One of the biggest shames I’ve ever encountered in my journey of being a film lover is that Peter Bogdanovich is not more highly regarded. Sure, cinephiles adore him, but why is he hardly ever included in lists of the greatest filmmakers of all time, when he certainly belongs on such lists? His streak between 1968 and 1973 is one of the greatest of all time, and he capped off that great period with one of the most brilliant films that I have ever seen. Paper Moon is a delightfully quirky, sweet little comedy that has stood the test of time, but seems to be painfully underrated, which is a complete shame because it truly deserves to be loved and adored.
I am always very reluctant of child actors. Sure, they can be adorable, but sometimes their cuteness distracts from the fact that a lot of them can’t really act too well – its not their fault, no one expects a five-year old to be trained in Strasberg. However, there are some truly iconic performances from child actors that belong in the Hall of Fame – my personal favorites are Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer, and Danny Lloyd in The Shining. I can now confidently add another name to that list – Tatum O’Neal, who gives what I consider to be the greatest performance by a child actor in a film…ever. She transcends being a child star here and goes for the jugular in her performance, and just becomes quite simply a star. You cannot take your eyes off her – she is just so damn good. She commands the screen brilliantly, and holds her own against all the adults in the cast. There is a reason she holds the record for youngest ever Academy Award winner – a performance like this begs for a record. It is a history-making performance and truly brilliant.
But we can’t ignore Tatum’s father, Ryan, who is equally brilliant as Moses Pray, the conniving, cunning conman out on a mission to fool old widows into buying his customized Bibles. When your entire film involves confidence scams, you need someone truly charismatic to play the role, and Ryan is just that. Its a shame his career faded away not long after this, because if his career between 1970 and 1973 shows, he was a charming and suave leading man who had the looks to romance and the humour to charm. His performance as Moses is so wonderful, and while he is frequently upstaged by his daughter, he still gives a marvelous performance. The key to this film’s brilliance is the heartwarming chemistry Ryan and Tatum have. Casting real-life father and daughter in the lead roles is bound to be interesting and yield fascinating results, but the ability they had to play off each other was truly magical to watch. It was a shame that not long after this, Ryan and Tatum drifted apart and became estranged, which gives this film a very melancholic tone when you watch it again.
Madeline Kahn was one of the greatest comedic minds in history, and she is absolutely hilarious here as Trixie Delight, the villainous and nasty showgirl that Moses falls for and is the object of Addie’s hatred. Kahn is so good in this role, the viewer starts to despise her as well, even though she does nothing wrong. Kahn was such a fantastic actress, and its an absolute shame she has departed, because she deserved many more decades of amazing work, and Paper Moon just serves to remind us about how excellent she was as an actress and comedian.
The key to the success of Paper Moon, other than the sparkling chemistry of the leads, is that the script was crisp and hilarious. It was always brief but funny, and created some great quotable lines. Bogdanovich geniusly adapts the novel on which this film is based, and wrote a screenplay that gave the actors some wonderful dialogue to work with, but also allowed them to experiment with their characters and make their roles their own. It is never forced or artificial, which is a theme common in most of Bogdanovich’s work.
On a purely directorial level, Paper Moon is a very high achievement. Filmed gorgeously in black and white, and shot on beautifully detailed sets resembling the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Bogdanovich not only has amazing talent behind the typewriter, he is a brilliant visual storyteller, and obeys the age old tradition of “show, don’t tell” – there are several implications that run through this film, and instead of resolving them, the viewer is trusted to be smart enough to answer these questions for themselves. The subtle touches Bogdanovich puts on this film give all the answers we could possibly need. In an age where stories need to be told to us in films, where something subtle or ambiguous is frowned upon, a film like Paper Moon could never be made as effectively as it was here.
Paper Moon is just a delightful film. That really is all that needs to be said. It is funny and quirky and so heartwarming. It is an absolute treasure of a film, and I wish everyone in the world could see this film, because it just deserves to be more widely seen. It is absolutely fantastic, and deserves more love and praise, and even though it is 42 years later, it isn’t too late for this film to get the following it deserves! So if you haven’t seen it, please seek it out – it truly is worth it.