Paper Moon: twice in three weeks

Paper Moon: 1973, dir. Peter Bogdanovich. Seen on DVD (April 25) and at Alamo Downtown (May 14).
Here is what happened with me and Paper Moon: Polly Platt spoke to a class I was taking earlier this year, and I was impressed enough with her comments on Paper Moon and the clip she showed that I realized I really wanted to see it. A month or so later, I heard that Peter Bogdanovich was going to be in Austin, showing the film at Alamo Drafthouse and answering questions about it. I was very excited. Then Alamo cancelled the screening and I rented the movie on DVD and watched it at home.
I liked Paper Moon very much and was particularly impressed with the way it looked. So when I heard that the Bogdanovich appearance and Paper Moon had been rescheduled, I decided I wanted to see it again, this time in a theater. Alamo Downtown showed an excellent print of Paper Moon—Bogdanovich noted the print quality—so I felt very fortunate to see the movie under such circumstances.
The funny thing about my experience with Paper Moon is that I have heard Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich both talk about it, and their stories are often quite different.

A little background: Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich were married in the 1960s and worked on several films together, he as director and she as production designer. (She claims that she also did a lot of producer’s work but at the time, didn’t realize it and didn’t take the credit.) Most notably, they worked on Targets and then The Last Picture Show before they divorced and Bogdanovich hooked up with Cybill Shepherd. However, Platt and Bogdanovich continued to work together on a few more films. Their last film together was Paper Moon.
Many people feel that Bogdanovich’s films have never been as good as they were when Platt worked on them with him. She was/is unquestionably an excellent production designer, searching for the perfect locations and the best “look” for the films, moving the location of Paper Moon from the Deep South to the flat Midwest to give it more of a stark, dusty Depression-era appearance. After Paper Moon, Platt worked as a production designer on other movies (The Bad News Bears, A Star is Born), then moved into producing. She produced Terms of Endearment and some other films for Gracie Films (James Brooks’ company) and eventually started helping independent filmmakers, such as Wes Anderson with Bottle Rocket. Her excellent track record as a producer backs up her claims that she worked as an unofficial producer for Bogdanovich’s films and had a lot of influence in the filmmaking process.
Peter Bogdanovich has not directed many notable films after Paper Moon. The director’s cut of Mask is supposed to be good, and I quite liked The Cat’s Meow, but one could argue that he hasn’t had quite the unqualified success that he had in his earlier films. He’s written several books about movies, most recently Who the Hell’s In It?, and he’s recorded any number of commentary tracks for classic movies on DVD. I was a little wary about hearing him speak at Alamo, because I couldn’t make it past the first 20 minutes of commentary on Bringing Up Baby, but I thought he would have more interesting and informative things to say about his own movies. I was right.
Peter Bogdanovich has his whole storytelling shtick down pat. He has a good story for every question. He reminds me of Howard Hawks and perhaps Orson Welles in this respect, which I am sure is intentional because Bogdanovich interviewed them both extensively in the late 1960s. He also does imitations of them. I think the Hawks imitation is best and I’m sorry it’s not included in the little “don’t talk during the movie” trailer he did for Alamo, but I guess not many people know who Howard Hawks was.
I heard Polly Platt’s stories about Paper Moon in the UT RTF master class I took in the spring. In her version, she read the book and Alvin Sargent’s screenplay, and she pushed Bogdanovich into directing the movie. She was the one who decided to move the setting from the Deep South to the Midwest, she worked with Sargent on other script changes, etc. She came up with the idea of casting Ryan O’Neal after they’d already cast Tatum, wondering why no one else saw the obvious casting. But in Bogdanovich’s version, which he told at the Alamo, Paramount was dying for him to direct the project, he read the book and the script and decided it would work with major changes, such as moving the setting and making Addie younger. He decided to cast the O’Neals, pressured to studio to agree to cast Ryan, and has a cute story about his decision to cast Tatum.
When I write down those two versions and reread them carefully, I can see where the truth might be a combination of both, if you consider that Bogdanovich seems to prefer avoiding direct mention of his ex-wife. However, his way of storytelling implied that he was the one who made all the decisions, that he was the auteur behind the movie.
It all reminded me a little of a section of Pauline Kael’s essay Raising Kane, in which she illustrates the way directors’ anecdotes are accepted as truth by analyzing a story Howard Hawks used to tell about how he decided to cast a woman as the reporter in His Girl Friday. In The Front Page, on which the movie is based, Hildy is a man. Hawks claims he wanted to hear the dialogue read aloud, happened to get a woman to do it, realized how much better it sounded that way, and thus decided to adapt the play in that fashion. Kael points out that the “charming and superficial” story isn’t the whole story, though—several earlier romantic comedy films successfully included “girl reporter” characters based on real-life journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Hawks could not have been ignorant of that when making his decision about the movie.
The point is that we cannot take these pleasant stories and amusing anecdotes at face value: we have to consider that they might not realistically reflect what happened. I enjoyed hearing Bogdanovich’s stories, and I enjoyed hearing Platt’s stories a few months ago, but it’s all Rashomon. I am sure Alvin Sargent would have an entirely different set of stories centering on himself as screenwriter.
And the real point, which I should have made when I started writing this, is that Paper Moon is an excellent film—good enough for my boyfriend and I to want to see twice in three weeks—and a lot of people were responsible for its being such a top-notch film.
I am particularly pleased that I was able to see it in a theater, where it looked even better than it did on DVD. The stark black-and-white dusty Midwestern setting was gorgeous in its own way and perfect for the movie. However, the DVD transfer is very good and I would definitely recommend renting the DVD.
Everything about this movie seems authentic and true: the characters, the dialogue, the music, the storyline. Bogdanovich said at the Alamo screening that he and screenwriter Alvin Sargent didn’t have a proper ending when shooting began, and that he (Bogdanovich) came up with the idea for the ending based on three elements that were kicking around his head: the photo Addie takes at the carnival, the two hundred dollars, and the only hill in Kansas that they could find while scouting locations. But the ending works just right for the movie; you would never know it had been written at the last minute, and was not adapted from the book.
It’s hard for me to review this movie in the normal way because all I can think to say is, I can find nothing wrong with this movie, it is entertaining and absorbing and genuine, and you should see if it you haven’t already. I don’t feel like recounting the plot or naming all the actors and actresses in the movie; you can find that stuff easily if you want to know. As I said, the DVD transfer is great, although I didn’t bother listening to Bogdanovich’s commentary track. (My boyfriend heard about half until he had an overdose of anecdote.) Everyone remembers The Last Picture Show, but who remembers Paper Moon? I think it is better than The Last Picture Show, and I wish more people would remember it and see it and talk about it.
I do have one tiny complaint, though, directed at Alamo Downtown: the theater is usually so good about offering movie-themed dinner specials at their events. For Paper Moon, they really should have offered us the chance to have a Coney Island and a Nehi. It would have been the perfect accompaniment to a lovely afternoon event.

