by Sam Juliano
The road picture genre is one that’s been so plentifully visited through the years that one would have little disputation giving it an independent classification. Some of the American cinema’s most celebrated characters have traveled across states, trying to evade capture, embarking on various escapades or just geographically fueling their unrest. Joan Graham and Eddie Taylor, Tom Joad, Clyde Barrow, Kit Carruthers, Keechie and Bowie and recently Woody Grant have made their marks on the landscape offering up their blood, sweat and tears, and in some instances their lives to achieve a subversive brand of the American Dream. Of course the Americans don’t remotely hold a monopoly on the stamp, and cinephiles will fondly recall accomplished works such as La Strada, Alice in the Cities, The Vanishing, Wages of Fear, Alice in the Cities and The Trip among others that explore the form with special attention to the sociological, psychological and political elements that fuel the narratives. It is no wonder that a great many of the films that fall into this category are largely about crime, as after all criminals on the run are apt to travel long distances for obvious reasons, but the elements of adventure and transience are the initial or prime proclivity of many road movie protagonists. Of course there are some celebrated road trips made in the recesses of dreams in fantastical locations, with none more famous than the one that featured the yellow brick road and an emerald palace. What unites all road pictures is the insatiable thirst of its characters to leave behind, however temporary, what is invariably seen as a dead end street, and the need to act on some of their hankerings to attain either material or spiritual benefit. The results are a mixed lot.
The acclaimed auteur Peter Bogdonovich followed up on two monster hits in the early 1970s- his magisterial classic The Last Picture Show, and a screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc? The latter was a box-office smash, while the former was greeted by some of the best reviews and American film had received in years, and secured a host of awards and eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture. His third project was actually recommended to him by the studio, but the director initially balked. He later changed his mind largely at the urgings of his former wife Polly Platt, but also because of his fondness of period films and his confidence in the screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who was brought in to adapt Joe David Brown’s novel “Addie Pray.” The renowned cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was given the assignment, and of course Pratt herself explored locations, for what was to be arresting art direction. The film was to be titled Paper Moon.
From early on it is clear enough that Paper Moon is character rather than plot driven. The actions of the characters are arbitrary and subject to quick modification, and it is never clear if they will actually reach a destination. Of course this strategy pays off in dividends: The real-life father-daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal are captivating, and a motley array of supporting characters wring all the comic possibilities, even while there is a resonant melancholic strain that keeps the film acutely mired in a time where success and well-being are practically unattainable. Like all Depression era films the focus always centers around money, and the inherent difficulties in attaining it. The film opens with an extended close-up of the film’s central protagonist – a young female named Addie who is dressed like a tomboy. Bogdonovich stated in a running commentary recorded years back that he wanted the audience to know right from the start just who the film was about.
Shot in Kansas and Missouri (the two locales of the story) in the Depression era language of monochrome, the director was cognizant of the downside of working with color, which would have diminished some of the depth of field, while prettifying a picture that already straddled the line of cuteness. Paper Moon focuses on the first half of Brown’s novel, altering the start with a long take of a minimalist cemetery landscape before the aforementioned close-up. A service is being held for Addie’s mother, who was killed in an accident. The canvas is breathtaking, suffused by the subdued textures of a mournful sky. The brief serenity of the scene is interrupted by the arrival of a dapper young man named Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who in short order is revealed as a con artist and a swindler, whose successful vocation to to scour local obits to firm up an itinerary comprised of visits to recent widows, where he fabricates stories about their late husbands ordering Bibles from him. Though it is never conclusive that Moses may be Addie’s real father, the arc of the narrative seems to lean in that direction. In any event he always denies the query. He tells the girl he will be taking her to one of his mother’s sisters, who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri for her future upbringing, but puts the mule before the horse after a few timely events alter the urgency of the plans.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby opined in a mixed review published on May 17, 1973 that the film’s innocuous adventures didn’t measure up to its outstanding period art direction, but time seems to have diminished the scribe’s bone of contention. Not only do the film’s escapades still greatly amuse, but Paper Moon is loaded with many neat details and observations that enhance the splendid orchestrated vignettes. In one front door encounter the precocious Addie quickly cases a rich woman’s house with acute eye application, zeroing in on her earrings and a hanging chandelier in her living room, interrupting “Moze’s” introduction with a quickly announcing Bible asking price of $24 for a deluxe edition. Another superbly timed scam features Addie telling a startled cashier that she received the wrong change from a $20 bill. The woman is flabbergasted and insists the girl gave her a $5 bill. (which she did). After Addie carried on and bursts into tears the store owner intervenes but inquiring about all the fuss. The cashier holds firm, but the young girl imparts a vital piece of information about an inscription on the $20 she supposedly paid with. It wins her the support of the owner, who tells his exasperated employee to give the girl the correct change and a piece of candy. Of course Moze had previously bought something with the dubious bill in question. Shortly thereafter another store owner- an especially congenial middle aged woman is duped out of $5 after Moze confused her with the old singles-for-a-larger-bill trick after the purchase of a bow.
