Review by Brynn White
Posted on 20 May 2010
Source Paramount DVD
Categories Seventies Screwball
The Last Picture Show demonstrated director Peter Bogdanovich’s self-awareness that Americana – and its embalming movie palaces – were decaying. Yet he disproved his own theorem with Paper Moon, which tips its Borsalino to the demigods of yore (namely John Ford and Howard Hawks) but does it with such panache and nuance – and two superlative performances – it emerges its own self-contained gem. Paper Moon is not made in the spirit of pastiche, and despite its historical specificity (and incredible 30s soundtrack) a fake antique it ain’t; it avoids nostalgic fetishism because there is nothing to overcompensate for – it is a masterful revivification of old-school formulas. In an early scene in the film the characters enjoy Coney Island hotdogs under a picaresquely reflected movie marquee (Steamboat Round the Bend, for those interested). Their Hollywood heritage looms over them from the beginning. There are elements of the road movie, con-man caper, and small town comedy, but the prevailing spirit is screwball to the core. Although showcasing a familial rather than romantic relationship, Paper Moon establishes notions of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness in perfect keeping with the screwball tradition.
And in 1973 there was no one better suited for such an enterprise than Peter Bogdanovich (although it was his better-half first wife Polly Platt who steered him towards the material after the John Huston-Paul Newman collaboration fell through). Today more notoriously known as a jackrabbit cinephile and ubiquitous presence on DVD commentaries, Bogdanovich was, at the turn of the decade, a industrious creative fuselage between Old and New Hollywood. Working from Alvin Sargent’s (later scribe of What About Bob? ) adaptation of Joe David Brown’s novel Addie Pray, Bogdanonvich renamed his project Paper Moon – a cinematically evocative title greenlit by no less an authority than Orson Welles – and synthesized his Golden Age fantasias of 1971 and ‘72: the lyrical-realist The Last Picture Show and ebulliently madcap What’s Up Doc? .
Bogdanovich played studio-era auteur in the early 70s by assembling a troupe of “in-house actors” and repositioned What’s Up Doc? ’s Ryan O’Neal as lead and Madeline Kahn as buxom third-wheel distraction in the Kansas dustbowl. He took the notion of ‘keeping it in the family’ even further by casting O’Neal’s 9-year-old daughter Tatum as precocious foil to her father’s acerbic con man. Disappointingly, Paper Moon has been relegated to a statistical footnote, canonized chiefly for its youngest ever competitive Oscar-recipient (Tatum bested fellow prepubescent breakthrough Linda Blair for The Exorcist). Salacious gossip has plagued the duo ever since, including recent allegations that Ryan O’Neal hit on his estranged (and notoriously drug-addled) daughter at Farrah Fawcett’s funeral. These sordid connotations cast a pall over the film’s proceedings akin to the diegetic backdrop of the Great Depression.
But the contrast of tones is essential to Paper Moon’s unique spell. As Roger Ebert noted, the most timeless thirties classics either addressed the Depression head-on (The Grapes of Wrath, I’m A Fugitive From the Chain Gang) or remained blissfully part (the Prohibition-defiant comedies set in Art Deo dreamscapes). Allusions to hard times couldn’t be escapist with the audience is in the eye of the storm, thus the dual approach is a privilege retrained by the later generations. They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and most significantly, Bonnie and Clyde made the 1930s en vogue, the cataclysmic era deemed a poignant parallel to the Vietnam generation. Easy Rider inaugurated the 1970s European-influenced existential road movie. But Paper Moon aims for something a little different: a spirited reclamation of fun outside of conventionality and the transcendence of the bleak surroundings.
No meet-cute here, as the characters are brought together by desperation and necessity: “Never has a child more needed a friend.” Paper Moon, shot in deep-focus black and white, begins grimly – with a graveside ceremony attended by a child and two morose elders in a Kansas field, not a tree or building in sight. Bogdanovich changed the film’s southern locale, drawn to the infinite flatness of the Midwest, which lent itself beautifully to his stark compositions part-Howard Hawks, part-Dorthea Lange. The terrain, as framed by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, is a nihilistic void in every direction. It is almost as if Tatum O’Neal’s Addie is being born again in this barren byway, the elements of her past now confined to a small box of trinkets, her mother’s legacy relegated to a picture, cheap perfume, and a racy kimono. A stranger arrives on the scene, Ryan O’Neal’s Moses Pray, a sore-thumb dandy who just “happened to be in the area,” and came to pay his respects. He is unwittingly recruited to chauffeur the perpetually unsmiling orphan to Missouri, where a charitable relative she’s never met awaits.
