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Paper Moon, the latest entry into Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, comes with a heavy dose of nostalgia. In 1973, Peter Bogdanovich, on top form after the success of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, looked back fondly at pre-war America and a golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. Nostalgia is timeless, which is why his adaptation of Joe David Brown’s novel remains touching, funny, and relevant four decades later. Paper Moon sets out to be a classic and somehow manages to achieve this ambitious goal.
The film is best remembered for producing the youngest Oscar-winner of all time. Tatum O’Neal was only 10 years old when she was awarded an Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role. She does however much more than merely lend support to her real-life father and star Ryan O’Neal. She carries the entire film as Addie, a recently orphaned girl who is taken on a journey by a man who may or may not be her father. Together Addie and Moses develop a PG Bonnie-and-Clyde-dynamic, as they hustle and trick their way across Kansas with the law on their tails. Gullible widows are the primary prey of their clever bible-selling scheme, but inattentive shopkeepers and dodgy bootleggers are not safe either. The two protagonists reluctantly learn to collaborate and take full advantage of Addie’s innocent appearance, forming a deep connection in the process.
The film plays out like a classic depression-era drama like John Ford’s classic The Grapes of Wrath (1940) with a comedic touch reminiscent of Howard Hawks or Frank Capra. Bogdanovich wisely decided to shoot in black-and-white and use long takes in order to give his actors room to shine. Paper Moon is more accomplished than its pre-war role models on technical level in a number of ways. Cinematographer László Kovács finds one gorgeous image after the other along the long, straight roads of Kansas and executes elaborate camera movements such as a double 360-degree pan. The average viewer will hardly notice any of these cinematic feats, as they aim to draw us into the story.
At its heart, Paper Moon is about a little girl who was forced to grow up too soon. In the first scene, we see Addie at the funeral of her mother. Her facial expression is struck by grief, but there are no tears. She has no time for cowardice or childish behavior unless there is an alterior motive. She has a strong moral compass, easily outwits her father repeatedly and holds him to ransom over 200 dollars. The vulnerable child in desperate need of love and guidance only surfaces occasionally from this confident, chain-smoking shell. When a stripper (Madeline Kahn with a hilarious performance) begins to attract Moses’ attention, Abbie takes her rival out of the picture by means of a perfectly executed ruse.
This fine line between youth and adulthood is brilliantly captured by Tatum O’Neal. If you only need one reason to watch Paper Moon, her extraordinary performance should be more than enough. It is a film that bristles with sincerity and affection for this extraordinary child. Like most road movies, the narrative is slightly disjointed and episodic, but the emotional journey finds a clear path to a touching conclusion. The final scene edges on perfection. It wraps up the story in what is simultaneously an ending and new beginning. Paper Moon is a journey into that past which is certainly worth embarking upon.
Special Features: Three generic featurettes about the conception, making and reception of Paper Moon featuring new interviews with Bogdanovich and production designer Polly Platt. The director also recorded a full-length audio commentary for the Blu-ray. The extras are rounded off with a 36-page booklet featuring a new essay by Mike Sutton as well as a series of rare production stills.