Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Peter Bogdanovich made a movie between The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (it was What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand), but you’d never know it. The two films are virtually twins, each elaborating helpfully and expanding upon the themes of the other, despite being set twenty years and several states apart. Both films are tough-minded, complex rejections of the concept of innocence. More superficially, both are magnificently shot (by Laszlo Kovacs, in this case) black & white period pieces with gorgeous deep-focus landscapes and cynicism breaking through their nostalgic Americana. But while The Last Picture Show was a sensitive yet often bitter translation of the complicated relationships between adults and teenagers, Paper Moon finds room for a kind of magical optimism in the most desperate corners. Unlike The Last Picture Show, it’s a story about childhood, channeled to us with not the first trace of condescension. It fails to posit that the inevitable schism between its two heroes will ever be fully healed, but in its celebration of scattered moments of reluctant warmth against an unforgiving backdrop — the Depression in (mostly) rural Kansas and Missouri — it attains an almost indescribable loveliness. Without copping at all to sentimentality or rose-tinted nods to a distant past, it temporarily redeems the cruel, lonely world imagined by the director in The Last Picture Show and Targets.

We say “two heroes” but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. At her mother’s funeral, Addie meets up for the first time with Moze (for Moses) Pray, suspected by everyone including Addie of being her illegitimate father; reluctantly Moze gets roped into setting Addie up with a train ticket to St. Joseph, Missouri, the home of her estranged aunt, but along the way he makes use of the child’s situation to con a local grain distributor (involved in the accidental death of Addie’s mom) out of $200. Overhearing this, Addie then refuses to part with Moze until she’s reimbursed, making a stubborn and attention-drawing scene in a restaurant, where the pair reach a sort of impasse — Moze has already spent most of the money — that results in them heading out on the road together, Moze using his illegal wares to pay back his debt to Addie.

It’s never explicitly stated that Moze and Addie are actually related, though the context of their behavior in the film and the casting of Tatum’s father Ryan as Moze seems to clinch it as an unstated near-certainty that he’s her long-lost dad; this reluctance to make their relationship explicit, and the willingness to leave so much else unsaid, is one of many grace notes offered by Bogdanovich and the Alvin Sargent screenplay. Addie quickly becomes not Moze’s burden so much as his accomplice. Theirs is a subtle relationship in terms of both affinity and conflict, with its sweetness never expressed by actual affection but by mutual enthusiasm for bilking their fellow man out of cash; it’s our privilege to share in the duo’s nefarious triumphs. On first encounter the moment I fell in love with this film was when Addie talks up the price of a Bible to aid in the scamming of one of her new captor’s victims. After that, there was no looking back. Moze shows no signs of losing his frustration with Addie — her radio, her smoking, her tendency to butt in and contribute to his deals — even as we grow ever more charmed by her pluck and pathos. Our feeling of connection with her when she takes out a photograph of her deceased mother and tries to replicate her pose, or of joy when she sings to herself in the mirror, is meticulously earned by the film, and there’s a remarkable purity in the result, perhaps most apparent when we realize how disappointed we are along with her when it appears that this road movie of hotel rooms and truck-stop cons must inevitably come to an end.

Addie and Moze’s relationship develops through a procession of amusing but increasingly dangerous episodes; it starts with the phony Bible selling, dips into “dropping twenties” and scamming cashiers, with Addie forced to scornfully play up her cuteness, the only time she ever calls her probable father “Daddy,” and escalates ultimately into ripping off a bootlegger, wrestling with a good old boy and running frantically from the law. Along the way, the longest diversion comes from an exotic dancer named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), who gets her hooks in Moze while an exasperated Addie waits for him to have his photo taken with her; joined thereafter on the road by Trixie and her long-suffering maid Imogene (the apparently forgotten but brilliant P.J. Johnson, who has a monopoly on the best line readings in the film) we find ourselves identifying hilariously with Addie’s resentment as her importance in Moze’s life is essentially overrun by a de facto stepparent. Kahn’s genius is well-established in numerous other roles, but her almost operatic embodiment of an inherently one-joke character — “just like a gum machine,” Imogene says, “you drop some in and she’ll put some out” — is something of a miracle. One of the most telling moments in a film full of so much unexpected beauty comes when Trixie is tasked with persuading Addie, sick of being a passenger in what she perceives to be properly her ride, back into the car. After trying to treat her as a little girl (“you like the Mickey Mouse?”) and then attempting stern hostility, she finally levels with the kid and lets her know that she’s just along for the sugar-daddy roller-coaster until it runs out of steam, and begs Addie to let her sit up front “with her big tits,” at which point she gives a look of genuine embarrassment that completely enlivens the moment, and humanizes her for Addie; she’s the only adult in the film to share the frail humanity of the same stripe as Cloris Leachman’s final speech in The Last Picture Show, and even if the peace between the two of them does not last, Addie’s responsive smile lingers as one of Paper Moon‘s most iconic images.

Indeed, as terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved. But beyond his principals, Bogdanovich fills his screen with the same kind of distinctively eccentric faces that populated The Last Picture Show, calling back indeed to the human cornucopia of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Cashiers, family members, local weirdos, carnies, lecherous hotel clerks, all are treated with affection by the film if not Addie and Moze save perhaps for the cops, approached with wholly warranted apprehension; and it must be mentioned again that while P.J. Johnson would disappear from the screen forever apart from a bit part in a later Bogdanovich film, hers is easily as distinctive and skilled a performance as the other three people with whom she rides across Kansas in the car, her periodic smiles equally hard-earned. The point is that the unmistakable but unforced love Bogdanovich extends to these characters translates to some of the persuasive humanism visible in a film from the “director-driven” period of Hollywood, and it’s something he provides to us without whistling past the miseries and strife challenging each and every one of them in the 1930s.

Bogdanovich doesn’t just avoid the obvious sugary story progressions in Paper Moon (the film ends with another argument and doesn’t let Moze concede even a begrudging acknowledgement of Addie’s final gift to him, the photograph he never had the time to take with her); he also skirts his own failings and obsessions as a director so that, as with David Lynch via The Straight Story decades later, he proves himself capable of operating independently and distantly of his own natural persuasions (and lecherous tendencies, for that matter) to better serve the film. As ideal as his eagerness and bravura enthusiasm was for The Last Picture Show, he shows greater restraint and maturity here by presenting such a universally appealing story without falling back on the use of outdated film stock or of period-appropriate locations as a stylistic crutch. Certainly there are shades aplenty of John Ford and Orson Welles in Paper Moon, but only as natural influences and never as emulation or window dressing; the story is rich and real enough not to need such distractions, and with the considerable help of Kovacs and editor Verna Fields, the director’s hand never really falters here in his mannered, graceful, grown-up storytelling, wholly resistant to catharsis. We’re left with a feeling of ebullience, of having just seen a miraculously complete story from a child’s eyes, and at that the all too rare story that has everything: it’s funny, sad, sweet, poignant, even threatening, and teeming with a lust for life undimmed in the very worst of times.

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