Paper Moon (1973, D. Peter Bogdanovich)
When I was a boy and went to carnivals, my father used to spend a bit more time than the average dad explaining how each game was rigged and how not to get taken for a mark. I think this started when I was maybe seven or eight, which meant he was on this particular case even before he got saved and became a minister.
He was warning me against the sharpers, of course, but he was also warning me against a younger version of himself–the version that was on the other side of the short con before he was transformed by meeting the woman who would become my mother.
All of which means I’m apt to feel a little closer than most to the con-man’s world of Paper Moon–and perhaps respond to that world a little more viscerally.
This might not have ever been quite my life…
But, allowing for a gender change, this certainly could have been…
Or, among many other scenes, certainly this (even down to a five being changed for a ten, though, to be fair, my brother never reported being driven down this path, a sign that my father might have had at least a few more “scruples” than Moses Pray, even if they still belonged to somebody else)…
And that’s before you get into dropping twenties or selling Deluxe Editions of the King James to widows.
Paper Moon was released in 1973, near the end (1968–74) of the New Golden Age in Hollywood, which–at least according to the standard narrative–began closing down rather quickly when the blockbuster success of Jaws in the summer of 1975 transformed both the business and the art of making movies.
Well, you know how fond I am of “standard narratives,” even when they do have a grain of truth in them.
So I’d just add that it was probably the culture that was being transformed and Hollywood did what Hollywood does–follow along.
But, in any case, Paper Moon–which I revisited for the first time in years this week—now plays like a story reflected in a double mirror. A razor-sharp, but loving look at the old, mostly economic, Depression (which ended with World War II, more or less) just before the new, mostly spiritual Depression (which is with us yet) fully set in.
However many directions it moves in, it’s a comedy with poignant moments. Not having seen it for so long, though, I found myself both laughing out loud (which movies rarely make me do anymore, not even when I know I should be laughing) and wondering where it all went.
Because this movie is very much about the can-do spirit. It’s purely American not so much because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else, but because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else for purely spiritual reasons.
Namely, no other culture ever made Spitfires quite like the American Spitfire.
And no Spitfire was ever quite as definitive as Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Pray is in this movie.
In 1973, she was part of a long line that stretched back at least as far as Jo March and ran straight through to True Grit’s Mattie Ross, with stops along the way for characters as otherwise divergent as Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch and the Disney version of the tomboy (usually played by Hayley Mills in her honorary American phase).
That line–like so much else–ended in the seventies.
There have been plenty of subsequent attempts to carry it forward. The concept has hardly died off. But, except for Tatum’s own subsequent reprisal in The Bad News Bears, there’s been nothing since that even approaches either iconography or a new twist on the theme.
It was interesting to learn, in the DVD’s “making of” documentary, which I hadn’t seen before, that–contrary to another standard narrative (or at least a standard assumption) Tatum was cast first.
Director Peter Bogdonavich’s then wife, Polly Platt, suggested her because of her “whiskey voice.” Despite her never having acted, Bogdonavich was intrigued enough to meet with her and liked what he saw (and heard). That the subsequent deal included her dad, with whom the director had just shared a big success in What’s Up Doc?, (on the set of which Platt had first encountered that whiskey voice) was a bonus.
Not a lot of eight-year-old kids have white-hot movie star dads (with the attendant “bone structure,” which gets such a nice run in the script here), access to whiz kid A-list directors and whiskey voices.
That late in the Spitfire game, all those aspects were probably necessary.
And, even with all that, it wasn’t a given that any kid so young would produce such a staggering performance. It was/is so good that Bogdonavich–as a certain style of male is wont to do with women of any age who have got to some place he can’t quite fathom–spent a lot of years claiming more or less full credit for it, though his commentary here suggests age and experience have tempered hubris (though not his very justifiable pride in the film itself).
Of course it was also so good that it probably wrecked a few lives, including Tatum O’Neal’s own.
Her dad never really met any version of my mom I guess. At least not in time.
And winning a well deserved Oscar at nine years old leaves a long way to fall. Maybe longer if your white hot co-star father and that whiz kid director are so miffed at being left off the list of nominees they don’t even bother to show up.
Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdonavich and Polly Platt all seemed to have entered a charmed circle in order to make this miraculous thing. At its conclusion, they were all officially on top of the world, where they might very reasonably have expected to stay for a long, healthy run.
Instead, none of them were ever quite the same again. They all did good work, here and there. None ever again reached quite so high.
Strange then, that of all that motley crew who “transformed” movies just before–coincidentally or not–movies went away, it was Bogdonavich (often, and I think wrongly, counted among the lighter weights next to Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, Scorcese, et al) who provided the images that, in looking back, best anticipated the bleak moral consequences of the coming age, when short cons would rule far more than just traveling salesmen, carnival midways and Hollywood dreams.