The double act has always been one of cinema’s greatest joys. 1934’s It Happened One Night paired Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable to make for a timeless rom-com; Steve Martin and John Candy’s hilarious awkwardness elevated 1987’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles; even Rush Hour successfully played Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker off one another to huge box office success in 1998. But 1973’s Paper Moon set the mould perfectly; Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum O’Neal paired off their real-world relationship, and turned what was essentially a bare-bones road movie into an Oscar-sweeping underdog.
Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray, one of his most loveable performances (he’d go onto darker work in ‘75 as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and in ‘78 as Walter Hill’s The Driver), a con-man who makes one of the most impressing entrances in cinema history as he saunters up to a funeral, late, while snatching a bouquet of flowers from a nearby grave. It paints the man’s personality effectively in one stroke, but we soon find there’s a cheeky undercurrent of good in him after all. That’s all thanks to the little girl, Addie (Tatum O’Neal, who became the youngest Oscar-winner ever for her role), who Moses promises to deliver to her aunt and who may or may not be his daughter. After realising that Addie has a bit of a grifter streak in her after all, they take some time off and go around the country charming the pants – and wallets – off almost everyone they meet. Director Peter Bogdanovich is wise to kick this core relationship off from the first few minutes of his gorgeous movie, and it’s a dynamic that will go on to become one of the most watchable, wonderful two-handers in moviedom.
Of course, it’s not just the performances that made Paper Moon an instant classic in ‘73, and worth to revisit now: Bogdanovich, known for casting America in a nostalgic yet also cutting edge light, never allows Paper Moon to settle into a comfortable nook for us to define it by; whenever it seeps firmly into buddy picture territory, it veers vertiginously into a crime thriller before landing into sexually articulate adult drama. But at every moment, it just feels like a classic picture for its star qualities and lush period setting, yet it’s also firmly part of the New Wave movement that was reinvigorating the US cinematic landscape at the time. Right down to its black-and-white aesthetic, it’s a film about two halves coming together, somewhat reluctantly, to form a whole: laughter and tears, the old and the new, a father and a (potential) daughter. And when those things come together, as they frequently do in Paper Moon, it’s a wonderful thing to witness.
Paper Moon is out on DVD and Blu ray now.