Paper Moon (1973)
“As P.T. Barnum put it, “There’s a sucker born every minute.””
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn
Synopsis: During the Great Depression, a con man finds himself saddled with a young girl who may or may not be his daughter, and the two forge an unlikely partnership.
Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) is a small-time hustler and con man operating in the American Midwest during the midst of the depression. He’s something of a loner, but he’s also a ladies man, and shows up at the sparsely attended funeral of Essie May Loggins, a former girlfriend who was, apparently, a lady of questionable virtue. Also at the funeral is Essie’s daughter, Addie (O’Neal’s 10-year-old daughter, Tatum, in her acting debut), a tomboyish 9-year-old. The suspicion is that Moses is Addie’s father, but whether he is or not is never actually revealed.
Against his better judgment, Moses agrees to drive the orphaned Addie to her aunt’s home in St. Joseph. The relationship between the two is initially strained, especially when Addie realises that Moses has exploited her mother’s death to extort $200 out of a local businessman and noisily demands it be given to her. In order to pay her off, Moses has to carry out a number of cons by selling over-prices bibles to recently bereaved widows, and is astonished to find that Addie is a born huckster with a keen nose for just how much they can con out of each widow.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon bears noticeable similarities to his earlier movie, The Last Picture Show. Filmed in black-and-white in remote, small town locales seemingly pressed between a vast, flawless sky and a flat, unforgiving earth, both films evoke a kind of jaded sense of nostalgia for a bygone time. I say jaded, because there’s no feeling of regret for times passed, no wistful glancing back to a better time or place. Paper Moon’s tone is probably lighter than that of The Last Picture Show, but it still has an underlying feel of desolation to it. You get the feeling that, despite the feel-good ending, Moses and Addie’s lives will be one long, deflating succession of small victories and defeats that will take them nowhere.
This time it’s Laszlo Kovacs who films the characters in crisp, sharply-focused relief to the arid landscapes in which they operate. The 1935 mid-West is a dusty, sweaty place, and the movie does a good job of capturing the atmosphere. Ryan O’Neal, still at a time in his life when he actually seemed to care about his work, delivers a decent performance without ever really generating any kind of empathy from the audience, while his daughter Tatum slowly grows more appealing the more we get to know her. It’s something of a surprise to see she won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance here — there’s no way you could describe her performance as an Oscar-winning one.
(Reviewed 22nd April 2013)