Friday, August 22, 2014


“You don’t understand. I mean, it’s not what you think. I’d never do that. It’s just…the boys are so nice to you. When we’re together…I never knew it was gonna be so nice. Did you ever have a boy hold you close and sing to you? This one boy, Eddie…he sang to me right in my ear. And he held me so sweetly. June, don’t you know how that feels? Just to be held like that?”

Laura Dern as Connie
Treat Williams as Arnold Friend
Mary Kay Place as Katherine
It’s summer vacation and 15-year-old Connie moves about the suburban California home she shares with her easygoing dad (Levon Helm), quarrelsome mom (Place), and “perfect” 24-year-old sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge), in a sleepwalker’s haze of idle distraction and adolescence-induced self-absorption. Able only to muster up enough energy for sunbathing, toenail-painting, music-listening, and practicing her “How to talk to boys” patter while smiling into mirrors, Connie’s at that age where she feels as if she’s harboring at least four different people under her skin. First there’s Daddy’s little girl; then the lazy, can’t-do-anything-right, “career criminal” her mother thinks she needs to keep her eye on 24/7; and, of course, her sister sees her as a spoiled, entitled brat. But Connie herself feels awkwardly suspended between wanting to remain a little girl like her naive friend, Jill (Sarah Inglis), or becoming one of those sexy, self-assured girls at the roadside hamburger stand who attract the boys that are just out of high school; an ambition her more with-it friend, Laura (Margaret Welsh) shares.

But if at home Connie and her mother continuously lock horns due to one being concerned she’s seeing the image of her former self, while the other fears she’s looking at a vision of her future self; then its only during those long afternoons at the mall (it’s the 80s, the very height of mall culture) where, far from the gaze of those who think of her as a child, Connie has the opportunity to exuberantly, flirtatiously and (tragically) all-too innocently, explore the romantic possibilities of being an adult.
With sensitivity and a sometimes piercing insight into the peculiar pains and anxieties of verge-of-adulthood adolescence, Smooth Talk tells a melancholy coming-of-age story that’s also part Grimm fairy tale: a sexual awakening, yes, but an awakening to darkness.

“I look at you. I look right in your eyes…and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.”

There’s a reason why a kind of neutered androgyny has always been standard equipment for male teen pop stars over the years. Why the over-effusive journalism of fan mags marketed to adolescent girls (Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine) trafficked in platonic, My Personal Dairy adjectives like, “huggable,” “cute,” “smoochable,” and “dreamy.” Why the casting of boy bands demands the representation of at least one of each prototypically “safe” male personality (the quiet one, the bad boy, the funny one, etc.). And why, in 1972, David Cassidy’s talk of drug use and his discreet display of pubic hair on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 sent hoards of adolescent girls heading for the hills and sounded the death-knell for his teen-idol career. 
For a great many girls first becoming aware of their sexuality, sex isn’t really what it’s about at all. At least not in the clinical, literal sense. When you're young, vague adult urges collide with childish illusions. A burgeoning interest in sex during adolescence is, for most girls, a confused jumble of barely-understood, tantalizingly dangerous feelings centering on dreamy fantasies. Heady fantasies, romantic in nature, of idealized boy/men, more feminine than masculine in nature, who ask them out on dates and make them feel special, beautiful, and understood. Of safe, puppydog caresses and scary/exciting kisses which can be tender or torrid, but never go too far.
Does Your Mother Know?
Connie (Dern) and Laura (Margaret Welsh) are intrigued by an "older kids" roadside hangout. Less in a rush to reach adulthood, Jill (Sarah Inglis) lingers behind
If puberty in boys inflames an often difficult-to-understand surge in sexual desire and interest, these exact same feelings converge just as confusingly in adolescent girls, only with the added complication of the deceptively ego-gratifying awareness of the dubious female “power” to attract the male gaze. Of course, the tragic misunderstanding to be found in the pursuit of desirability through the self-objectifying manipulation of one’s appearance is that it only offers the illusion of control; the possessor of the gaze is the one with all the power. (It’s a sad fact of life that in our culture, girls learn the value of their bodies to boys and men long before they learn their own value to themselves.)
Rules of Attraction
Yearning to be noticed, Connie doesn't know she's already being watched
This tragic misunderstanding leads to girls longing to be cherished settling for being wanted (or worse, never learning to tell the difference); to confusing physical development with emotional maturity; and to using sexual activity as a means of coping with emotional emptiness.  
The music of James Taylor, specifically his smooth talk version of the R&B classic, "Handyman"
serves as a premonitory leitmotif for dangerous seduction, just as Dern's
perpetually bare legs suggest a vulnerable voluptuousness

