Paper Moon

PAPER MOON | Metrograph

The year is 1973, the Vietnam War rages on and the Watergate scandal begins to escalate. The Exorcist haunted audiences across the country leading to countless sold-out showings and long lines. Martin Scorsese made his debut with Mean Streets. This was the year of films like The Sting, American Grafitti, Serpico, Robin Hood, Enter The Dragon, Westworld, and many more. At this time, director Peter Bogdanovich was in a near unparalleled groove that any filmmaker would consider a blessing. After breaking on to the scene with 1968’s Targets, he hit it big with 1971’s The Last Picture Show which brought him acclaim and serious clout as both a screenwriter and filmmaker, catapulting him toward promising future endeavors. After Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich went right into directing and writing a screwball comedy vehicle starring Ryan O’Neal, Barbara Streisand called What’s Up Doc. It ended up being one of the biggest hits of 1972 here in the states, grossing nearly 67 million dollars on a 4 million budget. Paper Moon was originally planned to star Paul Newman and his daughter, Nell, and would’ve been directed by John Huston, but when Huston departed the project, the Newmans soon followed. Paramount came to Bogdanovich next and initially, he turned it down. At that time, he and novelist Larry McMurtry were collaborating on a western that had attracted the talents of stars like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Cybill Shepard, Ellen Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman. Gradually, the project fell through with numerous actors losing interest in the project. This was not all bad news, though, as McMurtry bought back the rights to the script he and Bogdanovich had written years later and from it, wrote a book called Lonesome Dove that won the Pulitzer Prize that year and would spawn an Emmy-winning miniseries of the same name in the late 80s. Now that Bogdanovich’s schedule was free, he could turn his attention to Paper Moon.


Paper Moon is based on the 1971 novel Addie Pray, written by Joe David Brown (Why Paper Moon? Bogdanovich liked the title and pitched it to Orson Welles, who was cutting a movie in Rome at the time. Welles said, “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” In the end, a scene was inserted where Addie gets her picture taken in front of a paper moon, funnily enough, the studio that had disapproved of Paper Moon as a title made it the title of the short-lived TV series that spun off from the film.). Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal in an Oscar-winning performance) has just become an orphan and it is at her mother’s funeral where she first meets Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who poses as a kind soul and also goes by Moze, who will take Addie to her Aunt’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri. He tries to sell her to a man at a local grain mill for $200. Addie becomes wise to Moses’s efforts and they come to an agreement where she can travel with him until they make back $200. Addie discovers Moses’s profession- he sells bibles to recent widows saying their former spouse has bought them a special edition bible with gold personalized lettering. Addie joins Moses in his crooked schemes as they traverse the midwest and run into a whole host of colorful personalities on their way to St Joseph.


Paper Moon is a strangely captivating tale of small-time criminals and petty thieves. As for the casting process, it was frequent collaborator and ex-wife of Bogdanovich, Polly Platt, who led him to consider Ryan O’Neal, whom he’d just worked with on What’s Up Doc, and O’Neal’s daughter Tatum for the parts of Moses Pray and his partner in crime, Addie Loggins. So much of the film’s thrills come from their strifeful dynamic on screen. These are 2 people who deeply care about one another, but can only express it through quarreling. Bogdanovich puts the camera at the front of their vehicle and just lets it sit there, capturing very fun, engaging exchanges between Moze and Addie. Tatum O’Neal is incredible. Calling her performance precocious doesn’t do it justice. She exudes a kind of weary shade of wisdom beyond her years throughout the film. There is a real heart in this film and the way it depicts this relationship but the film rarely feels sentimental.


There are several instances where the film strays from its source material including the reduction of Addie Pray’s age to fit Tatum O’Neal’s age at the time, significantly changing the back half of the story and moving the action from the deep south to Kansas and Missouri. Trixie Delight, played here by Madeline Khan, who had worked with Bogdanovich before on What’s Up Doc, was notably not present in the first few drafts of the script but was added later on. It’s hard to imagine this film without Delight’s place in it. Madeline Khan brings a large amount of depth to this otherwise ditzy and dim character. Khan wows with her delivery of a monologue that starts as a plea for Addie to return to their vehicle after being relegated to the back seat through Trixie’s entrance into their way of life. It becomes a recounting of her many past failed relationships and ex-flames. Khan is up to the task absolutely nails it, blurring the lines of what’s comedic and what’s truly tragic in this woman’s tale of woe. It’s a monologue that works on either level thanks to Khan’s skillful performance. This is a textbook supporting performance. A memorable performance that resonates and “supports” the film, without taking away from the performances of her co-stars.


Peter Bogdanovich’s decision to shoot the film in Black and White pays off immensely. The look of the film gels so well with the story being told that within minutes, you feel transported to an entirely different era. The song selection in the film further grounds the viewer in the depression era-world being depicted and by shooting much of Moze and Addie’s trip on-location, it gives their journey an air of authenticity. 

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