up with Trixie's servant Imogene (P.J. Johnson) to double cross Trixie. The next adventure for Addie and Moses involves more dangerous game, bootlegger Jess Hardin and his corrupt policeman brother (both played by John Hillerman). Randy Quaid has a memorable cameo as a rasslin' redneck.

How others will see it. This beloved film was a box office hit, the third in a row for the red-hot Bogdanovich, whose career then promptly cooled off, save for a blip in 1985 with Mask, no relation to the James Carrey vehicle. Paper Moon was also hailed by critics, and was nominated for multiple Academy and Golden Globe awards. The imdb user ratings are predictably high, especially for older female viewers, who undoubtedly take a maternal interest in the boyish and mischievous Addie. Viewers under 18 are least likely to enjoy it, and at least some of them probably wonder why it was filmed in black and white.

How I felt about it. Paper Moon is almost certainly film lover Bogdanovich's best movie, eclipsing The Last Picture Show. It also represented a career high for Ryan O'Neal. His next movie, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, was artistically even better, but such a box office disaster that Kubrick had to resort to the horror genre (The Shining) to continue his career.

It would be easy to give full credit for Paper Moon to Bogdanovich, or (especially) the chemistry between father and daughter O'Neal. That certainly helped, but the film's secret weapon was Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia), who adapted the screenplay from Joe David Brown's novel. Some of Addie's lines appear worldly for girl of her age ("She must have a bladder the size of a peanut") but they are charming nonetheless.