Smooth Talk is adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’1966 allegorical short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Set in that decade, Oates’ story — an early draft of which was originally titled Death and the Maiden— is dedicated to Bob Dylan (Oates was very into his music at the time, specifically the 1965 song, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue) and was inspired by a Life magazine article the author read about a real-life serial killer of teenage girls known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.”  That such a gracefully delicate film could emerge from such an unsettling source is a testament to Oates’ poetic ability to emphasize the humanity behind the horrific, and filmmakers sensitive enough to know that what works in realistic allegory can be softened in the very literal language of film while still achieving the same effect.  
Musician Levon Helm as Harry, Connie's loving but somewhat unconnected father
Wife and husband team of director Joyce Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole do an extraordinary job of expanding upon and fleshing-out Oates’ slender, shivery prose. As if taking its cue from the mercurial shifts in mood typical of adolescence, Smooth Talk weaves scenes of languid dreaminess and tense family conflict (Connie, who always appears to be lost in a world of her own when around her family: “I wish I could just travel somewhere.”) with moments of the kind of joyous, impulsive wing-spreading we’ve all experienced as a natural part of growing up and discovering who we are.

The dark tone of the narrative’s third act feels, soberingly enough, like the intrusion of adult consequence on the childhood luxury of poor judgement and making mistakes.
With an almost ten-year age gap between them, Connie and older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) don't even share the same memories

Sometimes when I watch a film with a big star in the lead, the words of Valley of the Doll’s Helen Lawson come to mind: “The only hit to come out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that’s ME baby, remember?” And by this I mean that some stars, whether intentionally or not; in order to keep the spotlight on themselves, seem to make it their business never to surround themselves with talents larger than their own. Smooth Talk, like a great many of my favorite independent films, features a cast so uniformly excellent, it has the feel of an ensemble piece even in the face of the powerhouse performances of Laura Dern and Treat Williams.
The always wonderful Mary Kay Place is one of those fine character actresses
incapable of striking a false note 
On the topic of Laura Dern, I’m afraid I’m going to come off sounding like one of those 16 Magazine writers myself, for I find it difficult to rein in the hyperbole when referring to this gifted actress. I’ve always been a huge fan, but she is just off-the-chart terrific here. As the character at the center of the story and the catalyst for all the film’s events, Dern makes sympathetically real a girl whose vanity and self-absorption might otherwise come off as shallow. She gives a natural, heartbreakingly honest, close-to-the-skin performance that’s ultimately disarming and oh-so touching; chiefly because Dern, in her ability to expressively convey what a character is both thinking and feeling, clues us in that  Connie is having just as hard a time making sense of her feelings as her family. I've seen Laura Dern in many things, but her performance in Smooth Talk has always remained my favorite. Beautifully written, directed, and acted, how Smooth Talk failed to get Oscar nominations in all the major categories is a mystery right up there with 1997s Eve's Bayou.
You can keep your Mike Myers, your Freddy Krueger,  your Jason Vorhees...Treat Williams as A. Friend is hands-down the screen's creepiest and scariest psychopath

Because not a great many people have seen Smooth Talk, I don't want to give too much away about the film's unforgettable last half hour. It's a powerful scene remarkably well-played by Williams and Dern. Treat Williams in particular, gives one of those performances that sneaks up on you. It seems as first as if he's doing very little, then before you know it, you notice your heart has started beating faster and a subtle tension rising within you, making your pulse race. He's that scary...and that good. I was crazy about the film before, but this sequence, with its startling shifts in tone, just blew me away.
"I seen you that night and I said, 'Oh my God, that's the one...'"

