In the 1930s, American psychologist Harry Harlow completed a series of experiments whereby infant rhesus monkeys were placed in a cage with two makeshift inanimate mothers. One mother was made out of wire but had milk available for the infant, while the other had no food but was covered in cloth. Overwhelmingly, the infants gravitated towards the cloth mothers. This experiment illustrates the necessity of human relationships, especially the parent-child bond. This is especially vital during times of financial crisis and food shortages, when we have to rely on one another as a human race to achieve our basic needs. “Paper Moon”, a 1973 comedy-drama film directed by Peter Bogdonavich set in the Depression era, astutely explores this theme with wit, dark humour, and affection.
Addie Loggins, played stoically by Tatum O’Neal, is a nine-year-old girl who has just lost her mother and is totally unaware of her father’s identity. Along comes Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal, Tatum’s real-life father) – a con artist who claimed to have known Addie’s mother and could potentially be Addie’s father. Through a fiscal grievance of $200, Addie and cleverly named Moses embark on a scheming journey, selling overpriced bibles to gullible mid-Western folks. While they both embark on other legally questionable activities, Addie and Moses become an interdependent unit. Addie also begins to look up to him as a father figure, but it takes longer for him to view her from the same lens. For example, Addie is disheartened when he would rather meet ladies of the night at the State Fair rather than have his picture taken with her on a “paper moon” in one of the fair’s booths. Thus, she embarks on a personal quest for Moses to see her in that light.
While set in a land of diffuse poverty, this film is rich in many facets. The black and white cinematography as well as the bleak landscapes entrench the viewer into the stark reality of the Depression. The screenplay is complex and dark, investigating themes of suspicion, fraud, and orphanhood. However, it also delves into themes of friendship, loyalty, and the power of the parent-child bond. The superb acting by Oscar-winning Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, as well as the other characters help to animate the resonant screenplay. Above all, the father-daughter relationship is the heart of this film, and is amplified by the real-life connection of the two actors. Whether it be the love of a spouse, partner, child, parent, sibling, or close friend, their support gives us further personal permission to grow and exceed our potential. As the song “It’s Only a Paper Moon” goes, “but it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me”.
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