‘Paper Moon’: When Child Actors Nail It

Tatum O'Neal deserved the Oscar she won for this role.

by Kali Tuttle
Paper Moon

Child actors have to hit a high bar for me to laud their performance. I find that a lot of performances from young actors tend to disappoint me because they haven’t yet found their voice and the lines come off stilted and corny. Young actors tend to stay in that annoying theater kid stage for a while.

Paper Moon is one of the few exceptions to this. Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins is genuinely likeable and it wasn’t a chore to listen to her dialogue. It felt like I was watching any adult actor in a great performance. It was genuine and not saturated with over-the-top dramatics.

What really set O’Neal apart from other child actors was her smooth sentence flow, authentic reactions, and ability to harness her childhood to create a believable young character.

Sentence Flow

Being able to make your dialogue flow smoothly and not sound choppy is a big part of being an actor. Some of the worst actors out there are ones who can’t make even the best-written lines sound good. It’s a matter of using the right diction, emphasis, and expression.

Tatum O’Neal aces that aspect of acting in Paper Moon. It never feels like I’m watching a child actor in a movie; it feels like I actually know Addie and not just a character. She talks the way kids her age actually talk. I have a niece about the same age as Addie and I can confirm that kids are just as stubborn and headstrong as Addie is.

I especially enjoy how Tatum O’Neal portrays a child who is grieving the loss of a parent. She doesn’t cry and scream and break down like you might expect. She becomes stoic and reserved, which can be more accurate for kids experiencing loss that they can’t fully comprehend.

Authentic Reactions

I’ve never been a fan of child actors doing exaggerated reactions in movies. The famous scene of Macaulay Culkin trying aftershave in Home Alone doesn’t make me laugh as hard as others seem to. It’s so over-the-top that it’s cringy to me. However, O’Neal doesn’t overdo it in Paper Moon. She reins it in when she needs to and lets her emotions go free at other points.

She excels especially when she must act out disappointment. When her and Moses Pray’s (Ryan O’Neal) plans don’t go as they should, she wears the same pout and watery eyes that I remember wearing when I was disappointed as a kid. There’s no fakeness to it — it’s real; at least, it’s real to the audience.

Some actors work years to perfect reactions. Some never quite achieve the authenticity that the profession requires. Tatum O’Neal was practically born with that talent. Though she never quite hit that level of greatness later in her career, her first role as Addie Loggins in Paper Moon will stand as a testament to what good acting — and especially good reactions — can do for a film.

Ability to Harness Childhood

It’s easy to act like a child when you are one. O’Neal didn’t try to sound or act more mature than she was in this film. She simply played up who she already was and transported that person back to the age of the Great Depression. The character of Addie was just a kid who’d been through a lot and embraced a role model in her life, warts and all.

A lot of young actors try to sound bigger and more mature than they are. Think of any child actor in a sitcom and you can see the pretentious theater kid coming out, trying so hard to blossom as someone they aren’t. O’Neal doesn’t do that in Paper Moon. She plays a regular kid and doesn’t try to go for those theatrics that other child actors tend to.

Audiences connect so well with Addie because of how she reminds us of our own childhoods in some way. We didn’t all grow up in the same circumstances as Addie, but we all have experiences of growing up, facing loss and disappointment, and making new friends. Tatum O’Neal is a stand-in for our own childhoods.

Academy Award Win

In 1974, Tatum O’Neal became the youngest person in history to win an Academy Award. She beat out Linda Blair, Candy Clark, Madeline Kahn, and Sylvia Sidney for the Best Supporting Actress Award. Her acceptance speech was simple and reflects how young she was; she thanked only the director and her father, who co-starred in the film with her.

It wasn’t long-winded or rehearsed. It was just what any kid would say if they had just been given an award that many adults had been striving their whole lives toward. The speech could have been given by Addie Loggins in character and it would have been just as fitting. Tatum O’Neal was perfect for this role.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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