As a gay man, I’ve never been able to fully identify with most coming-of-age-films. Ones told from a male perspective tend to be designed to flatter the egos of the male audience and mythologize the memories of the male writers. No matter what the title, these films were always populated with impossibly beautiful older women, dream girls, and willing prostitutes who craved nothing more than a sexual encounter with an awkward, gangly, pimply-faced premature ejaculate who couldn't find a clitoris with a GPS device.
Of course, there was the alternative of the John Hughes-type deification of youth movie. Films where, against evidence of logic and all common sense, adults are always corrupt and teens are all pure of spirit and mind. Where characters say things like, “When you grow up your heart dies” and aren't asked to immediately vacate the premises.
No, when I was going through puberty and struggling with adolescence, I didn’t go around punching out authority figures, drag racing, sleeping with lonely local widowers, or turning my house into a brothel while my parents were away. I was just an insecure kid struggling to find out what it meant to be a grown-up.
Male-focused coming-of-age films are encouraged to perpetuate the masculine myth: making puberty all about wearisome rites of passage (invariably centered around getting laid or channeling aggression), so one had to look to female-centered coming-of-age-films if one wanted a story that dealt with feelings.
I was well into adulthood when I saw Smooth Talk, but like no other film I've seen before or since, it captures, if not the particulars of adolescence as I remember it, most certainly the confused  feelings and anxieties. 
I recall my mood swings, my self-consciousness…my preoccupation with appearance, and need to be on my own. Like the character of Connie (and most teenagers), I'd go places and lie to my parents about where I'd been. I'd have one mode of dress when my parents saw me, but when out with my friends, I dressed more provocatively, hoping my clothes would speak in a sexual language I hadn't yet found the words for.

I grew up in San Francisco, so there were no malls to hang out in, but there the hangouts of Polk and Castro Streets. Too young to actually get in anywhere, my friends and I (a close-knit group out to one another, if no one else) we haunted the poster stores, record shops and moviehouses. Just being around so many out, gay men was exciting and empowering (although nobody used that word in the 70s) and made me feel unimaginably sophisticated and mature. Naturally, when I was actually approached by someone, my shyness and social ineptitude betrayed everything my precocious mode of dress sought to convey, and nothing would come of it. But the reality was, at age 15 and 16…just having someone show interest in you was more than enough.
These days it appears as if the stridently heteronormative strain that ran through the coming-of-age films of my era is at last starting to ease up. I certainly hope so. In this day of internet anonymity and sexual restlessness among adolescents, not much about what Smooth Talk addresses has changed over the years. Certainly not the threat of predatory attention. But with new stories to tell and a broader spectrum of human experience represented, films about adolescence and awakening sexuality are bound to reveal more of what we all collectively share and make obvious the fact that none of us ‒ male, female, gay, straight ‒ escapes the pain of growing up.

 Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 15, 2014


The controversial Italia-Franco-German production, Salon Kitty, was released in the United States in 1977 under the title, Madam Kitty (because we Yanks do need to have things spelled out for us), but I honestly, have no direct memory of its release and can’t recall ever reading anything about it at the time. Which is really weird given: a) It stars dreamboat  #1, Helmut Berger, going full-frontal (why hadn’t my friends told me about this?!!?); b) It’s an X-rated, European art-house flick, which, if you knew me in my film-school days, was practically catnip; c) It’s a semi-musical with Ingmar Bergman star, Ingrid Thulin, channeling Cabaret and doing her best Sally Bowles impersonation as the singing proprietress of a decadent, high-class Berlin bordello in 1939; e) It reunites the stars of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 opus, The Damned (Thulin & Berger) in an over-the-top, trash/camp vision of Nazi Germany that is worthy of Ken Russell in being a film of almost operatic poor taste and visual excess.

With so much about Salon Kitty so perfectly suited to my oddball tastes, I really am at a loss for understanding how this film failed to capture my attention back in 1977. Except to note that when I Googled the original US release poster researching this essay, what I found was a poster so tacky and cheap-looking, with "X-rated" plastered all over it, there's a pretty good chance that I mistook Madam Kitty (Salon Kitty) for a run-of-the-mill porn film back in 1977 and never even bothered to read the credits. In the end, perhaps it was all for the best because, as I understand, the US version was severely edited, and I'm happy that my first exposure to Salon Kitty (just last month!) was through the restored director's edit (Italian director Tinto Brass, of Caligula infamy) currently available on DVD.
Helmut Berger as Helmut Wallenberg
Ingrid Thulin as Madame Kitty Kellerman
Teresa Ann Savoy as Margherita
Bekim Fehmiu as Hans Reiter
John Ireland (!) as Cliff
Inspired by a true story (movie-speak for “outside of the basic premise, we essentially made everything up”) Salon Kitty is about an apolitical madam (Thulin) who runs the most popular whorehouse in Berlin during the early days of WW II. Salon Kitty is a luxurious bordello/nightclub democratically catering to an international clientele of foreign dignitaries and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party (“Himmler…Von Ribbentrop…they are all my clients!”).

