Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls paints a striking image of Peter Bogdanovitch as a man with more ambition than sense. Bogdanovitch started his career as an actor but struggled to get much further than working the so-called ‘summer stock’ circuit on which young actors travel from town-to-town sharpening their tools to standard rep until something better comes along. It was while performing summer stock that Bogdanovitch met Polly Platt, the legendary production designer who many now see as the real talent behind Bogdanovitch’s directorial throne.
Like many of the great French directors of the post-War period, Bogdanovitch was a cinematic obsessive who used his early success as a film critic to break into the industry. His first break came courtesy of the B-Movie King Roger Corman whose eye for hungry young talent was already acquiring a reputation of its own. According to Bogdanovitch, it took him three weeks to graduate from picking up laundry to directing Targets but while the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy may have ensured that audiences stayed away from the oddly existential sniper story, the film opened doors and made it possible for Bogdanovitch to direct three back-to-back hits that wound up harvesting almost as much critical praise as they did money for the studios. Many people still consider Peter Bogdanovitch to be one of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s second Golden Age and the films that inspire this opinion are invariably The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon, the last film he would make with Polly Platt.
Based on a best-selling novel by Joe David Brown, the film casts Ryan O’Neal as Moses Pray, a low-rent conman who happens upon the funeral of a former lover only to be confronted by a boyish little girl who might just conceivably be his daughter. Caught unawares, Moses agrees to drive Addie (played by his real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal) to her aunt a few towns over and uses the death of the girl’s mother to guilt a couple of hundred dollars out of a local businessman. Desperate to get shot of his new-found burden, Moses tries to send the girl to her aunt by train but the little girl overheard his attempts at extortion and insists upon the $200 dollars extracted in her name. Needless to say, Moses has already spent the money but he promises to pay what he owes if the little girl will just allow him to ‘work’ by which he means trick grieving widows into paying over the odds for a new bible.
While Tatum O’Neal would later pick up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor on the basis of her performance in this film, Addie is undeniably the film’s primary protagonist: She is the film’s mind as well as its conscience. Initially taciturn, Addie soon reveals herself to be a natural-born manipulator who helps Moses to hone his craft and pick better targets. Leading us from one beautifully-shot and flawlessly performed comic set-piece to another, Bogdanovitch keeps returning us to the hood of Moses’ car where Addie’s smug reminders that he still owes her $85 soon transform into triumphant announcements that the pair are at least $300 clear with plenty of grieving widows left to visit.
Paper Moon is a devastatingly beautiful film; shot in high-contrast black and white by the legendary Laszlo Kovacs, Bogdanovitch floats from one beautifully composed long take to another, holding his shots until the beauty of set and scene have pooled in the backs of our minds and the film’s fictional 1930s seem to reach out from the screen. Characters talk and talk as cameras dance around them and the final act contains a chase sequence so flawlessly tense and beautifully shot that it will leave you yearning for the gritty 1970s car chase movie that Bogdanovitch and Kovacs could so easily have made.
For all its visual beauty and comic brilliance, Paper Moon doesn’t stint when it comes to characterisation. Right from the start, Addie is a beautifully realised creation but she moves from ‘cute kid’ to ‘great character’ when Moses hooks up with Madeline Kahn’s deliciously sordid Trixie Delight. A disturbing image of Addie’s possible future, Trixie attaches herself to Moses and sets about turning the pair’s profits into fancy dresses and expensive hats until Addie finally twigs that her devotion to Moses cannot compete with Moses’ devotion to Trixie’s chest. This forces the child to assume to role of the parent and trick Moses into getting rid of Trixie, destroying a bad family for the sake of a good one.
Given its comic tone, period setting and family-friendly themes, it would have been easy to turn Paper Moon into an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Aside from the film’s gritty look, what keeps the film on the right side of sentimentality is its willingness to share Addie’s profound distrust of human relations. Only child of a woman who made her living as a bar room honey, Addie’s skinny frame, ugly clothes and fondness for cigarettes display all the signs of historic neglect. Before Addie even opens her mouth, we are shown the ‘warm-hearted’ Christian neighbours who are so desperate to get rid of her that they literally dump her on the first stranger who passes through town. Addie is desperate for family but rightly wary of people who would proclaim their righteousness only to reveal their hypocrisy in secret, she warms to Moses precisely because his displays of piety are understood to be nothing but an act. Addie’s dislike of Trixie stems from the fact that while Moses has revealed himself to be capable of honesty with the people he genuinely likes, Trixie insists upon a veneer of righteousness even though she is in exactly the same line of work as Addie and Moses. Addie realises that while Moses and Trixie might genuinely like each other, they will never be honest with each other and so Trixie must be sent away, lest Addie’s fledgling parent be infected by the same self-serving hypocrisy that seems to affect all of the film’s conventional families. The darkness of Addie’s worldview colours the entire film and even gives it a tragic edge when her inability to trust the ostensibly good denies her what could easily have been a much better life.
Peter Bogdanovitch would never again direct a film as perfectly formed and flawlessly executed as Paper Moon. By the time he moved on to the commercially disastrous Daisy Miller, his long-standing obsession with Cybill Shepherd had consumed his marriage and deprived him of a collaborator who had been central to all of his greatest successes. The extras contained as part of this excellent Masters of Cinema release contain a telling anecdote; After What’s Up Doc?, Bogdanovitch went to work on a big budget western that would never get made. Having had the script of Paper Moon thrust into his hands by a studio executive, Bogdanovitch handed it to his wife Polly Platt and asked her to find an angle he could work. Instantly won over, Platt reminded Bogdanovitch that he was a father of daughters and suggested that he might want to meet Tatum O’Neal. Bogdanovitch was sold and cinematic history was made but without Polly Platt there simply would not have been a Paper Moon. This is a warm, wise and achingly gorgeous film that is rightly considered a classic but it is also a reminder that while directors may take all the credit for their greatest successes, they are nothing without great actors, great writers, great cinematographers and someone to pay attention to the things they cannot see.