Criterion Prediction #71: Paper Moon, by Alexander Miller
Title: Paper Moon
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman
Synopsis: Smooth talking con artist Moses Pray (O’Neal) prospects the recently widowed to swindle a quick buck against the backdrop of The Great Depression. Moses’ life is thrown for a loop when he is saddled with Addie, a plucky youngster who may or may not be his daughter.
Critique: Peter Bogdanovich is one of the many high-ranking graduates from the New Hollywood movement ascending from the Roger Corman school with Targets, becoming a mainstream Oscar sensation with The Last Picture Show, a commercial success with What’s Up Doc?, reaching his apex with Paper Moon. While Bogdanovich is indeed a card-carrying member of the American New Wave, his creative instincts seem less mandated by the counter-cultural atmosphere of the era. It’s the subtle hand that makes a masterpiece of contrast; Bogdanovich contextualizes the depression set Paper Moon with gravitas and warmth, with the advantage of László Kovács’ impressive black and white cinematography.
Shot on location in Kansas and Texas, an anachronism of time and place enlivened by wide angle/depth of field photography, this film simply wouldn’t work in color. The cleverly-conceived simple story is disarmingly charming, and the slightly removed narrative placement makes us all the more eager to get closer to these characters.
The time capsule casting has sustained itself. Ryan O’ Neal might be remembered as “the guy from Love Story or Barry Lyndon,’ but if we saw more of the naturalistic energy he embodies in Paper Moon as the golden-tongued, nomadic shyster, who knows what placeable the implacable Ryan O’Neal could have accomplished. The casting of his daughter Tatum, who might even rival her father’s screen presence, is a sheer delight. Their chemistry is astounding, and it’s impossible to imagine the movie without them. While Tatum O’Neal won a deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, modern viewers tend to overlook the importance of acting in titles from the early seventies (as many will remember Paper Moon as a “Peter Bogdanovich” film first). But the O’Neals give this terse fable a pitch-perfect degree of comedic humanity.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Because it’s Paper Moon, that’s why! In all honesty, though, I would support that blunt reply as an acceptable reason for the Criterion treatment, but of course, there’s more to the story than that.
Paper Moon is available on Blu-ray thanks to the Masters of Cinema series, and I think it’s safe to say that MOC is in some respects a prerequisite to The Criterion Collection. Not to sound reductive, as a matter of fact, there are several titles in MOC collection that supercede Criterion’s inventory hence the importance of a region free Blu-ray player. Bogdanovich is no stranger to The Criterion Collection since The Last Picture Show is a part of The BBS Collection, but Paper Moon might be the director’s finest work, deserving of a standalone spine number. The Paramount DVD has a decent handful of features that are transplanted to the MOC Blu-ray. Bogdanovich provides an entertaining feature-length commentary, a consistent perk with most of his home video releases. The featurettes contain a wealth of rehearsal footage, outtakes, and deleted scenes; it would be fun to see if Criterion could elaborate on the surviving material.
At this point, Bogdanovich is a regular fixture in Criterion’s bonus feature department, offering insights, presenting the work of Orson Welles and John Ford, the accumulation probably exceeding the 118-minute runtime of The Last Picture Show. Given the multiple connections and through lines with the company and director, I’m sure Paper Moon is on deck.