Under the orders of icy SS General Biondo (John Steiner), ambitious secret security officer Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) closes down Kitty’s Berlin brothel and sets up her up in a new location in the more remote Grünewald district, only instead of keeping her multi-ethnic whores (who are deported, killed, or sent to prison camps), she is obliged to accept and train a specially-selected all-German cadre of prostitutes-in-training chosen for their devout National Socialist loyalty. Kitty thinks she is doing her part for the morale of the German army, but unbeknownst to her, each of the rooms of her new bordello has been outfitted with bugging devices intended to secure information leaked by German military officers during pillow-talk which might prove useful for blackmail purposes or the unearthing of treasonous behavior.

What happens when Kitty discovers she is being used as a pawn in Nazi espionage, or what revenge is plotted when an otherwise reprehensibly unsympathetic recruit (Teresa Ann Savoy) falls in love with a disillusioned Luftwaffe Lieutenant (Yugoslav heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, whose US career sank without a trace after appearing in the flop Harold Robbins sudser The Adventurers in 1970), serve as mere backdrop for Salon Kitty's most pressing concerns: the wholesale depiction of sexual depravity, the display of naked male and female flesh as often as possible, and allowing for Helmut Berger to strut around like Norma Shearer in one outlandish fetish uniform after another.
Does this swastika make me look fat?
Although it all sounds positively loony in synopsis, as stated, Salon Kitty is based on actual events culled from a 1972 book by Peter Norden about a madam (Kitty Schmidt, name changed to Kellerman for the film) whose brothel was indeed used for the purpose of spying by SS agents. The chief difference being that in real-life, Kitty was aware of the wiretapping but was threatened with cooperating or being sent to a POW camp. But in a Tinto Brass film, the prurient always takes precedence over the political, so, much like one of Ken Russell’s fervently overheated biographies of famous composers (The Music Lovers, Lisztomania), Salon Kitty is less a look at civilian-coerced Nazi espionage than a full-tilt wallow in the kind of “divine decadence” that Cabaret could only hint at.
The controversial "recruitment" scene
Salon Kitty was recommended to me by Netflix on the strength of the 5-star rating I gave Visconti’s The Damned when I watched it for the first time last year. I’m not a big fan of films about Nazi Germany; in fact, I tend to go out of my way to avoid them. but Visconti’s film was like The Godfather to me: a nihilistic epic of evil couched in a cutthroat family saga. I liked its scope and visual opulence, and I particularly liked Visconti’s artful way of distilling an epoch of unspeakable inhumanity down to an emotional scale that didn’t give the watchful observer the easy-out of being able to say, “That could never happen here.”

Alas, while Salon Kitty feels and looks on the surface like a companion-piece to Visconti’s The Damned, in truth it’s more a well-heeled example of a (mercifully) short-lived cinematic sub-genre known as Il Sadiconazista (or Nazi exploitation film). These were films that, in the wake of controversial arthouse successes, The Night Porter (1974) and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), sought to capitalize more on the sensationalistic depiction of the sexual/sadomasochistic side of Nazism with only superficial, contextual attention paid to the political.  
SS Commander Biondo leads Wallenberg through a gymnasium of bottomless fencing students
Salon Kitty attempts to dramatize the rise of National Socialism in Germany by equating the decadent conduct of aristocratic culture with the gradual erosion of individual morality that was at the center of the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic recruitment practices of the SS. It shows, rather effectively, that the only way to turn people into obedient drones is through the dismantling of self. And undeniably, much of what is on display is in accord with what we’ve come to learn about the controlling, brainwashing techniques of cults, religions, and extremist groups.

But in placing so much emphasis on all things sexual and in taking events so far over the top as to appear stylized, Italian director Brass not only weakens the seriousness of these themes, but makes it all too easy to focus exclusively on the downright bizarre set-pieces and often hilariously bad dialog (“A soldier also wants to shoot his bullets, not just those the army gives him!”  or, Wallenberg: “You have to close your nightclub.”  Kitty: “What a pain in the ass!”). What, for example, is the appropriate response to a scene in which a prostitute literally goes mad and starts foaming at the mouth after a German official, upon placing a loaf of bread shaped like an enormous phallus between her thighs, bites off its head?
One of Madam Kitty's girls with a client
In The Damned, a character attributed the following quote to Hitler: “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible.” I have no idea if Hitler actually said this, but if the wall-to-wall debauchery depicted in Salon Kitty could be said to exist in service of anything beyond cheap exploitation, I’d say it serves to decry the basic criminal degeneracy of the Nazi movement and the moral decay fueling their particular brand of fascism. Too bad you have to stop giggling long enough to get that point.

