Celebrating Tatum O’Neal In Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon

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From its opening monochrome close-up of nine-year-old Addie Loggins at the barely attended outdoor funeral of her mother, Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression-era road movie Paper Moon (1973) is dominated by the presence of Tatum O’Neal. O’Neal celebrated her own ninth birthday during the shoot, and at age ten was awarded an Oscar for her efforts, making her the youngest ever actor (to this day) to have received such an accolade from the Academy (Shirley Temple was honoured at age 6 in 1935, but not in a competitive category) – even if, rather unfairly, O’Neal was relegated to the Supporting Actress category despite having more screen time than the film’s headline star (and her real father) Ryan O’Neal.

Even before the O’Neals became involved, when John Huston was still set to helm, Paper Moon was always going to feature a father-daughter team in the lead roles (Paul Newman and his daughter Nell Potts were first considered). It is casting that adds another layer of frisson to the ambiguous relationship between these two fellow travellers. When Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) rolls up noisily at the funeral, he is asked (in the film’s first lines) whether he is related to Addie. “Thought I saw some resemblance”, observes a mourner. “Seems you’ve got the child’s jaw.”

It is never entirely clear whether ‘Moze’ is really Addie’s lost father, but as Addie insists, “It’s possible.” Moses denies paternity repeatedly himself, but he had certainly been intimate with Addie’s mother (“Amen, Essie-Mae, I just know your ass is still warm,” he says to her coffin) – and besides having the same jaw, Addie also shares Moses’ natural gift for the grift. As this odd couple travels from one Southern town to another, ostensibly on their way to Addie’s only surviving relatives in St Joseph, Missouri, but in fact raking in a tidy sum together from conning gullible locals, Addie is content to believe – or make believe – that she has found her actual father, much as it suits their act for her to pretend to be his daughter, even referring to herself as Addie Pray (in fact the title of Joe David Brown’s 1971 novel from which Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay).

If this sounds like a long, winding road towards excessive sentiment, it is O’Neal’s performance that excludes any unwelcome mawkishness. It is not that Addie lacks heart – after all, she slyly redistributes some of their profits to the impoverished, and she clings jealously to Moses, quickly eliminating competition from the only other woman who dares call him ‘daddy’ (Madeline Kahn’s meretricious Trixie Delight) – but she never cries, not even at her mother’s passing, and emotes through sullenness rather than hyperbolised gestures. Grumpy, glowering, shrewd and wise beyond her years, O’Neal’s Addie follows Moses’ lead by burying her obvious neediness in hard-nosed negotiation and transacting her relationships in purely financial terms. Most of all, though, despite her diminutive size and pre-sexual tomboyishness, she seems more adult than the adults around her (and, rather shockingly, smokes more than them, too). “Little children do not tell grown-ups what to do with their lives,” complains Moses, absurdly trying to level with Addie when she, both metaphorically and also within the camera’s framing, occupies the high ground.

When we last see this pair, they are heading off toward the horizon, in a truck as noisy and unroadworthy as the car in which Moses first picks up Addie, and both as broke as they were when they first met. Their journey has been circular, yet its future trajectory remains wide open. Sadly, the real O’Neal would become estranged from her real father when he hooked up with Farrah Fawcett in 1979. Hoping for a reunion, O’Neal showed up unannounced at Fawcett’s 2009 funeral, where her father not only failed to recognise his own daughter, but even tried to hit on her. Their later attempts at reconciliation would be played out publicly in the pages of her memoir Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home (2011) and before the cameras in the television ‘docu-series’ Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals (2011) – prompting Ryan O’Neal to conclude afterwards: “We’re further apart now than we were when we started the show.”

Perhaps, though, it is the allusive title of her earlier memoir A Paper Life (2004) – denounced as ‘malicious lies’ by O’Neal Sr – which best encapsulates the way that O’Neal’s life and relationship with her father, first staged on the big screen, would continue to pit home truths against convenient fictions in reality (and later on reality television). As a burgeoning con artist and itinerant homebody in Paper Moon, Tatum O’Neal is exceptional – but if she was playing a version of herself, that version would continue to haunt her a long way down the road, in a future marred by addiction, troubled relationships, and a mediated quest for daddy.

© Anton Bitel