Paper Moon ★★★★★

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#1: Watch a film set in my home state of Kansas. Any Superman type movies don't count folks

2017 movie viewings, #98. Peter Bogdanovich sure is a strange bird, isn't he? An academic film critic who got his start at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the early 1960s, after a decade of being stuffy and pissy about other people's films he got inspired by the French New Wave critics of the 1950s to put his money where his mouth was, so moved to Los Angeles and became a director himself. And while this decision seemed to pay off in spades when he first got started -- his very first three movies (1971's The Last Picture Show, 1972's What's Up, Doc?, and 1973's Paper Moon) were all critically adored Oscar winners and box-office smashes, each of them fascinating hybrids of old-school Hollywood formalism combined with countercultural themes, exactly what you would expect from a person in Bogdanovich's position -- his streak as a "golden boy" director came crashing down as quickly as it had built up, with a string of bombs throughout the rest of the '70s, an ill-advised lawsuit against Universal which turned him into Hollywood poison, and a messy personal life in the '80s which changed a lot of people's opinions of him (at the age of 41, he got into a romantic relationship with jailbait Playboy bunny Dorothy Stratten, which prompted her psychotic ex-boyfriend to murder her, eventually dramatized in the underrated Bob Fosse movie Star 80; then eight years later at the age of 49, he married Stratten's 20-year-old sister Louise, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of nearly everyone who knew them), his career eventually devolving into a series of forgettable low-budget B-pics, strange random television roles (he played Lorraine Bracco's psychiatrist in The Sopranos, for one example), and a professorship in North Carolina of all places. (His latest movie, 2014's She's Funny That Way, grossed a grand total of $88,000, if that gives you a sense of his level as a Hollywood director anymore.)

Thankfully for all of us, though, we still have his celebrated early movies to go back and revisit; and Paper Moon is certainly well worth watching almost 45 years later, which like Bonnie & Clyde from those same years is a bizarre and unlikely successful experiment in combining the subversive sex and violence of New Hollywood with the period artifacts of the Great Depression Midwest. Famous for garnering Tatum O'Neal a Best Actress Oscar at the age of nine, still to this day a record that hasn't been broken, it stars her real-life father and Bogdanovich regular Ryan O'Neal as a quick-talking con man who learns after the death of a former lover that he had actually sired a daughter with her (although with neither him or his daughter willing to acknowledge the paternity, part of the movie's weird charm), bullied by the locals into delivering her to her next-of-kin two states over, which he eventually agrees to do after realizing that he can milk all the local rubes along the way with her help.

That's the main delight of this film, that eight-year-old Addie basically has the same exact personality as her father -- stubborn, transgressive, ethically slippery, able to turn on the charm like a light switch whenever they have something to gain from it -- and the fact that the two stay in a constant state of conflict-ridden dislike of each other is what fuels the multiple-caper storyline, aided immensely by supporting appearances from then-up-and-comers like Madeline Kahn and Randy Quaid. And meanwhile, the cinematography and other production details are exactly as gorgeous and breathtaking as you would expect from a guy who made a living as an obsessive academic chronicler of Old Hollywood (before becoming a director, Bogdanovich was best known for using his MOMA resources to bring a newfound museum-quality respectability to the then-forgotten filmmakers John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles); and this movie also profoundly benefits from being made in essentially the last time period in history when you could still find entire small towns that continued to look exactly like they did in the 1920s, providing a powerful authenticity to his period costume drama on only a tiny budget and while embracing a countercultural sensibility.

Unfortunately that turned out to be the cause of Bogdanovich's downfall as a director as well -- his desire to combine the formalism of a Howard Hawks with the sensibility of counterculturalism just stopped being a thing audiences wanted by the time the '80s and '90s rolled around -- but thankfully we still have films like these to turn back to when we want our occasional doses of such a thing, an addictively strange pastiche of a movie that is utterly unlike anything else Hollywood churned out in those years (unless you count Bogdanovich's other early films, The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?, which along with this one make for a fantastic weekend triple feature). It comes strongly recommended for those in the mood for something odd and unexpected yet thoroughly entertaining, and especially for the preternaturally mature and sophisticated performance by an irresistibly adorable Tatum O'Neal.

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