People (myself included) often use the phrase, “Only in the 70s” when referring to a certain unbridled, anything-goes lunacy characteristic of movies of that decade. In most instances it’s said in a pejorative way; but when I say it it’s with an almost proprietary, boastful pride. I’m happy to have discovered film in an era when filmmakers, giddy with the new-found freedom of relaxed censorship and permissiveness, took chances and were allowed to cater to adult tastes, not required to pander to adolescent fads.
John Steiner as Commander Biondo
Far from a work of art, a film of such questionable taste as Salon Kitty gets a major thumbs-up for me simply because, in light of the corporate, committee-sanctioned analgesics passing for movies today, I can’t help but admire a film that pushes boundaries. Wholly independent of whether or not I approve of the boundaries being pushed.
Fascism as Fetish
While I tend to be of a mind to say a bad performance is a bad performance in any language; European films with international casts pose a unique problem, what with the widespread practice of post-production dubbing. In Salon Kitty I can’t tell if the often disembodied-sounding voices are due to dubbing or poor sound recording (as I recognize several of the actor’s real voices), but let’s suffice it to say that, outside of the leads (and just what is Joan Crawford's Queen Bee and I Saw What You Did co-star, John Ireland [fully clothed, thankfully] doing here?), I think it’s fair to say that most of the cast was selected for their willingness to  appear in various states of undress first, for their acting ability second.

The beauteous Helmut Berger is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’ve always considered to be more a presence than an actor. He has a kind of brittle intensity that I like, but mostly I just regard him as a kind of male Garbo…just looking is enough. By far, the best and most entertaining performance in Salon Kitty is given by Kitty herself, Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin. (Thulin began her career as a star in several Ingmar Bergman films. The same year Salon Kitty was released in the US, Bergman's own Nazi-themed film, The Serpent's Egg was also released.)
Kitty & Wallenberg attempt to make beautiful Teutonic music together
 As the resilient, pragmatic whorehouse madam, Thulin is like a character out of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. With her expressive, wry mouth, and that magnificent face that can look both masculine and feminine at the same time, Thulin plays her role to the hilt, cannily never really letting on whether she’s playing it straight or playing to the camp, melodramatic heights of the material. The earthy zeal with which she attacks the role breathes vibrant life into Salon Kitty's austere, unerotic eroticism.
Life is a cabaret at Salon Kitty

While Salon Kitty at times makes a pretty persuasive case against the perils of fascism and the abuse of power, I have to say, after sitting through the entire 133-minute director’s cut, the strongest images I come away with are those depicting decorous depravity, and those highlighting the visual splendor of the sumptuous art nouveau décor and the eye-catching costumes.
Not since the excesses of Lucille Ball's Mame (1974) has the drag queen aesthetic
been given such full rein in costume design. Credit Jost Jacob & Ugo Percoli
Always dressed for the occasion, Kitty attempts to enlist the aid of a client (Stefano Satta Flores)
 in a plot to turn the tables on Wallenberg
You know it's a high-class whorehouse when the girls wear gowns inspired by Hollywood designer, Adrian. In this instance, a black and white number worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932)

Salon Kitty features scenes of orgies, whippings, sadomasochism, lesbianism, homoeroticism, voyeurism, animal slaughter, and some things I could only look at through the bars of the fingers covering my eyes. Although unpleasant at times, none of it ever feels purposeless. Indeed, when Salon Kitty is at its best as a film to be taken seriously, the explicit barbarism depicted feels calculated to prevent us from ever slipping into “enjoying” the film’s eroticism independent of its monstrous context of impending death camps and genocide.
Humanity Reclaimed
"Man belongs to mankind...not to a country, or to a race or religion."
But for all the baroque displays of violence, degeneracy, and depravity, Salon Kitty’s most chilling moment and most powerful anti-Nazi indictment comes in a quiet sequence that takes place in an aquarium. A Jewish family encounters a group of Hitler Youth girls, and as the family attempts to avoid a confrontation, their small son accidentally drops a small wind-up toy at the feet of one of the girls. A tense moment transpires as the child stares innocently into the face of one of the sternest girls (later to become one of Wallenberg’s recruits) who proceeds to methodically crush the toy under her foot without once breaking her gaze from the child’s confused eyes.
This scene, played without dialog, packs a serious wallop and should clue those who would dismiss this film out of hand for its excesses, that there is perhaps a method to Tinto Brass' madness, and the whole of Salon Kitty is likely greater than the sum of its outrageous parts.
Salon Kitty bid you Willkommen
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 8, 2014