Of course the film’s aficionados will rightly cite the early scenes that indoctrinate the girl into this spree of deception, set into motion after Addie overhears the conversation Moze has with the grain mill owner and brother of the man who drove his car into a tree, killing Addie’s mother. Moze tries for a big score telling the initially hostile man that he would hire a lawyer that would win a good part of his holdings in a suit, but, secretly tickled pink, settles for the $200 he is offered. After Addie witnesses Moze spend almost half the money on repairs to his Model A convertible she challenges him in an uproarious luncheonette scene, loudly demanding the $200 that is rightfully hers in front of some alarmed patrons. It was after this humiliation that Moze agreed to work until the girl received her money. The newly minted duo then attend a local carnival, where Moze quickly becomes smitten with an exotic dancer and sexpot named “Trixy Delight” (Madeline Kahn). Addie is disappointed when she is stood up at a photo booth so Moze could follow up on his infatuation. Addie has her picture taken while sitting on a crescent moon -the film’s primary promotional still, and the one that qualifies the title- and then is further distressed that Moze has invited Trixie and her disadvantaged African-American maid Imogene back to the hotel. One of the film’s best scenes in the one where Trixie breaks down Addie’s resistance with flattery and self-criticism on grassy hill, populated by a visually divine bare-branch tree. Though Addie and Trixie bond, the young girl decides to formulate a plan to get rid of her when Moze commits all of his attention to her, while spending all their accumulated money on a new car to impress the big-breasted bunny. The elaborate plan that is contingent on precise timing is a real corker, and is further evidence that in addition to Paper Moon’s considerable artistry, the film is marvelously and subversively entertaining. When Moze witnesses the fruit of Addie’s deception he leaves Trixie to return to the highway with Addie.
What potentially in the biggest heist yet avails itself in the form of a bootlegger’s whiskey stash, which the dynamic duo steal, one to sell it back to the unsuspecting victim. But their luck runs out when they are confronted by the sheriff, who is actually a brother of the bootlegger. They are brought in for questioning, but Addie again employs her ingenuity to hide the $625 in her hat and steals back the car key to enable an unlikely escape. Moze wins a “wrasslin” match against a hillbilly, allowing for an exchange of his car for an old farm truck, with which they beat back a chase by the sheriff’s men to cross the state line into Missouri. Moze is found by the sheriff and his men who tell Moze he can’t be arrested in another state, but they will make sure he doesn’t feel so good. They get the money back and beat him. Addie finds him and he recovers, but resolves to brings Addie to her aunt’s. Moze stops when the truck overheats and finds the photograph Addie took of herself at the carnival, while simultaneously spotting an approaching figure in his rearview mirror. The story comes full circle when Moze lets Addie join him after she reminds him that he still owes her $200.
Young Miss O’Neal won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a host of other critical awards for her spunky and confidence performance, She has age on her side as far as the matter of audience sympathies lie, and even her cigarette smoking brings on laughs. Bogdonovich did explain in his commentary that they obtained a type of lettuce to replace tobacco, and the girl followed the style of the adults. The scene of her and Imogene smoking in the car outside the hotel is a hoot. Aside from one feigned burst of bawling in the scene where he complains bout getting the wrong change, she keeps her emotions in check, and comes off as someone well beyond her years. The elder O’Neal is well suited the con man histrionics, giving what is surely one of his best performances, certainly up there with his turns in Barry Lyndon and Love Story. Ms. Kahn is altogether superlative as as the flirting narcissist, and every moment she’s in the film from the carnival to her final scene in a hotel bed is utter joy. Kahn received an Oscar nomination for the film in the supporting actress category won by Miss O’Neal, and the following year was nominated again for Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Her performance in Young Frankenstein is also beloved by movie fans. P.J. Johnson as Imogene and John Hillerman as Deputy and Jess Harden are splendid in their small town Americana roles. Bogdonovich and Kovacs capture the tinny recordings, the radio shows, and the cars superbly. On the advice of Orson Welles, Kovacs used a red filter to give the monochrome a visually arresting gleam. Bogdonovich employed deep focus for some of the shots, and favored the movement within an extended frame.
There is certainly a lovable rogue aspect to those who use their ingenuity and peoples’ skills to beat the capitalist system, especially during times when income is scarce. similarly there is always a degree of empathy when a child is able to put something over on the adults. Paper Moon is part and parcel to such leanings, and to be sure it lies at the center of the film’s enduring appeal.