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.
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.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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.
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.
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|
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.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
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 .
|Two days and 36 takes (!) produced this exceptional continuous shot sequence|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
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.
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.