4 thoughts on “Paper Moon: twice in three weeks”

  1. When I am being particularly fractious, the Fesser is often given to telling me to eat my Coney Island and drink my Nehi. Great stories about a personal favorite of mine. Thanks, Jette.

  2. I was also at that screening at the Alamo; it was my first time seeing the film, and I thought it was brilliant. The stories that really stuck with me from afterward were those about how difficult it was to get good takes out of Tatum; spending two days just shooting the long take of them on the highway sounded like torture.

  3. I saw Paper Moon as part of a history class. I quite enjoyed it and it’s a very poignant tale that also features a particular moment in American History.
    I’d definitely watch it again. I can’t get past the first 20 minutes of The Last Picture show, interestingly enough and have never seen the entire film.

  4. Paper Moon is a fun little movie, but I don’t rank it in the same category as The Last Picture Show. It’s not as distinctly rich or evocative of its time and place as its predecessor. It works because it’s a kind of sentimental caper, a kind of fun road movie, and it doesn’t really have a hell of a lot on its mind. Also, Tatum O’Neal turns in one of the great natural, unaffected performances by a child.
    Your stories regarding Platt and Bogdanovich were perfectly absorbing. Have you read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls? It goes into a lot of detail about Platt’s deep involvement with The Last Picture Show, to the point where Howard Hawks, a visitor on the set, was said to remark, “Is he directing the picture, or is she?”

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