In a year where The Godfather reigned supreme at the Oscars and The Exorcist terrified audiences worldwide, I take a look at the lower-key comedy Paper Moon, directed by Hollywood icon Peter Bogdanovich.
Deep in the years of the depression, small town conman Moses ‘Moze’ Pray (Ryan O’Neal) turns up at an old flame’s funeral to pay his respects. He is somehow, after some strong advice against it, given the responsibility to drive Addie (Tatum O’Neal), the now orphaned daughter of the deceased, to her aunt’s home in Missouri. But like any good businessman, he doesn’t let his new passenger stop him from completing a few cons before they head out of town. But Addie, being a perceptive kid, clocks on to Moze’s game and quickly blackmails him into letting her joining his work so that Moze can repay the $200 he made at her expense.
In an era when New Hollywood was heating up and gritty realism was the order of the day, it must have seemed like a bold move for Bogdanovich to make a nostalgia-fuelled period piece. But thankfully it was a bold move with a seriously great outcome, because Paper Moon is a genuinely hilarious and honest family comedy. It’s old fashioned of course, and not just in its aesthetic (though being shot in black and white doesn’t hurt) but in its ideals and characters as well as its wit and, dare I say it, moxie.
The core sentiment – charming crook gets his cold heart warmed up by a surprise relationship he did not expect – is tried and tested. You’ve got the obvious great blend of comedy and conflict, the fish out of water scenario we’ve all seen before, but the fact that this blooming relationship is with a nine-year-old girl who might or might not be his daughter is something a little different. It adds confusion to the situation and creates a rather interesting affection between Moze and Addie that develops nicely throughout the film.
The father/daughter dynamic is fantastic, undoubtedly helped by the fact that the leads were father and daughter in real life. But even with that close connection already there, the back-and-forth between the two is excellent, and leads to many of the laughs. The comic timing is phenomenal too, it’s like watching two seasoned actors in a 40s/50s romantic comedy go toe-to-toe with wise-cracks (without the sexual tension obviously!). Paper Moon is film that completely relies on the chemistry of the leads and I think it’s fair to say that it has it in abundance.
At the age of 10, Tatum O’Neal won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year – rightly so because she does steal a hell of a lot of scenes in the flick – but Ryan O’Neal’s Moze is the heart and soul of the piece. We should hate him; he makes his living conning recently-widowed women into buying bibles that their husbands had mysteriously ordered before passing away. He’s an awful human being, but his charm and his charisma are so likeable that we forget his faults in an instant. As soon as the double act begins with Addie, it’s full steam ahead.
One great aspect about doing Film7070 and seeing styles, in filmmaking and storytelling, change throughout the years is that it becomes exciting to see the odd movie that harks back to past generations. Although decades apart in real life, it’s only been few months for me and that clear evolution is a real treat to witness in such a short period of time. Paper Moon, for me, is one of those rare films that could fit perfectly in the era it’s representing. Two great performances, some solid laughs and a well-developed relationship means that it could well be one of the best road movies in cinema history.