I was surprised how good I thought Paper Moon was. Like so many, I had become accustomed to the fall from grace narrative that has followed Peter Bogdanovich. His Sopranos appearances. His books on cinema. His incessant references to Welles, “Hitch” and others, always wearing the ever-present ascot. It’s all had the effect of someone playing a cameo in his own life, cobbling together bits and pieces of what he used to be.

But maybe Paper Moon shows us all that Bogdanovich ever was: a gifted critic with a gift for mimicry. The film feels something like The Grapes of Wrath played as a screwball comedy. John Ford fused with, I don’t know, Howard Hawks? There’s some Wellesian deep focus photography mixed in too. Bogdanovich’s influences are splattered everywhere. This was also true for The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (both fine films in their own right). As the saying goes, you could do worse than to have Ford, Hawks and Welles as your influences. But which one was the real him? Or was it the director who later made At Long Last Love and Mask?

Paper Moon is more than a pastiche, however, thanks to the ferocious performance of Tatum O’Neal, who not only carries the film but lifts it over her shoulders. Fortunately for all involved, she didn’t play the prototypical cloying cute kid, or even the standard sitcom wise-ass, but instead delivered something deeper, as if, somehow, she knew, at age 8, how to portray a child wiser than her years.

Every time you think the film is going to sink into rank sentimentality or provide a cardboard resolution to a dramatic problem, she surprises you. There’s great melancholy in the picture, from O’Neail’s performance, to the forced happiness of Madeline Kahn’s character, to the pathos of the girl who plays the maid/servant to Kahn’s character. These are desperate folks, looking for an edge. A third act fight between Ryan O’Neal’s Moses Pray and an Okie played by a young Randy Quaid comes out of nowhere—and the story is better for it. Even the strange decision to have John Hillerman play a dual role somehow works when such a device should have detracted from the film’s verisimilitude.

Speaking of melancholy, it’s almost impossible to watch the film now without thinking about all of the hardships and rough patches Tatum O’Neal would endure in the future. A few weeks ago, I had similar thoughts watching The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan. Films have the capacity of returning you to a time when stars like Bogart or Hepburn ruled the scene, but they can also remind you of promise unfulfilled. Performances such as O’Neal’s are frozen in time. It’s a shame, somehow, that she couldn’t be.

Here’s the best scene in the movie:

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