When most people think of film in the 70s, they think of a time of innovation, upheaval, and experimentation. And indeed, it was. But the 70s was also the decade that introduced the first generation of film-weaned filmmakers. Directors, producers, and writers who grew up watching movies.
Wholly uninterested in the experimental exploration of film’s potential as an art form or means of creative expression, this new breed of nostalgia-prone, rear-view-fixated filmmakers – many of them former movie critics or film scholars – not only seemed to have spent the entirety of their formative years in front of movie screens (and therefore devoid of actual insights or real-life experience to impart beyond those gleaned, secondhand, from movies); but when granted the opportunity to make films of their own, strove for no ambition loftier than to remake, revisit, and re-imagine the films that meant so much to them while growing up.

The legacy of such willfully arrested artistic development can certainly be seen today in Hollywood’s worrisome over-reliance on remakes and reboots, and the almost-surreal global dominance of mega-budget, adolescence-coddling comic book movies. But back in the day of the Auteur Theory, Nouvelle Vague and the New Hollywood, the regressive filmmaker was largely dismissed by serious cineastes. Luckily for them, they were taken to the bosom of a moviegoing public growing weary of avant-garde filmmaking techniques, artsy pretensions, and non-linear storytelling.  Indeed, in the wake of the 70s oil crisis, inflation, Vietnam and Watergate, many audiences found the notion of escaping into the romanticized idealization of the past to be a very appealing proposition.
Cinema Dreams
In the background of this shot, Bogdanovich pays tribute to one of his favorite directors, John Ford, by featuring a theater marquee advertising Ford's 1935 feature, Steamboat Round the Bend

Some directors, like François Truffaut, paid homage to the filmmakers they admired (Hitchcock, in his case) by reinterpreting that director's style through a modern prism. Others, like Francis Ford Coppola, found fame through the application of auteurist theories to classicist filmmaking. Only Peter Bogdanovich – actor, film scholar, and critic – drew the ire of Hollywood Renaissance movie cultists (while gaining success as the Golden Boy of the nostalgia craze) by making new “old” movies.
Ryan O'neal as Moses (Moze) Pray
Tatum O'Neal as Addie Loggins
Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie Delight (alias, Mademoiselle)
P.J. Johnson as Imogene
Burton Gilliam as Floyd
John Hillerman as Deputy Hardin / Jess Hardin 
Randy Quaid as Leroy
Although Peter Bogdanovich is technically credited with being its director, Paper Moon, like its predecessors The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), is a film so heavily influenced by Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Orson Welles, each gentleman, by rights, could share co-director billing. A point Bogdanovich himself would likely make no bones about, for on the DVD commentary he states, “The movie was very 1935 with 70s actors.And to be sure, what with the film’s salty language, racy humor, and a pint-sized, cigarette-smoking heroine so cheeky she’d take the curl our of Shirley Temple’s hair; Paper Moon feels very much like some kind of pre-Code Preston Sturges movie shot through with a dose of 70s self-awareness.

Paper Moon, a Depression-era road comedy skillfully and hilariously adapted by Alvin Sargent (The Sterile Cuckoo) from John David Brown’s 1971 novel, Addie Pray, is the story of small-time con man, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who meets his match in little Addie Loggins (Ryan's real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal), an old-beyond-her-8-years, recently-orphaned waif  who may or may not be he his illegitimate daughter. Entrusted with escorting the child from Kansas to Missouri to stay with relatives, Moze’s attempt to first swindle, then unburden himself of the cagey tyke results in the tables being turned on him in a manner ultimately binding the two as reluctant partners in cross-country flim-flams. The quarrelsome duo’s misadventures swindling widows, bilking shopkeepers, and taking up with buxom carnival dancer, Trixie Delight (Kahn) and her beleaguered maid, Imogene (Johnson), are played out against a bleak Midwestern landscape of barren skies and vast Kansas plains redolent of The Grapes of Wrath.
Paper Moon's grim depiction of the Midwest during The Great  Depression not only served as dark subtext to the film's comedy, but  resonated with 70s audiences contending with gas-rationing and rising inflation

Gloriously shot, cleverly conceived, superbly-acted, and consistently laugh-out-loud funny, Paper Moon is a feast of period detail and sharp comedy writing that manages to be sweetly sentimental without veering into the saccharine. And while I find the film to feel a little draggy in its third act, the first two-thirds of Paper Moon are very nearly perfect.

