A rickety jalopy ride down a dusty Kansas road to a former lover’s funeral was all it took to rope conman, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), into meeting one of the most special ladies his puny life might ever know. Shot in glorious black and white and boasting a sharp wit set rakishly against bleak Depression-era Midwestern textures and scenery, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?) weaves up a comical homespun adventure in Paper Moon (1973). Paper Moon is a very welcome departure off the beaten path.
Moses Pray travels the American Midwest and cons recent widows into believing that their dearly departed husbands have purchased Bibles for them. Genuinely touched that their deceased loved ones would have been so piously generous in their final days, they gladly pay the difference (minus the original fictitious down-payment Pray alleges their husbands have already spent). It’s an easy gig with easy money, made easier by Pray’s seeming lack of a conscience, but it gets a lot more complicated after a visit to the funeral of a woman he once loved (she was what some might call a woman of ill repute). Orphaned Addie Loggins (played by 8-year-old Tatum O’Neal) is the spittin’ image of ol’ Moses (no coincidence, they were father and daughter in real life) and the old biddies at the funeral shame the con-artist into taking little Addie with him to her aunt’s house. Reluctantly, he obliges.
Moses feverishly denies the most probable possibility that he is the girl’s father, but the stone-faced, quick-witted tomboy, Addie, soon finds her way into the conman’s life (he earns money from Addie’s misfortune and she knows it and she demands he pay her back in full). The two form an uneasy alliance and turn out to make a pretty good con team. Addie’s added innocence to Moses’ scam pays off well for the shifty scam (despite Addie’s stubborn moral compass that she employs on certain occasions) and they set their sights higher and con their way across the state. In the eyes of the viewer, these two unlikely and extremely stubborn characters were made for each other.
And can I just say how good this film looks. It is beautiful. And although they are not exactly comparable, some similarities definitely exist and I say I love this movie a lot more than Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
The movie follows Moses and Addie through squabbles and squalls—as when buxom stripper, Miss Trixie Delight (played by the always enjoyable Madeline Kahn) makes her move to use and abuse an all-too-willing Moses and it’s up to Addie to break it up. Between Moses’ fast-talking and trouble-making, it’s all little Addie can do to keep the plan going and still have time for a smoke. Even if Moses may never admit he is her father, they become a very formidable family unit. At the end of the day they have nowhere else to turn but to each other.
I applaud any movie that makes us fall in love with lowly shysters and crafty vagabonds and Paper Moon is no exception. Moses Pray is plain diabolical (if a bit slipshod), and Addie Loggins proves her precocious mettle against many an odd. Tatum O’Neal is the real star of this picture and her deadpan performance as Addie notably garnered her the Academy Award for best supporting actor (against co-star Kahn and other child actor, Linda Blair for The Exorcist). The cast also includes John Hillerman (in a dual role) and Randy Quaid. Director Bogdanovich makes it all really work. This film earns its sweetness. And it’s got sass too. Paper Moon is fun and sweet and humorous and insanely likable. The script, performances, and the sumptuous cinematography all combine wonderfully well to transport us back to the Dust Bowl era in Middle America, when religion was in and wallets wore thin.
I encourage you to seek out this smarmy but sweet little treasure. Paper Moon is a charmer that can warm the most cynical of hearts…because that’s what it does to the cynical characters that inhabit the film. It’s an immensely pleasing and satisfying film that will paint a smile across your face that tickles each ear. Keep your sunny side up!
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 20, 2009