Paper Moon [DVD]
Director : Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay : Alvin Sargent (based on the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1973
Stars : Ryan O'Neal (Moses Pray), Tatum O'Neal (Addie Loggins), Madeline Kahn (Trixie Delight), John Hillerman (Sheriff Hardin / Jess Hardin), P.J. Johnson (Imogene), Jessie Lee Fulton (Miss Ollie)
Tatum O’Neal was nine years old and had never acted in her life when she played one of the lead roles in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon opposite her father, then superstar Ryan O’Neal, and became the (still) youngest person to ever win an Oscar. Some have seen her victory as a sentimental fluke, but watching Paper Moon, it’s impossible to deny the power and subtlety of her performance and how it avoids all the traps and cloying pitfalls into which so many child actors fall (she’s been well described as an anti-Shirley Temple). She and Ryan O’Neal develop a brilliant, absolutely convincing rapport throughout the film, whether they’re arguing heatedly about the merits of Franklin Roosevelt or stealing quick glances at each other that suggest there is much more emotional connection between them than either one would ever admit out loud.
Paper Moon is set in the dusty, chalky backroads of rural Kansas circa 1935. It’s a funny-sweet story about hard times and desperate people, and it has a genuine heart that makes even some of its most cliché moments ring true. Bogdanovich was at the top of his game when he made the film, having just scored two critical and commercial hits with 1971’s bittersweet The Last Picture Show and 1972’s screwball homage What’s Up, Doc?. He was, at the time, a director who couldn’t miss, but Paper Moon turned out to be his last certifiable hit of the 1970s before his career slide began with 1974’s ill-advised Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller.
Ryan O’Neal stars as Moses Pray, an itinerant con man roaming through Depression-era America trying to make a few bucks off recent widows by selling them Bibles he claims their recently departed husbands ordered for them. He meets his match in Addie Loggins (Tatum O'Neal), a headstrong nine-year-old orphan who may or may not be his daughter (“We got the same jaw,” she declares, and they do). Although Moses is only supposed to drive Addie to the next state and drop her off with her aunt, he learns that she is a quick study and a devious little con artist herself, and, despite their initial friction, they team up into an unlikely maybe-father/daughter grifter team (the fact that it is never revealed for sure if he is her father is one of the movie’s great charms).
The story, scripted by Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) from the popular novel by Joe David Brown, has a meandering, easygoing quality to it. It’s composed largely of a series of loosely connected comical adventures that slowly develop the relationship between Moses and Addie. At one point, Moses picks up a big-breasted floozy named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn at her ditzy-sad best), and Addie feels so threatened that she has to devise an elaborate scheme to break them up. The last third of the movie involves a protracted grift in which Moses sells a bootlegger $650 of his own booze and incurs the wrath of the bootlegger’s corrupt policeman brother (both characters are played by John Hillerman).
All of this is set against the backdrop of America at its economic worst. Bogdanovich never lets the setting overwhelm the characters, but it is constantly there—a stark reminder of how hard times can be and how they can simultaneously bring out the best and the worst in people. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs did an outstanding job of utilizing high-contrast black-and-white photography and deep focus to make the flat landscape and arching sky feel as gritty and real as true life (the fact that he was not even nominated for an Oscar was a grave oversight). As it did in The Last Picture Show, the use of black and white also brings us closer into the era, both narratively and stylistically, as Paper Moon looks like it could easily be a John Ford road comedy from 1940. Bogdanovich was a film scholar and historian before he was a director, and he knew exactly how to capture the essence of a bygone cinematic era and still make it relevant to a modern audience.
|Paper Moon DVD|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||August 12, 2003|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic)|
What a beautiful transfer! Paramount has done an outstanding job with this widescreen anamorphic transfer, which maintains the sharp details and brilliant gray palette of Laszlo Kovacs’ beautiful cinematography. The contrast is nearly perfect throughout, and the image is sharp and clear without losing the inherent grain structure that gives it a pleasingly filmlike appearance.
| English Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
French Dolby 1.0 Monaural
Like all of Bogdanovich’s early films, Paper Moon has no nondiegetic music, so the soundtrack contains only dialogue, sound effects, and music from narrative sources, all of which sounds clean and clear on this disc’s monaural soundtrack.
| Audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich|
Producer/director Peter Bogdanovich contributes an easygoing and informative screen-specific audio commentary. He has plenty to say about all aspects of the film’s production, and he continues his tendency to namedrop at an alarming rate (according to him, Orson Welles thought his title was so good he didn’t even need to bother making the film itself). He also offers a lot of interesting tidbits about the production, including how Tatum O’Neal mimicked him in smoking cigarettes (which had lettuce in them, by the way, not tobacco).
© 2003 James Kendrick