This feels like a selfish addition to the “Best Movie Ever?” cannon since I’m personally obsessed with Paper Moon, but guess what? I’m right to include it. And you’re wrong not to watch Paper Moon every year, particularly this one thanks to its 40th anniversary. Repent and get going.
You’re also wrong not to spend more time thinking about whether Paper Moon or What’s Up, Doc? is Peter Bogdanovich’s best movie (because we all understand that The Last Picture Show draaaaags, right?) And you’re especially wrong if you think The Sting, another old-timey blockbuster about suave wheeler-dealers released in 1973, deserved Best Picture over Paper Moon. The Sting is a boring carousel of well-costumed movie stars. Paper Moon has a soul. And tomboy flair. And it wasn’t even nominated.
Paper Moon manages to be both quaint and gritty, and that’s all in the casting: Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal, a fair candidate for World’s Worst Celebrity) is a Harold Hill-style con man in the 1930s who finds himself delivering a 9-year-old named Addie (Tatum O’Neal, Ryan’s daughter) to her grandmother’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri. Addie notices that Moses accepts $200 for taking care of her, and after he spends a chunk of it sprucing up his Model A convertible, Addie confronts him and demands the $200 for herself. Moses angrily agrees to pay her off — especially because there’s a heap of speculation regarding whether Addie is his illegitimate child — and together they become a brilliant team of widow-swindling Bible salesmen after Addie reveals herself to be a kickass accomplice.
The movie is both an old-fashioned caper and cuttingly funny road movie. Where else have we seen that combo? Not The Guilt Trip, guys.
Here are five other reasons Paper Moon may be the Best. Movie. Evarrrrr.
1. It is fun to watch a jackass dupe old ladies.
It is so easy to believe Ryan O’Neal as a low-down, weasel-faced trickster, isn’t it? You root for him in this movie because it’s like he’s discovering his true calling. (As we discovered in What’s Up, Doc?, his true calling is definitely not screwball comedy.) The afore-embedded scene is entertaining not only because of the sheer rope-a-dopery at hand. It’s also very well acted, perched halfway between ratatat quippiness and real-life small talk. O’Neal’s slick control of conversation makes the scam mesmerizing and a riot, and the cashier’s batty grandmotherliness is the stuff of a Margaret Rutherford Oscar win. Also: I was once duped into handing over an extra $20 bill to a menacing customer during my days as a grocery store clerk, so I understand the real-life trauma behind this kind of incident.
2. The versatility, vulnerability, and charming evil of Tatum O’Neal
Pop culture remembers Tatum O’Neal as the youngest Oscar winner, but let’s not forget that she does turn in an Oscar-worthy performance — for Best Actress, mind you, not her assigned category of Best Supporting Actress. (Remember: I am a category queen.) Tatum dominates this movie, and its her harsh juvenile glance we’re left studying in every frame. She’s as wise, weary, and too adult in that tragic child star way. Tatum would go on to reveal the sadder personal connections she shared with Addie in her bracing memoir A Paper Life (yikes!), but what can I say? That connection makes this film even deeper than Alvin Sargent’s fabulous adapted script. Much has been made of Peter Bogdanovich’s direction of Tatum, which allegedly veered into puppetry more than a few times, but it can’t be denied that Tatum holds her own. Take for instance this longish car scene (embedded above), in which Addie and Moses fight about lack of supplies. It’s an uninterrupted shot, and she’s visibly wonderful at every single moment. Her snapdragon rejoinders are always just right. Bad News Cub.
And let’s not forget her devilish crying jags. Take that, old-timey convenience store!
3. YOU WILL NEVER GET MADELINE KAHN BACK. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? NEVER.
Madeline Kahn should’ve been nominated for 7-23 Oscars in her unbearably short lifetime, and in Paper Moon, she gives what I’d call a definitive supporting performance as attitudinal prostitute Trixie Delight. It’s a small role, as Trixie is a gold-digging passerby who Moses momentarily romances (to the chagrin of Addie, who feels a connection to Moze). But God, M. Kahn makes the most of her teeny appearance. She’s a flirty Southern belle, but she trips hysterically into swearing jags and hissy fits. Check that monologue above. She also reveals a sweeter side, and this is why it’s a quintessential Kahn role: Like most of her parts, it’s full of exasperated, vaudevillian loopiness, but there’s a core of awkward vulnerability and maternal understanding. It really is a crime that Kahn went up against Tatum in the Best Supporting Actress category, because it’s like pitting Prissy against Scarlett O’Hara. The roles just don’t match up importance-wise, and it’s unfair to declare Trixie less impressive than Addie simply because she appears for 1/10 of Addie’s screentime.
This brings me to my next point: MADELINE KAHN IS NOT WITH US. SHE WAS AN ANGEL OF UNBELIEVABLE TALENT AND WARMTH. YOU’LL NEVER HAVE IT AGAIN. THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN “RELIGION.”
Still the most devastating celebrity death. Still.
Thank God her performances are timeless, otherwise the present day would be meaningless.
4. An underrated chase scene!
The French Connection may have set the standard for road-blazin’ chase scenes of the early ’70s, but I honestly prefer the quaintness and lightness of this scene in Paper Moon. Watching a Model A zoom down a dirt path and awkwardly attempt a 180 is somehow more interesting than the 2 Fast 2 Furious brand of thrills we’ve come to expect from these sequences. And the acting remains excellent throughout the whole suspenseful escape! By this point in the movie, you believe Moses and Addie are capable of anything together. Their triumph feels like an organic result of a one-of-a-kind personal connection.
5. A perfect, perfect ending
Moze is a perturbed bastard throughout Paper Moon, and Addie’s sadness and connection to Moze would almost feel too precious if it weren’t for the final scene where she secures her relationship with him using her greatest trick — confrontational gangster angst. Chasing Moze down the dirt path, she forces him to take her along on yet another journey using one legitimate complaint. It’s adorable and right in character. And whiney and wicked and unafraid. Perfection.
Do you love Paper Moon? Where do you keep your Madeline Kahn shrine? In your kitchen, which is already Mrs. White-themed?