A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. II

MosesI ain’t about to leave some poor little child stranded in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got scruples too, ya know. You know what that is… scruples?
Addie: No, I don’t know what it is but if you’ve got ’em, it’s a sure bet they belong to somebody else!
In 1972, Warner Bros released What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Streisand was already a worldwide star and O’Neal was coming off the huge success of Love Story two years before. Directed by Peter BogdanovichWhat’s Up, Doc? was a smash hit, the #3 box office hit of ’72 behind The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure. A wonderful homage to the great screwball comedies of the 30’s, the movie also launched the film career of the brilliant Madeline Kahn. In the very first scene, with the words “Howard… Howard Bannister,” Kahn firmly established herself as one of our most extraordinary comedienne/actors. Her wig alone is genius:
click the photo for the clip
click the photo for the clip
As wonderful as is What’s Up, Doc?, even better is Bogdanovich’s next film, a movie that seems to have fallen off many people’s radar. Easily one of the best films of the 70’s (which we’ve previously established is the greatest decade for film) the movie is also one of my personal favorites of all time: Paper Moon.

Based on a novel Addie Pray, Paper Moon was adapted by Alvin Sargent, garnering his first Oscar nomination for the script. (He won the WGA award however.) Sargent went on to win two Academy Awards for adaptations: Julia and Ordinary People. At age 86, Sargent is still writing in Hollywood, having worked on, among other things, the last 4 Spiderman films. That’s one hell of a career.

To play con man Moses Pray, Bogdanovich again hired Ryan O’Neal.  Bogdanovich also rehired Madeline Kahn as ‘Miss Trixie Delight’…  Kahn’s first appearance in Paper Moon is one of my favorite first appearances of all time.  


Kahn is so good in the movie that although her role is small, she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Finally, in a stroke of genius, Bogdanovich cast Ryan O’Neal’s daughter Tatum as Addie in her first appearance on screen. Tatum O’Neal is so stunningly good she deservedly won the  Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role, still the youngest person ever to win an Oscar. (note the incomparable P. J. Johnson in the background struggling with the suitcases.  This also was her first movie and she is brilliant.)

Exquistely shot in black and white, Paper Moon is one of the most entertaining movies you will ever see. I screen this for people frequently, given that even many cineastes have not seen it. Each time, the room is filled with howls and laughs all the way through. Yet the movie has a rich complexity under the comic surface. It also has a lot of heart without becoming in any way saccharine.

Click below to continue reading and see two clips from Paper Moon:

One reason Paper Moon is is so entertaining is that it cleverly combines two of the most popular movie genres. First, Paper Moon is a ‘con artist’ movie.  From earlier films such as The Lady Eve to The Sting (which won Best Picture a few years after Paper Moon) through Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13 and on through today, audiences love ‘con artist movies’.  Paper Moon goes much deeper than the most, though, because the cons, while very smart and fun, are used to reflect and deepen the relationship between Addie and Moses. The movie is also is a road picture. One of the earliest road films, It Happened One Night, won Best Picture. Audiences since have flocked to the theatre to see road films. Paper Moon is original not only by combining the two genres but by giving each genre an original twist. The movie stays extremely fresh and surprising while still mining each genre of the elements audience love.  It’s an audience pleasing movie of the best sort, one you can watch over and over again for pure pleasure yet still take something emotionally resonant away from each viewing.

The movie is also a stark depiction of the depression, with brief, shocking glimpses of poverty and difficulty equivalent to anything you might read or see in The Grapes Of Wrath. This honesty gives the comedy a great depth. Like the best screen comedies, Paper Moon is often quite harsh. It refuses to sink into Hollywood sentimentality, even at the finale where such might be called for. Addie herself is an extremely tough character. Motherless and penniless at the age of 9 when the movie begins, Addie is a survivor with strength, smarts and a surprising ferocity. She refuses to let anyone get the best of her. Roger Ebert, in his 4 star review of the movie at the time, called Tatum O’Neal’s performance astonishing. It certainly is. She creates an indelible character who is wildly funny while barely cracking  a smile.


Let me show you two scenes, then, to entice you to watch the movie. The first clip is the 12 minute open to the movie. I teach this clip repeatedly.  Sargent and Bogdanovich brilliantly, succinctly set up everything to come in this open, which culminates in the famous diner scene where we first get a glimpse of Addie’s strength and ferocity.

The second scene  is a very famous single take, a brutally difficult scene to perform that took over two days and numerous takes to get right. Addie and Moses have started to work cons together. She is much better at it and has started to take control, to his irritation and frustration. Yet he’s making the best money of his life. The tension explodes into a fight from which there is no return, yet neither deep down wants to part, nor would there be a movie if they part.  The emotional layers and rhythms of this scene would throw even the most seasoned performer. Yet both O’Neals nail it beautifully. When I screen the movie, the actors who are watching tend to gasp in disbelief by the time the scene ends.

So.. watch the clips as a teaser or just go rent or buy Paper Moon. It’s a movie you will enjoy over and over in the years to come. And be sure to check out “A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. I”   if you have not yet read it.

Paper Moon: Open:

Paper Moon: single take:

7 thoughts on “A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen, Vol. II

  1. Thanks for reminding me about this film. It’s been several years since I’ve seen it, and these clips have inspired me to find a copy and watch it!

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