Following a tight, 3-act structure, Paper Moon reaches such a giddy height of comedy incandescence in the second act with the introduction of the characters of Trixie and Imogene. These characters bring so much variance to the interplay of Moze and Addie that the film never fully regains its footing once they depart. Narratively speaking it makes perfect sense for things to take a darker turn once Addie & Moze's overconfidence in their con leads to greed. But both the bootleg swindle and hillbilly car swap sequences play out with tension and not much wit, leaving the rest of the film - excluding the marvelous denouement - feeling somewhat anticlimactic.

If it can be said of Bogdanovich that he is a director who has spent his life forever at the feet of The Masters, then at least he’s a student who learned his lessons well. For as with all of his early films, Paper Moon reveals Bogdanovich to be a deft and sensitive storyteller, versatile and fluent in the language of cinema. He understands what he’s doing, knows what he’s going for, and, despite a film-geek tendency toward stylistic imitation-as-flattery, has an inspired touch when it comes to comedy. Rare in nostalgists, Bogdanovich has a talent for making the familiar feel engagingly fresh.

Paper Moon is one of my favorite comedies, one I’ve always regretted never having seen at a theater in the presence of an audience. But as I recount in an earlier post on this blog in reference to The Last Picture Show, as a young man I was less than enthralled by the whole 70 nostalgia craze:

“As African-American teen inspired by the emerging prominence of black actors on the screen and excited about the upsurge in positive depictions of African-American life in movies of the 70s; these retro films, with their all-white casts and dreamy idealization of a time in America’s past which was, in all probability, a living nightmare for my parents and grandparents, felt like a step in the wrong direction. The antennae of my adolescent cynicism told me that all this rear-view fetishism was just Hollywood’s way of maintaining the status quo. A way of reverting back to traditional gender and racial roles, and avoiding the unwieldy game-change presented by the demand for more ethnic diversity onscreen, the evolving role of women in society, and the increased visibility of gays.” 

And while I still feel this to be true and witness the same thing happening today in Hollywood’s focus on fantasy films populated with mythical creatures, elves, gnomes, wizards, and superbeings of all stripes (anything but those pesky, problematic humans); the passage of time has literally transformed Paper Moon into what it was always designed to be: an old movie. And old movies I can watch through a prism of the past I’d otherwise find unacceptable, if not reprehensible, in a contemporary film.
If there's a method to Bogdanovich's retro madness, it's that Paper Moon is often at its funniest when it uses our familiarity with 30s movie tropes as the setup for contemporary, very 70s comic reversals. Tatum O'Neal's tough-talking Addie amuses in part because she's so very unlike the kind of little girl every parent wanted their daughter be like in the 30s: Shirley Temple. Trixie's maid, Imogene, may recall the sassy black maids of 30s comedies, but it's her uproariously open and blatant hostility toward her employer which lays to rest the quaint and comforting stereotype of the devoted domestic.

I think it was Bogdanovich who once made the observation that people of a certain age visualize the 1930s in their mind's eye as a black-and-white era because that 's the only way they know it: through black-and white-photos, black-and-white movies. When Paper Moon, with its meticulous recreation of the look and feel of a 1935 movie (which is, importantly, not the same thing as recreating real life in 1935), has its very period-specific characters using language unthinkable in films of the day, the visual and behavioral incongruity is riotously funny.
Ryan's Daughter

As everyone knows, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal made history by being the youngest person to ever win a competitive Oscar when she won Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon in 1974. And on that score you’ll get no argument from me. I’m really not very fond of kids (either on or off screen) a predisposition compounded by Hollywood's fascination with precocious kids whose mature behavior I’m supposed to find adorable. But Bogdanovich works a minor miracle with Tatum O’Neal. She actually IS an adorable, precocious child…sweet of face, husky of voice, and inhabited, apparently, by the soul of a 50-year-old grifter.
Paper Moon's great, unsung asset is Ryan O'Neal. Looser and funnier than you're likely to see him any other film, he is a real charmer with an impressive range of exasperated reactions
Tatum O'Neal is nothing short of a marvel in a role in which she’s required to play a range of emotions a seasoned professional would find challenging. And even if the rumors are true that Bogdanovich shaped every gesture, nuance, and line reading (easy enough to believe given the flatness of her subsequent performances in The Bad News Bears and International Velvet), hers is still an amazingly assured and natural performance for one so young (O’Neal was eight when filming began).

