A Barnum and Bailey World: Paper Moon at 50

By 1972, Peter Bogdanovich was in a position most directors would envy. Still basking in the glow of his much-lauded and awarded 1971 film The Last Picture Show, with his followup (and, eventually, massive hit) What’s Up Doc in the can, he was nonetheless struggling to come up with his next project. As he often did in those days, Bogdanovich turned to friends and frequent collaborators Orson Welles and Polly Platt, who was somehow still speaking to him after the very public breakup of their marriage, for advice. She was the one who prompted him to take a look at Joe David Brown’s script of his novel Addie Pray. And Bogdanovich knew he’d found a good title for his adaptation when Welles proclaimed: “You shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” But lucky for us, he did make the picture, and this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of that film, Paper Moon

Bogdanovich has said that he was drawn to the material because he had two young daughters, and that inspiration is evident in the final product. Though it’s not exactly a film for children, Paper Moon is without a doubt his warmest and sweetest creation. Set during the Great Depression on the dust choked plains of Nebraska and Kansas, it follows two-bit conman Moses Pray as he attempts to deliver the newly orphaned Addie Loggins to her aunt in St. Joseph, Missouri, all the while vehemently denying his obvious paternity of the child, even as Addie slowly ingratiates herself into his schemes and his life. It’s all shot by the legendary László Kovács, whose gorgeous black and white cinematography recalls the austerity of The Last Picture Show but not the tragedy.

As is only appropriate for a film about makeshift clans, the entire production of Paper Moon was something of a family affair. Along with Kovács, who worked with Bogdanovich on Targets and What’s Up Doc (and would go on to shoot three more of his films), Platt returned as his production designer for the final time, in part so she could secure a position in the union. And well before the term “nepo babies” entered the cultural lexicon, Bogdanovich cast a real father and daughter as Moses and Addie. When the film was originally conceived as a John Huston project, Paul Newman and his daughter Nell Potts were attached to star, but by then they had moved on. Bogdanovich had recently worked with Ryan O’Neal on What’s Up Doc, though he actually approached the actor’s eight-year-old daughter Tatum to audition first, at Platt’s suggestion. 

According to Tatum, she and her father always had a fairly combustible relationship, but that tension ends up working in the film’s favor. Their uneasy alliance serves as the fulcrum of a plot that’s otherwise fairly loose – as Moses says himself at one point on their journey, “We’ll just have to keep on veering, that’s all.” Bogdanovich was a great student of cinema, particularly the French New Wave, and the fingerprints of the movement are everywhere here, from the ramshackle road trip/crime spree of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (minus the body count) to Addie’s thousand-yard stare that belongs to someone much older, recalling Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of The 400 Blows. It’s her preternatural ability to read people and their circumstances, and her insistence on Moses paying back the $200 that’s her rightful inheritance, that will compel them to join forces.

Addie and Moses exist in a world with two kinds of people: marks and other cons, though occasionally the line between the two gets a little blurry. Case in point is their most comical “veering” with a circus dancer named Trixie Delight (played with impish charm by Madeline Kahn, another What’s Up Doc holdover); her idea of refinement is referring to using the bathroom as “going winky tinky,” and she maintains a firm belief in the power of good bone structure. Almost as soon as Moses meets her, Miss Trixie has usurped Addie’s place of prominence in both his life and his vehicle. But in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Trixie patiently explains to the child that if she’ll only give her a bit of time to ride her meal ticket to its natural end, they can both get what they want. She may be willing to put out for a mere $5, but at least she knows it. 

These are tough times after all, which is always conspicuous at the margins of the film, as families struggle to haul the whole of their belongings on the side of the road and bootleggers and police alike prey on the weakness of others. Eventually their cross-country swindling catches up to Moses and Addie, and the child must decide what sort of homelife she wants for herself, and the father what sort of parent he wants to be. There is a ride into the sunset of sorts ahead for them, but it’s an ending as uncertain as it is hopeful, as the pathways of families so often are. 

Bogdanovich might know this better than most auteurs. Though he would collaborate with several of these people again over the years, he never had another string of hits quite as indisputable as his run from 1971 to 1973. At the time of his passing in January 2022, he hadn’t directed a fiction film in almost eight years. Still, if he never quite recaptured the magic of Paper Moon in his later work, it’s the film’s very effervescence, and its adherence to Frankie Roosevelt’s alleged assertion that “we gotta look out for each other,” that ironically makes it so memorable. To borrow a line from the titular tune, “it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.” Great films are made on the basis of such faith. So are families. 

“Paper Moon” is streaming on HBO Max.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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