For little Addie Roberts
By Michael Roberts
A wonderful piece of entertainment, with a delicate line running from near pathos and sentiment to grit and depth and hanging almost entirely on the ability of a 9 year old untried actress who steals the picture and the viewer's heart with her wise-cracking, cigarette smoking, old-beyond-her-years portrayal of Addie Pray. Peter Bogdanovich did a fantastic job of making the various tones work beautifully together, and never lapsed into cliché, utilising the smarmy charm of 'movie star' Ryan O'Neal and probably not believing his luck in what daughter Tatum would unearth as Addie, her stone faced visage and stubborn demeanour getting into Buster Keaton-esque territory at times. The Academy could not ignore such a remarkable performance and to honour the debutant actress for her achievement she became the youngest winner of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Bogdanovich abandoned plans for a mega-western to star John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart after Duke turned him down, and he recalled Paramount's offer of the book Addie Pray. After his last film, the screwball hommage What's Up Doc he took on the project and changed its title to Paper Moon after a period song, and keen to work with Ryan O'Neal again he cast him as Moses Pray and embarked on filming. Polly Platt, Bogdanovich's ex-wife and production designer, suggested Tatum for the pivotal role and Bogdanovich didn't need to test her after meeting her at Ryan's house, finding the keenly observant young girl more than a match for the adults present.
In true Ford-ian tradition Bogdanovich opens with a community ritual, this time a funeral in a sparse rural setting, with a glorious close up on Addie as she's burying her mother. Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) arrives late, in a sputtering jalopy, and in a revealing aside steals the flowers from another grave before he joins the tiny congregation. Moses' relationship to the dead woman is not specified, but asked if he's the father of Addie he denies it, despite her 'having his jaw'. The Priest prevails upon him to take the child to he5r Aunt Billie in St Joseph's once he overhears Moses saying he's going to Missouri, and he reluctantly agrees, thinking there may be a way to take advantage of the situation. With Addie in tow he blackmails the brother of the driver of a car that killed Addie's mother into paying him $200 for the child to avoid ;legal action. Addie overhears the conversation, and in a superb scene in a diner (with John Ford's 1935 film Steamboat Around The Bend playing in the cinema opposite) she demands he hand her the $200 or she'll call the police. Now unable to dump her at the train station as he'd planned, and unable to pay the money as he'd spent it on his car, he sets off for St Joseph with Addie on board.
Addie observes as Moses makes his living, he's a small time con-man, and his fir5st racket is to find recent widow's and to present them with a gold embossed deluxe Bible that their late husband had ordered as a gift for them, with money owing of course. Addie is too worldly to be shocked about the scam, growing up with her mother as a 'flapper' or maybe worse, and soon she's improving on and expanding the scam for a percentage of the action. Moses sees the business possibilities of working a double act and agrees to split the profits. All is well until Moses becomes infatuated with another 'good time' girl Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), intimations of Addie's mother's part in his life, as Addie sees Trixie to be competition she needs to be rid of. Trixie herself acknowledges to Addie that she can't win ultimately, and in a beautiful moment on a hill asks Addie to let her have Moses just for a little while longer. Addie arranges a sexual indiscretion to cure Moses of his Trixie fixation and the two concoct even greater schemes and scams, including selling whiskey to the brother of a town Sheriff. The Sheriff (John Hillerman) arrests the pair and they escape, only to be found across the state line, where the Sheriff and his thugs beat Moses to a pulp, causing him to reconsider the life choice for Addie and to take her to Aunt Billie's after all.
Bogdanovich again reveals himself to be more classicist than part of a post Nouvelle Vague brat pack deconstructionist crew, and the film lovingly keeps to the rhythms and beats of the classic Hollywood cinema of Hawks and Ford. The post modernist twist is the adult knowing of Addie, the anti Shirley Temple, and interestingly Bogdanovich avoided the book opening of Addie hearing the news of her mother's death at a Temple film. The device works superbly, Addie always one step ahead of the adults whose world it is she inhabits. She's carved out a niche for herself through sheer force of will, and acknowledges her place in the world in a political subtext where she is a fan of Roosevelt's New Deal, 'Frank D Roosevelt says we got to help each other', whereas Moses is not, declaring the only person he wants to help is himself. Gorgeous depression era shots are throwaways, Okies in a broken down truck, a small family wandering the endless empty roads of the midwest, as Addie and Moses get to know each other, thereby giving the film it's enormous heart. When a shocked Moses declares to Addie 'I Have scruples,' she replies 'you know what they are'? she doesn't know what they are, but 'if you got 'em you can be sure they belong to somebody else'! Addie struggles to come to terms with life after her mother, touchingly trying to become her in a scene in a bathroom with pearls and perfume. Addie's devotion to Moses reveals itself in the moving moment she leaves a photo of herself in his car once she's dumped at Aunt Billie's, as we know the photo she has of her mother is the one thing that means anything to her. Bogdanovich never lapses into overt sentimentality, and that enables moments like these to have real impact and to give the film great depth.
As one of only three films by the production partnership The Director's Company formed by Bogdanovich, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola, Paper Moon holds a special place in the period of the American Renaissance. The property was with John Huston for a time, and he'd agreed to cast Paul Newman and his daughter, but Huston moved on leaving the way clear for Bogdanovich. The setting was moved from Alabama to Kansas, and was mostly filmed on location there and partly in Missouri. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs shot the film in a clean black and white, achieved with the aid of a red filter mostly at the behest of Orson Welles. The result is a period piece that looks impossibly beautiful, anchored by a great performance from Ryan O'Neal as the 'straight' man, a difficult and thankless role, but dominated by a preternaturally talented force of nature called Tatum. As with his breakout film The Last Picture Show Bogdanovich makes superb use of the songs of the era, and uses them as his de-facto score to brilliant effect. Paper Moon remains a classic and endearing love letter to old Hollywood, from its most ardent admirer.
(and no reality show, soap opera with the two stars 40 years later can diminish the value of this work!)
For my niece, Addie Cloud Roberts, born 18/08/2012