Now, with all that being said, I do have to lodge my one complaint: there is no way in hell Addie Pray is a supporting role. It’s a lead. The entire film rests on her shoulders and she appears in more scenes than anyone else in the film. It’s patently absurd that Tatum O’Neal was entered in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Of course, my rant is based in my ironclad certainty that, taking absolutely nothing from O’Neal’s great performance, it was Madeline Kahn who deserved that award. As good as Paper Moon is, without Kahn’s Trixie Delight, my A+ rating would drop to a B-minus. She's that good.
I'm sure someone somewhere has tallied the length of Madeline Kahn's screen time in Paper Moon. She's not onscreen all that long, but every moment from her memorably jiggly entrance, past her umpteenth speech extolling the virtues of bone-structure, all the way to her magnificent scene on that hilltop, every single moment is sheer brilliance. That hilltop scene is one of the finest onscreen moments in Kahn's entire career. I love when an actor can make you laugh, yet at the very same time touch upon something vulnerable and sad behind the facade.

The off-kilter charm of Paper Moon is in it essentially being a romantic comedy. An uneasy love story between a father and daughter who may or may not be biologically-related (“It’s pothible!”). That Addie doesn’t really see herself as a little girl and Moze not seeing himself as anything closely resembling a father, makes for several amusingly awkward scenes where the querulous duo are forced to play-act the roles of loving father and daughter in order to perpetrate a swindle. Scenes made all the more touching by all the other times we seem them reluctant to yield to even the slightest display of affection for one another . 
Waitress - "How we doin' Angel Pie? We gonna have a little dessert after we finish up our hot dog?"
Addie - (never taking her eyes off Moze) "I dunno."
Waitress - "What d'ya say, Daddy? Whyn'y we get precious here a little dessert if she eats her dog?"
Moze - (slowly and through gritted teeth) "Her name ain't precious."
Two days and 36 takes (!) produced this exceptional continuous shot sequence

Over the years, both Peter Bogdanovich's unrealized potential and the dysfunctional family circus that has become the O'Neals, has lent a bittersweet air of nostalgia to Paper Moon wholly unintended and unrelated to its roots in 1930s wistfulness. For years it had been hinted that Bogdanovich's success was owed in large part to his wife, production and costume designer, Polly Platt. Paper Moon marks their last collaboration (they divorced after Peter fell in love with Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show) and perhaps tellingly, the end of Bogdanovich's success streak. As a longtime admirer (if not idolater) of Orson Welles, it couldn't have been lost on Bogdanovich the degree to which his drop in popularity mirrored Welles' own tarnished Golden Boy career decline.
By way of talk shows, memoirs, and tabloid headlines, Ryan and Tatum O'Neal have practically built a cottage industry around airing the dirty laundry of their familial discord. Watching Paper Moon these days, one can't help respond to the almost documentary aspects of Moze and Addie's push-pull relationship. This is especially true of scenes depicting Addie's possessiveness toward Moze and jealousy of any female attention directed towards him (Addie's relationship with Trixie is like being given front row seats to how the whole Tatum O'Neal/Farrah Fawcett thing played out).

When I watch the classic TV show, I Love Lucy, it often crosses my mind that I'm watching a kind of wish-fulfillment version of the real-life marriage of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz. In light of the unhappy reality we've come to know about the O'Neals, Moze and Addie have become for me the idealized image of Ryan and Tatum.

As I do with Orson Welles, I always associate Peter Bogdanovich with the genius work of his early career and largely overlook his latter contributions. And while I know it to be a departure from the sad reality, I like to imagine Tatum and Ryan O'Neal driving off to an uncertain but happy future together, devoted father and loving daughter, down that long and winding road into the horizon.
Isn't nostalgia all about remembering the past as we would have liked it to be?
And They Lived Happily Ever After

YouTube clip of Tatum O'Neal winning her Oscar for Paper Moon - HERE

YouTube clip of Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, and Peter Bogdanovich on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson  - HERE
In 1974 ,Paper Moon was turned  into a short-lived TV series starring Jodie Foster (just two years away from her own Oscar nomination in Taxi Driver) and Christopher Connelly, the actor who played Ryan O'Neal's brother in 1964's Peyton Place. Yet another TV series spun off from a motion picture.
 YouTube Clip of series' opening sequence.

Copyright © Ken Anderson