Monday, January 17, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Paper Moon" (1973)

"Paper Moon" is best remembered today for boasting the performance by the youngest actor to ever win an Oscar, Tatum O'Neal at age 10.  She beat out Candy Clark from "American Graffiti," Sylvia Sidney from "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," Linda Blair of "The Exorcist" (just 14 herself) and O'Neal's own co-star, Madeline Kahn, for the Best Supporting Actress statue for 1973.

(She wasn't the youngest to ever get a nod, though. Jackie Cooper was nine when he was nominated for "Skippy" from 1931, and the youngest nominee ever was Justin Henry, age 8 for 1979's "Kramer vs. "Kramer." Shirley Temple received an honorary Oscar at six.)

It really is an amazing performance, especially when considers she'd never acted in anything before. Director Peter Bogdanovich recruited her to play alongside her real-life father, Ryan O'Neal, as a Depression-era girl who accompanies a con man on a small-time crime spree through the Midwest. People accused Ryan of nepotism, of course, but actually the film was always conceived as a father/daughter pairing: It originally was to have starred Paul Newman and his daughter, Nell Potts, but they left the project when director John Huston quit.

Tatum spends much of the film with a sour-pussed expressed pasted to her adorable little pixie face -- especially when anyone mistakes her character, Addie Loggins, for a boy (which happens frequently because of her short, almost severe haircut).

The screenplay by Alvin Sargent -- who's still alive and kicking in his 80s, thank you very much, having penned the last two "Spider-Man" films -- was adapted from the novel, "Addie Pray," by Joe David Brown. Bogdanovich got the new title from the 1933 song, "It's Only a Paper Moon," and includes a brief scene where Addie has a picture of herself taken in front of a faux moon, which she gives to Ryan O'Neal's character, Moses "Moze" Pray.

What's most interesting about "Paper Moon" is that it has the tone and timbre of a comedy, but the setting and style of the film are somber and more reminiscient of a European art film.

Start with the fact that it was shot in gorgeous black-and-white (by László Kovács) with a deep-focus lens, suggested by Bogdanovich mentor Orson Welles (which is a pretty awesome person to have as your mentor). Coupled with the spare visuals of the Kansas and Missouri plains, a dustbowl of poor farmers straggling along the road and economic blight, it's practically a widescreen opus of dreariness.

And yet, for all that suffering, we never really feel like our two main characters are in danger. Even the big scary moment at the end, when Moze is cornered by a dirty sheriff looking for payback from Moze scamming his bootlegger brother, the worst that happens to him is he gets (lightly) beaten up and has the stolen money stolen back.

The other big confrontation of the film is when Addie arranges for Moze to stumble upon his newfound girlfriend, a stripper named Trixie Delight (Kahn), in flagranta delicto with a hotel clerk -- but the expected bloodletting never arrives. Addie's partner in crime, Trixie's long-suffering black assistant Imogene (P.J. Johnson), predicts that Moze will kill them both. But he is simply disappointed -- heartbroken is not really in his wheelhouse, since he avoids attachment -- and Moze and Addie depart.

Addie and Moze's relationship is understated, which I think only underscores how much these two scammers care for each other, since showing their cards is something they both eschew. Moze picked her up after the funeral of Addie's mother, who many people suspect (including Addie) dallied with Moze and produced her only offspring.

So it's an interesting fact-and-fiction parentage puzzle: A real father and daughter playing a pair we suspect might be an actual parent and child, though they deny it, posing as such.

Moze was charged with delivering Addie to her aunt in Missouri, but instead he found an accomplice for his habit of scamming recent widows into buying overpriced Bibles. Turns out no one thinks a man with a cute little daughter could be dishonest. She soon upstages both his skill and daring.

Addie acts as their accountant and moral conscience, carefully tabulating their earnings -- which she keeps stored in her totem-like Cremo box, which also contains her few possessions -- while suggesting they give some of it away to the downtrodden folks they encounter in their journeys. (Imogene gets $30 to help her return to the home she ran away from.) Moze, who poses as a blackheart but has a bigger soft spot than he admits even to himself, wants to avoid all risk, especially lawmen.

John Hillerman -- best known as Higgins from TV's "Magnum P.I." -- has a sly dual role as the bootlegger and his brother the sheriff. Moze comes up with a scheme to steal whiskey from the bootlegger's stash and then sell it back to him. Turns out the lawman is the biggest con artist of them all.

With its sweet disposition but striking backdrop, "Paper Moon" is a lovely, wonderful film that always keeps us guessing.

3.5 stars out of four

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