Long before he appeared as The Therapist’s Therapist with the Comically Large Water Bottle in The Sopranos, Peter Bodganovich was one of the most prominent directors in the New Hollywood movement. After the breakout success of his 1971 drama The Last Picture Show and the box office smashing screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? in 1972, Bogdonavich masterfully blended comedy and drama for the 1973 period film, Paper Moon. Based on the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, Paper Moon stars real life father-daughter duo Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal as a pair of grifters who make their way through The Great Depression by making things a bit more depressed for everyone they come across. Equal parts heartless and heartwarming, the film explores the kind of bonding and personal growth that can only occur when two equally amoral people decide to take a road trip together.
Like any good comedy, Paper Moon opens at a funeral in 1936 Kansas. Moses “Moze” Pray (one of the O’Neals) swings by the graveyard to pay his respects to a former lover. After just a few seconds on screen, he already reveals his conman nature when he pulls the flowers off a nearby grave so as not to appear empty handed. Among the mourners is the nine-year-old daughter of the deceased, Addie Loggins (the other O’Neal). After the neighbors note Moze’s physical similarity to the girl, which he steadfastly denies any responsibility for, they convince him to drive Addie to her nearest relative, an aunt in Missouri. Never one to pass up an opportunity for a convenient scam, Moze tracks down the brother of the man who killed Addie’s mother and swindles two hundred dollars out of him, using half the money to fix his car and purchase a train ticket for Addie. Unfortunately for Moze, Addie overhears the deal going down and ruins an otherwise pleasant lunch by demanding her two hundred dollars loud enough for the entire diner to take notice. In the interest of making it out of town without getting arrested, Moze agrees to take Addie to her aunt’s house as promised.
A consummate professional, Moze doesn’t let his childcare responsibilities interfere with his important business. Using the obituaries to identify recently widowed women, he poses as a traveling Bible salesman and politely collects for the personalized, deluxe editions of The Good Book that their late husbands just happened to order before their untimely demise. A natural-born con artist in her own right, Addie observes the grift and quickly proves her usefulness when she turns on the waterworks and improvises the role of Moze’s bereaved daughter to save him from a jam with the local sheriff. Not only is the ruse successful, but she also delivers a handsome profit when she quotes an elevated price, which the sheriff gladly pays on behalf of the widow. An adept observer of her surroundings, she continues to increase the profitability of their venture by eyeballing each mark’s home and clothing, and shouting out prices that they are guaranteed to pay. Pleased that he has found the only child in America who actually pulls her own weight, Moze accepts her as his business partner for the duration of the trip.
The picaresque narrative is largely constructed of short vignettes depicting the duo’s schemes. In addition to the Bible hustle, Addie masters the art of change raising and fakes a pitch-perfect meltdown when a cashier supposedly steals her imaginary uncle’s birthday money. Between her intuitive criminal abilities and little girl’s charm, she walks away from both these encounters with a bit of extra cash and a sugary treat for her troubles, proving once and for all that crime does in fact pay, and it pays quite well. Even when Moze decides to take a vacation, Addie turns the break into yet another con. Of course, when your idea of a “vacation” is chauffeuring an exotic dancer with a babydoll voice that you picked up at a carnival, as Moze does with the babydoll voiced Miss Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), a certain amount of chicanery is perhaps inevitable. Sure enough, when Addie grows jealous of Miss Trixie for stealing Moze’s attention, she uses her newfound powers of deceit to drive a wedge between the adults and reclaim her rightful place in the front seat.
Addie’s jealousy proves to be the real heart of the story, which is not so much about the scams themselves as it is about the relationship that builds between the unlikely team. Addie and Moze begin their trip as adversaries, bound together by financial obligation. As they slip into a comfortable and lucrative professional relationship, they slowly learn to trust and eventually even like each other, becoming the family that neither really has. Aided by their real life family status, the O’Neals share a palpable onscreen chemistry, filling their scenes with an effortless familiarity that can only come from years of laughing, traveling, and fighting together for real. This natural dynamic helped elevate Tatum’s performance in particular, earning a well-deserved Academy Award for a child with no previous acting experience. Despite her youth and inexperience, she radiates emotion, displaying the strength and vulnerability of a kid who is too smart and has suffered too much tragedy for her age. Though she would never admit it, Addie is desperate to see Moze as the father she never had, and Tatum does a spectacular job of making that desperation feel vividly real without every saying the words.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.
Paper Moon is the rare comedy-drama that never veers too far in either direction. While the film can be incredibly funny, it never makes a joke at the expense of the characters’ authenticity. The simple black-and-white cinematography casts an appropriately bleak pallor over small-town life in Depression Era America, while the merry antics of our criminal heroes serves as a reminder that there is life – and joy – even in the midst of hardship. While all the elements are strong, Tatum is the undeniable crown jewel of the film. As the song goes, “it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.” By the time Moze and Addie learn to believe in each other, the incredible child star will have you believing in her.