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Can't Stop a Little Girl
Peter Bogdanovich directed his third success in a row with 'Paper Moon.'
70s Rewind: On Monday, April 10, 1972, I sat raptly in front of my family's 13-inch black-and-white television to watch the Academy Awards, at which the black-and-white The Last Picture Show won two Oscars -- one each for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman --- and left me insanely curious, especially due to the very positive comments about the film's black-and-white photography, which looked quite ordinary to me, since we only had a black-and-television.
On Monday, April 2, 1974, I sat raptly in front of my family's 13-inch black-and-white television to watch the Academy Award, at which the black-and-white Paper Moon won an Oscar -- for Tatum O'Neal, who, at 10 years of age, was even younger than me! -- and left me insanely curious. I bought the paperback version of its source material, a novel by Joe David Brown, and found it filled with salty language, prosaic descriptions, and tiny print.
Over the years, I've caught up with most of the feature films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, so I believe I've seen Paper Moon two or three times in the past. His recent death, however, prompted me to seek out something from his period of greatest strength, of which Paper Moon is the only title available to stream.
Unlike my most recent viewing of No Way Out, the shadow of death looms only lightly in the background. Making his feature directorial debut with the lightly-seen and sadly prescient Targets in 1968, Bogdanovich made a huge splash with The Last Picture Show, followed by What's Up Doc? (1972), which paid homage to classic screwball comedies.
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), Peter Biskind recounts that studio exec Peter Bart suggested that Bogdanovich direct a project he had developed that was then titled Addie Pray but Bogdanovich resisted, not wanting to repeat himself with another period piece. His estranged wife, Polly Platt, read the script, reminded her estranged husband that they had two daughters, and suggested young Tatum O'Neal for the role of a young girl who suspects that a small-time con man may be her father.
The project was made under the aegis of the ill-fated Directors Company, which teamed Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and William Friedkin. Paper Moon was released in May 1973 and became a hit -- and also the last big success that Bogdanovich enjoyed for more than a decade, until Mask in 1985. (The Directors Company released just two other movies through Paramount Pictures: Coppola's The Conversation and Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller.)
Watching it again recently, I enjoyed its light-hearted nature, accented by Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography, which is far too good for the slight nature of the narrative. Film critic John Simon noted in his contemporaneous review (collected in his book Reverse Angle) that 9-year-old Addie is far too clever for someone of her age, and I agree, which may be why I found so much television in the 80s and 90s so unwatchable, because all the children were portrayed as being smarter than the adults.
Ryan O'Neal plays a con man who is not half as clever as he thinks he is, and the film is far too much in love with its conceit that his character consistently denies that he is Addie's father. Even so, I found pleasure in watching the small-time cons -- they are clever and still make me smile -- though the film's view is that everyone living in 1930s Kansas was dumber than a rock, save for 9-year-old Addie. And I found the long takes, without modern cross-cutting, to be refreshing on the eyes.
Beyond the cons and the long takes, I enjoyed revisiting Tatum O'Neal's debut performance; when the scowling little girl first smiles, her entire face breaks out in sheer delight. The trailer includes funny behind-the-scenes footage, which you don't see nowadays.