Starring: Tatum O’Neal, Ryan O’Neal
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
8-year-old Tatum O’Neal deservedly won an Oscar for her role in this charming, Capra-esque evocation of Depression-era America. She plays Addie, a boot-faced orphan who finds herself being ferried by car to her aunt by Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a sleazy Bible salesman who might, for all she knows, actually be her father – something he vehemently denies, but then he would, wouldn’t he? Along she way she turns out to be a chip off the old block in terms of sharpness and an astute apprentice to Moses’s various scams, but she also has firm ideas of her own, particularly when it comes to divvying up the profits.
The film is a gentle picaresque whose key strengths are its warm performances, immaculate period atmosphere and deep focus black-and-white cinemography by Laszlo Kovacs that makes the most of the flat, wide open Kansas landscape. The script by Alvin Sargent is loosely episodic, but it’s ripe with comical interludes (as when Moses takes up with a buxom – and high maintenance – fairground girl, much to Addie’s disgust) and vaudevillian repartee, and there are enough bitter moments to make you swallow the sweet ones.
Best of all, there’s young Tatum, who takes Addie from a Jackie Coogan-like tough street kid to something deeper, a little girl trying to wrestle a childhood and a family out of the hand she’s been dealt. As Peter Bogdavonich points out in the accompanying extras, his use of long takes meant that this was a performance that genuinely had to come from her rather than one that could be assembled in the editing lab, and as a result Paper Moon has a real heart. 8/10
Some rather busy grain that perhaps has something to do with the way the movie was shot, in deep focus, with wide angle lenses that required powerful arc lights, but in general the picture has an impressive, almost 3-D quality. Individual sequences come up very sharply indeed – the fairground scene has lovely inky blacks, and in the scene where Trixie talks to Addie on the hill, Trixie’s hair has an impressive glossy texture. 7/10
A trio of featurettes, previously released but very nice, adding up to about 35 mins in all. Bogdanovich talks about the development of the script and the casting of the O’Neals (Tatum first, then Ryan as an afterthought), and explains how he came up with the title. We learn that the story was originally supposed to be set in the deep South, but the director decided to shift the location to Kansas. There’s also some interesting technical stuff to do with shooting in b/w and the use of red and green filters for depth of field and high contrast. ~ A clear and detailed audio commentary by Bogdanovich from 2003 – he discusses the Kansas locations and reveals that much of the film was shot in continuity, with only one line that wasn’t recorded live. 8/10