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PAPER MOON, 1973
Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal and Madeline Kahn
Adapted from the novel, "Addie Pray" (1971) by Joe David Brown, PAPER MOON is the story of Moses Pray and Addie Loggins. With scenery reminiscent of "The Grapes of Wrath," the film is set in the depression-era Midwestern region of the United States. As the movie opens, we see a small group of mourners clustered at a graveside. Among the mourners is Addie, the dead woman's small daughter. Moses Pray -- ostensibly of the "Kansas Bible Company" -- approaches the group, as the service concludes, and two of the elderly women remark that the child bears some resemblance to him and asks if he might be related.
Having seen Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 hit “Paper Moon” as an 8 year old, I was not so eager to revisit the film 37 years later. I remembered it as a hugely entertaining and funny movie made for children. However, upon the insistence of a friend, I relented and watched “Paper Moon” last week. Much to my delight and surprise I found a film that had not only retained all its charm and humor over the decades but had also followed through on many more of the subtle aspects of masterful filmmaking which with my young eyes had not been privy to first time around.
Based on the novel “Addie Pray” by Joe David Brown, “Paper Moon” is the story of a young girl (Tatum O’Neal) who finds herself in cahoots with a con man (Ryan O’Neal) after her mother dies during the Great Depression. Together they make money on small time swindles as they travel through rural Kansas and Missouri.
What struck me immediately was the accuracy and detail in regards to time and place. Basically, the film is flawless in this respect. From old recordings, cars, snatches of radio programs and impeccable styling of actors, there is not one thing that gives away that this film was made in the 1970s. They had even researched how cars were parked in the 1930s and had them on an angle to the sidewalk.
Then there are the dramatic shots of rolling prairie grasses and sweeping lonely landscapes that gave the film a moody, somber back drop and remind the audience that these were wearying and difficult times. At many points in the film, I was admiring of the wonderful camera work but it never interferes with the drama onscreen or feels self conscious but rather adds to an already full experience of the story. The scene of Addie’s mother’s funeral, for example, feels a desperately lonely as the camera takes in long shots of prairie grasses waving in a rough wind but it only adds to the sadness of this moment for Addie and is a reflection of her sorry state rather than a mere visual aesthetic.
The performances from all the cast are lively and effortless. Ryan O’Neal’s fantastic rapport with Tatum O’Neal is key and he is at his most likeable in this story. Moving swiftly from humor to petulance to anger, resentment and back again as he deals with the wise beyond her years Addie, Ryan shows his dexterity as an actor and ability to be completely available to his co-star and daughter. Tataum O’Neal in turn makes a fascinating Annie. Never once playing the “I’m such a cute little actress” card, Tatum is a tight lipped, surly little gangster who proves she is a force to be reckoned with and easily convinces us she can run rings around adults. Sucking on cigarettes and reminding Moses how much money he owes her, she is the rough diamond with a soft heart that wins us over as an audience.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend “Paper Moon” to any age group. That’s the beauty of it- there is something here for every age group- a quality piece of cinema whose authenticity and light hearted look at a very difficult time in American history is both refreshing and completely engaging.