PAPER MOON shines on as a stellar ornament in the directing career of precociously talented Peter Bogdanovich. For a few years in the early 70s it seemed the brash writer-director could do no wrong, following his magnificent drama The Last Picture Show with the funny screwball homage What’s Up, Doc? and then this wonderful 1973 period lark, one of the best comedies of its decade. Bogdanovich directed Alvin Sargent’s screenplay, adapted from Joe David Brown’s novel “Addie Pray”.
1935, Kansas and Missouri. ‘Moses Pray’ (Ryan O’Neal) is an itinerant con man, whose skill set includes peddling inscribed Bibles to recent widows, telling them The Good Books were gifts purchased by their deceased husbands. So, he’s pretty much a snake. He becomes entangled with 9-year-old orphan ‘Addie Loggins’ (Tatum O’Neal) and temporarily responsible for getting her delivered to her aunt. The self-willed tyke not only catches him for his bull, she matches him for sass, then shows a natural aptitude for his line of work. As they travel the backroads of small town Depression days Kansas, they collect “exotic dancer” ‘Trixie Delight’ (Madeline Kahn) and her heard-it-all maid ‘Imogene’ (P.J. Johnson), and try to avoid crooked ‘Deputy Hardin’ (John Hillerman).
As he did with The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich uses clean and sharp black & white for a retro hearkening of the past, and cinematographer László Kovács, shooting in and around the Kansas towns of Hays, McCracken and Wilson and in St.Joseph, Missouri, does some of his finest work. The look and feel of time and place is flawless, along with the pinpoint casting. Like ‘Trixie’ it’s a delight.
The novel ran 332 pages, so Sargent and Bogdanovich had to pare it down to a screen-manageable 102 minutes. They changed author Brown’s rural South location to the Midwest and dropped the last third of the book, no doubt leaving out some choice material; what’s left is so delicious you are sad when it ends. You want to spend more time with this pair and see what new characters they’ll run into and what fresh scrapes they’ll run away from.
I was never a big Ryan O’Neal fan, but he’s superb here, this remains his all-time best work. His 9-year-old daughter is nothing less than perfect: in her debut, the wise-beyond-her-age Tatum skipped off with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the youngest ever in the category. Sharing a nomination in the same lineup is the irreplaceable Madeline Kahn, in her second film (the first was scene-stealing in the director’s What’s Up, Doc?, also sparring with father O’Neal). She’s missed.
‘Moon‘ harvests great turns from Hillerman, who not only plays the slimy lawman but his bootlegger brother; from Burt Gilliam, goofier than ever in his debut as ‘Floyd’ the randy desk clerk; and in quick bits, Dejah Moore (“the salesgirl and the $20 bill”) and a gangly Randy Quaid, as a dorky hillbilly who gets a surprise when he aims to “wrassle” ‘Moze’. Period tunes are sprinkled in where appropriate. It’s just a great movie.*
Besides Tatum’s win, and the nod to Kahn, Academy Award nominations went to Sargent’s very funny Screenplay and to the Sound department. Done for a frugal $2,500,000, it won audiences over to claim the years #7 spot, grossing $50,100,000. With P.J. Johnson, Noble Willingham and Liz Ross.
* For some reason, critics at the time were mostly lukewarm, likely because too many of them had a tiresome habit of anatomically misplacing either sticks or bugs. Now, it’s considered a classic. Comedy was lonely in 1973, a year dominated by serious, often harsh fare. The Sting, The Three Musketeers and Class Of ’44 were mostly lighthearted. Scarce laugher entries included Sleeper, A Touch Of Class, Blume In Love and The Thief Who Came To Dinner. Paper Moon shared the spotlight with another period piece, also directed for peanuts by a fresh new talent, George Lucas and the instant classic of American Graffiti.
For the principals, life on the other side of the Moon was a precarious see-saw. Tatum scored hits with The Bad News Bears and Little Darlings, then did a slow fade into a good deal of personal trouble. She wrote an autobio in 2004 titled “A Paper Life”. Her quarrelsome father was miscast in Barry Lyndon and embarrassing in A Bridge Too Far. A slew of bombs followed, with just a few bright spots—The Main Event, So Fine, Irreconcilable Differences–-and waves of bad publicity from his private life. Bogdanovich’s subsequent career was marked by numerous high-profile flops (Saint Jack is an excellent film, which no-one went to see) and his touch for comedy seemed to have evaporated.