When movie stars invite their children to act with them, the results usually range from embarrassing to forgettable—but every so often, something like Paper Moon happens. Featuring a spectacular debut performance by preteen Tatum O’Neal and a charmingly gruff star turn by her famous father, Ryan O’Neal, the movie both satisfies and undercuts audience expectations of what might occur when real-life relatives perform together onscreen. The movie has heart, but more importantly, it has edge—since many of the best scenes in Paper Moon feature the O’Neals sparring with each other, it’s impossible to mistake the picture for a softhearted love letter from a father to a daughter. Somehow, producer-director Peter Bogdanovich sensed a vein of natural conflict in the dynamic between the O’Neals, and then the filmmaker channeled that conflict into the fictional relationship of a 1930s con man and a girl who may or may not be his daughter.
Better still, Bogdanovich ensured that the sparks flying between the O’Neals were only part of the movie’s appeal. In addition to the memorable father-daughter acting, Paper Moon features crisp storytelling, sparkling dialogue, stunning black-and-white cinematography, and vivacious supporting performances. It’s a near-masterpiece that only happens to contain effective stunt casting.
Masterfully adapted by Alvin Sargent from a novel by Joe David Brown, Paper Moon takes place during the Depression, hence Bogdanovich’s choice to present the story with monochromatic visuals that evoke the photography of the Depression era. Flimflam artist Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) attends the funeral of a former lover, where he meets scrappy nine-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), whom he realizes might be his daughter. Through delightfully contrived circumstances—the plot comes together with Swiss-watch precision that echoes Moses’ elaborate scams—Addie pressures Moses into taking her along for a lengthy auto journey. A quick study, Addie finds a role for herself in Moses’ principal scheme of selling personalized Bibles to the widows of recently deceased men, so the main characters’ natural instinct for bonding gets sublimated into the formation of a criminal enterprise.
Bogdanovich milks this perverse premise for all it’s worth, opting for the rich drama of betrayals, disappointments, and double-crosses instead of trying for easy sentimentality. Yet woven into nearly every scene of the movie is deftly crafted humor, an element maximized by the impeccable comic timing of Bogdanovich’s actors. In fact, one of the juiciest subplots involves Moses’ relationship with a woman of ill repute named Trixie Delight, played by the magnificent comedienne Madeline Kahn, who made her big-screen debut in Bogdanovich’s hit farce What’s Up Doc? (1972). Demonstrating the skill of the film’s narrative construction, the speed with which Moses throws over Addie in order to court Trixie reveals the limitations of Moses’ integrity and the sad fate awaiting Addie unless Moses grows a conscience.
While sensitive character work is ultimately what makes Paper Moon meaningful, the style is what makes the movie sing. Working with cinematographer Lászlo Kovács, Bogdanovich creates intimate textures throughout Paper Moon, especially during long takes that the director fills with rat-a-tat dialogue. Like the best of Bogdanovich’s early movies, Paper Moon feels handcrafted, with equal care given to characterization, emotion, mood, pace, and tone.
As such, if there’s a minor complaint that one could make about Paper Moon, it’s that Bogdanovich seems just as concerned with announcing his incandescent talent as he is in telling the story. But then again, since Paper Moon was made when the very gifted director was at the height of his powers, it’s hard to blame him for showboating. And since the film earned an Academy Award for Tatum O’Neal (making her the youngest-ever winner of a competitive acting Oscar), as well as a nomination for screenwriter Sargent, the director’s grandstanding clearly did not obscure the remarkable contributions of his collaborators.
Paper Moon: RIGHT ON