Propriety is abandoned immediately. Addie enjoys cigarettes in bed and speaks with a sailor’s tongue – and actually appears to understand the meaning behind every profanity. She inquires whether this “Moze” is her Pa or not and his response is anything but gentle. Moze’s short fuse implies he’s not used to keeping the company of anyone for long, and Addie likely felt like an orphan long before her floozy mother’s demise. But for two people used to gettin’ along on their own they certainly prove perceptive. Addie is on to him from the start, as he blackmails the brother of the married cad in the car accident that killed her mother; he promises not to stir up any trouble in exchange for two hundred smackers. Addie won’t let him off the hook until he pays her this rightful inheritance, and will regularly remind him of the debt – to the penny. She’s cast her net; “Don’t you know the woman always wins?” Cary Grant once admonished Bogdanovich.
Moze deals in a deliciously amoral racket: scouring the local obits, then preying on vulnerable widows with a Bible monogrammed in their name, “ordered” – and unpaid for – by the recently deceased. Addie displays superlative instinct, crowing innocently for “Daddy” when suspicious relations look ready to sock the stranger on their doorstep. Moze reluctantly accepts that he’s far more trustworthy as a father just trying to put food on the table for his little girl and he eventually sends out Addie front and center. But this tyke is an even smoother operator, raising the prices when she knows they can get it, confidently sticking her neck on the line to Moze’s helpless astonishment. And she proves shrewd accountant to their escalating profits. Just when things are getting good the inevitable third party intrusion arrives in the guise of Madeline Kahn. As Trixie Delight, she’s more Jean Harlow than Ralph Bellamy, and Moze falls hook, line, and sinker for the shapely carnival dancer whose also a Lady (“She’s got a high school diploma!”). Addie is just as disappointed in his suckerdom as she is the end of their escapades and her front-seat privileges.
Trixie, all ruffles and wiggles and urination malapropisms, is a synthetic vulgarism that attributes the bee in Addie’s bonnet to her lack of makeup and pretty things. Addie, however, follows in the footsteps of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, androgynous heroines in man’s world who play their games and play them better. She still wants to be acknowledged as a girl, taking great offense when a barber mistakes her gender – she’s just no dimpled Shirley Temple. Trixie, a debauched, overgrown Shirley, and her dependence on her big jugs can never ultimately “hold on to anything for long” because she hasn’t developed the right tools. Addie resists the pinafores and hair ribbons Moze forces upon her and she one-ups Trixie when she relies on her wits to expose her shameless use of sex for profit. The darkest moment of the film comes not in The Grapes of Wrath-reminiscent shots of weary, roadside travels, but in Moze’s subsequent plea that Addie not grow up “to be the kind of woman that goes around manipulating men.” Afterall, his education of her has been in the art of deception.
But there’s has also been a game of affection. Screwball has a rich tradition of father-daughter pairings: the card shark duo of The Lady Eve, Ellie Andrews and her affluent, domineering old man in It Happened One Night, and most significantly The Philadelphia Story, which is in many ways the tale of Katharine Hepburn’s substantiation that she is not the ice princess her father fears she is (it is technically their embrace that the film proper ends on). The respect/approval of the father proves an essential platform for these women to find happiness with another man. The protagonists of screwball comedy, as observed by Stanley Cavell, must recreate a shared past together through game-playing and adventure. Moze and Addie similarly regenerate her childhood with Moze reinstated as father figure.
In the novel, Moze had recurrently called on Addie and her mother, bearing gifts and affection, but Bogdanovich places these two prior strangers at ground zero and turns their antagonism up to eleven. “He’s. Not. My. Pa.” Addie often growls, while Moze hisses to an overaccommodating waitress, “Her name ain’t Precious.” The two make a living capitalizing on other people’s sentimentality; true to their cinematic forbearers, their own love impulses express themselves in conflict —an ecstatic display of insults and frustrations. The joy in their dynamic lies in the spirit of oneupmanship. They find pleasure in impressing the other, of raising the bar on daring do.
To fulfill this life of improvisation in the midst of the Great Depression they must take to the open road. Mobility is their rebellious response to the social crisis that stagnates all the other dupes. Only outside of conventional domesticity can they negotiate a dynamic to endure a lifetime – the very essence of screwball. The high-paced, unpredictable existence is almost their downfall after an ambitious bootlegging scam leaves Moze battered, penniless, and with no seeming choice but to deliver Addie to the lemonade-and-cookies security of her aunt. But it is merely their first test. The greatest con Addie and Moze pull on the world is that they are father and daughter… they’re ultimately something more binding and substantial. Subversive to the end, they choose each other as kin like others choose their soulmates. They must accept the Awful Truth: that they need each other. And once they do, scooting away to the next exploit in their breakdown-happy truck, the flat, Midwestern road finally hits an uphill climb.