Exactly why Moses Pray, a con man, ended up at the funeral of Adie Loggin’s mama is never revealed to us. Nor is the answer to whether or not he is this little girl’s father. Throughout the film, there are few instances where the girl asks him this question and he continually asserts that he is not. This whole thing is left ambiguous. They both have the same jaw, she tells him and mentions the fact that few others have pointed out this too. “I know a woman who looks like a bullfrog but that don’t mean she’s the damn thing’s mother”, he tells her. Oh, and she wants her $200 – the “damages” that Moses got out of the brother of the man who accidentally killed her mother – which he has pocketed. But he tells her that he doesn’t have it. She “orders” him to get it. They make such a great team that we start to tell ourselves that they must be related after all.
Moses is played by Ryan O’Neal and Addie is played by his real-life daughter Tatum O’Neal. This entire conversation takes place inside a café and is lively, well-acted, well-timed and is easily my favorite scene in the entire film. Anyone who doubts Ryan O’Neal’s acting skills should take a gander at this film, if they haven’t already. I’m pretty sure this film is the reason why Stanley Kubrick cast him in Barry Lyndon. Ryan often gets a lot of flak for his so-called “wooden” acting but I think he is a very underrated actor and I’ve always felt that he did what is required of him, really well. Paper Moon brought out the actor hidden within him and has him at his very best. I don’t know what did it – his daughter Tatum O’Neal’s presence or Bogdanovich’s direction. Tatum and Ryan perfectly complement each other and I don’t think the film would’ve worked as good if it were some other child actor instead of her. His frustration and embarrassment at having been confronted by this incredibly clever little girl, comes through very clearly.
Along the way, we realize that Addie is smarter than Moses and has the brains, confidence, and maturity of a grown up. Actually, some grown ups would kill to have her smarts. God knows where she comes up with so many clever ideas. They both become partners and he realizes that he can make more money than he could ever wish to have, with her by his side. And she seems to know a lot about life too and any advice Moses gives her along the way seems unnecessary. At one point, she concocts an ingenious plan to get rid off a dancer named Trixie that Moses gets involved with. A disappointed Moses – with Trixie, of course – tells Addie not to be like her when she grows up. Something tells us that Addie won’t grow up to be like her. You would think that Tatum has had some prior acting experience but she didn’t and what she does here is unbelievable. Tatum has grown into a fine-looking woman and she recently appeared in Bogdanovich’s She Is Funny That Way but in a cameo.
Alvin Sargent’s script is adapted from the 1971 novel by Joe David Brown called Addie Pray and retains the sheen of the book while omitting few portions from it. The story is set in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. In an alternate universe, I can imagine this as a silent film made by Harold Lloyd. I guess this film also comes under the “coming-of-age” genre, in addition to the “con movie” genre. The rich black-and-white cinematography by László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) is the other highlight of the film. 1973 sure was a good year for movies, wasn’t it? A lot of great ones came out that year, I think, more than any other year of the 70s. There is this, then Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (which I wrote about a while back), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and The Sting, to name a few. Oh, this would work as a great double feature with The Sting, by the way.