Revisiting ‘Paper Moon’

Colin Edwards
3 min readNov 6, 2018

I never thought I’d describe a movie as “Terrence Malick directs ‘It Happened One Night’” but that’s how I felt after revisiting Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Paper Moon’ (1973) and it was as enticing as that description sounds.

Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, the film follows Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a con-man swindling widows into buying Bibles their late husband’s had, apparently, ordered for them before passing on. Whilst attending the funeral of an ex-girlfriend he meets her now orphaned daughter — nine year old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) — and agrees to take her to relatives in St Joseph, Missouri, even though everyone suspects Addie of being Moses’ child. This is a notion Moses rejects.

Before they set off Moses blackmails the brother of the man who accidentally killed Addie’s mother into giving him $200. He spends the money to fix up his Ford Model T although Addie demands that the money is rightfully hers and that Moses now owes her $200. So Moses is stuck with Addie until he can raise the cash and they set off across the country hustling and swindling… but just who is swindling whom?

The set-up is classic Howard Hawks where two people are thrown together and, during a road trip, learn that they are falling in love. Except rather than realising they have become lovers, Moses and Addie come to acknowledge they are parent and child.

‘Paper Moon’ is cute as hell. Set during the Great Depression it only takes Tatum O’Neal’s look of sad stoicism and Lazlo Kovac’s gorgeous black and white cinematography to show us that life was (is?) hard, allowing for everything else — characters, dialogue, scams etc — to sparkle and twinkle. So there’s light and dark and none of it is heavy-handed.

The O’Neals are both fantastic with the casting of a real life father and daughter really working. There’s a wonderful moment, not far in, when Moses asks how much money they have. “$600”, Addie replies and, with nothing else being said, we now know that these two want to be with each other (she was only sticking around till she got her $200 after all). It’s economic writing with a powerful, and sweet, punch and focuses their entire relationship in one, precise moment. It is perfect.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Peter Bogdanovich over the last couple of days and it’s not just because of the recent Welles connection. Here was a young filmmaker who, in the early 70s, made three films in a row that were not only critically acclaimed to heaven but were big hits with audiences too. I fell in love with his ‘What’s Up, Doc’ (1972) as a kid and have loved it since. Sure, Coppola and Scorsese were bringing the mean streets and the paranoia of surveillance to the screen but Bogdanovich had the audacity to actually entertain us and makes us laugh in the vein of Lubitsch and Hawks. Bogdanovich reminded us the New Hollywood was still also very old fashioned.

Could this success be the reason he had a reputation for having the “biggest ego in Hollywood”? That’s some statement! Yet that arrogance isn’t just in his appearances on TV during the 70s at his height but right there in his performance in his first film — ‘Targets’ (1968). Nobody oozed smug like he could.

Yet re-watching ‘Paper Moon’ I couldn’t help thinking that if he didn’t have a huge ego to start with then, after making a movie as good as this one, he possibly deserved to have an inflated view of himself after. If you can make a film like that one then you must be pretty talented after all, wouldn’t ya’ say? Just maybe don’t go on TV and rub it in the critic’s faces.

Looking at what happened to Bogdanovich after ‘Paper Moon’ is fascinating and eye-opening and also very sad. I won’t say “tragic” as a lot of it seems to have been self-inflicted or, at least, (mostly) avoidable. But to the question “What made it go wrong for Bogdanovich?” I don’t think it was the subsequent commercial failures, the split with Cybill Shepherd, the murder of Dorothy Stratton or the turning of Hollywood against him. I think it was what was driving him from the very beginning that tripped him up — nostalgia.



Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.