Video: Tatum O'Neal on 'A Paper Life'

Dateline NBC
updated 10/15/2004 7:49:56 PM ET 2004-10-15T23:49:56

America fell in love with her in "Paper Moon," but for Tatum O'Neal, there was a dark side to life in Hollywood. The youngest Oscar winner in history says that as a child she sometimes had to forage for food and she grew up abusing drugs, sexually abused by family friends. And her father? They seemed close on-screen, but off-screen, she says, it was a different story. Read an excerpt from her new book, "A Paper Life," below:

Prologue: Ryan’s Daughter
On August 21, 2003, I pressed my palms into wet cement outside Hollywood’s beloved Vista Theater to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Paper Moon. I was eight years old when I debuted in the movie—now considered a masterpiece—and received an Academy Award, becoming the youngest Oscar winner in history. Kneeling alongside me for handprints were Laszlo Kovacs, who shot the film in stark and lyrical black and white, and Ryan O’Neal, who was dazzling as my reluctant grifter-guardian on-screen—it was the crowning role of his career—if less brilliant as my father in real life.

Tanned and fit, my father showed no sign of his two-year struggle with leukemia. When he was diagnosed, I’d tried to mend shattered fences with heartfelt thanks for all he had given me, assuring him that he was still the love of my life. Recently he had fractured our fragile peace by announcing in print that Alicia Silverstone, his costar in a TV series, was the daughter he “should have had.” To drive the insult home, he’d added, “But we can’t always get what we want.”

The tabloids were sniffing the air around us, eager for a scent of conflict. We foiled them by rising, with professional smiles, to perform the Hollywood Hug.

Hovering in the background was Griffin, my brother, my Irish twin, eleven months younger. Over the years, he’d gained a certain notoriety, sometimes as the victim of my father’s fury—once Ryan famously knocked out his teeth—and through his own collisions with tragedy, drugs, and the law. He’s fiercely funny, though, and he’s my bridge to the past, to memories that lose some of their sting when he recounts them. It made me heartsick to watch him wrangle the crowd like a flak—greeting the fans, pressing us for autographs—as if he viewed himself more as an employee than as a member of the family.

Luckily, I had my own family with me. My sons Kevin and Sean, at seventeen and fifteen, already towered over me, while Emily, my youngest, was still small and sweet and girlish at age twelve. We’d spent a full day shopping for new sport coats for the boys—how handsome they were!—and cute corduroy jeans and a jacket for Emily, which she wore with my red belt. My late mother, in her southern drawl, used to call the three of them my “show kids,” meaning that I should be proud to show them off. I was proud, and I felt bolstered by their loyalty and love.

The kids were protective, sensing my anxiety at seeing Ryan, always unpredictable and capable of lashing out, and wondered nervously if he’d brought Redmond, his son with Farrah Fawcett. Just a year older than Kevin, Redmond had become a somewhat forbidding figure after landing in drug rehab at age fourteen. Since then his life had been peppered with arrests and hospitalizations, and when he was sixteen, my father had kicked him out of the house. Whatever his current status—in or out of my father’s favor—Redmond didn’t seem to be around.

Crowded by photographers, we filed into the theater, a classic Egyptian-revival palace with pharaohs holding up the roof. There, straight ahead, lay another psychic land mine, a longtime friend of my father whom I’ll call “Gavin,” who had molested me when I was about the same age—and just as physically childlike—as my own daughter. He’d done it on a night when I was so embittered by adult betrayals that I’d gotten drunk and slit my wrists. When I’d complained, he was banished from the inner circle for a while, but I was punished too, for blowing the whistle on my father’s lifestyle.

“Hey, Gavin,” I said coolly, taking the high road. “Nice to see you. You look really good.”

Pushing past him, I reached an oasis: Peter Bogdanovich, my father-figure/friend, and the director of Paper Moon. He wore his signature ascot, which would have looked funny and affected on any other man. It flashed me back to the day when we first met at my father’s beach house in Malibu. He’d asked me to take a walk with him on the beach.

“You don’t look like you belong on the beach,” I said, staring at that ascot.

He’d rolled up his pants, and we headed off for what turned out to be my audition. I was a scrawny, knock-kneed little waif at seven, with tangles in my hair and no acting training—in fact, with little formal schooling at all—but Peter took me on. He’d later say that it was my scrappy attitude that got me the job.

We exchanged warm greetings and then took our seats, with Peter as a bulwark between me and my father. As the credits rolled, there was wild clapping for Madeline Kahn, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film, who had recently died of cancer. Then the screen filled with my wounded, willful face as eight-year-old Addie Loggins, standing on the prairie over her mother’s open grave in Depression era Kansas.

I hadn’t seen the movie in years. Entertainment Weekly would say that my performance “rewrote the book on movie moppets,” calling me “feisty . . . a child star for a hip, cynical age.” Seeing that little face again reminded me that pain was the flip side of feistiness. My own young life had eerily echoed Addie’s, even though my mother was still alive. In the grip of addiction, she virtually abandoned me and Griffin, leaving us in squalor—starving, shoeless, and ragged—as well as beaten and abused by the men in her life.

Ryan finally came to my rescue, just as he was doing onscreen in a sputtering old jalopy, playing Moses (Mose) Pray, the Bible-peddling con man who is probably Addie’s pa. He’d thought working together in Paper Moon would help us bond. “This was her first opportunity to channel her mind and energy into something constructive,” he told the press. “And this movie would give her something she never had enough of— love.”

I never dreamed that shooting a film would be so hard. I imagined that it would be like a play rehearsal, with everyone sitting around on stools reciting lines to one another. The reality was both far more challenging and grueling, for there was less regulation then of child actors’ hours. Even the concept of acting confused me. Idolizing my father and desperate to please, I once blew a take when I panicked at his gruffness and blurted, “Daddy, are you mad at me?”
“No!” he growled, “I’m doing the scene.”

There were times when my inexperience tested everybody’s patience. At eight, I could barely read, so memorizing six or seven pages of solid dialogue—along with nuances and inflections, to be delivered in a moving car—was beyond me. Peter bribed and threatened me to force me to learn my lines, at one point chaining me to a tree until I nailed them. He was joking, of course, even if his exasperation was serious.

Still, when I ad-libbed, Peter trusted me. The opening sequence ends with two church ladies persuading Mose to deliver Addie to her aunt in Missouri. They’re gathered near an old-fashioned pump, and a preacher says, “Let’s get the child some water.” As they haggle with Mose, trying to fob me off, the minister hands me a cup of water without a word of comfort. It wasn’t in the script, but I knew exactly—instinctively—what Addie had to do. I turned away and dumped it on the ground.

There’s such sadness and hopelessness in that gesture, coming from a character who has lost her barfly mother—the devil she knew—but there’s defiance too, proof that her spirit is unbroken. It is a measure of Peter’s genius as a director that he recognized how deeply I identified with Addie’s bruised innocence, steely wariness, and above all, resilience. I knew firsthand what it would take for her to survive.

Setting off with Mose on the car trip east, Addie discovers that she can one-up him, out-con him, and even thwart her grown-up rival for his affections. It was almost spooky how much the film’s scenario mimicked my own later life with my father. Now, watching Ryan objectively as a movie buff/actor, I had to acknowledge that his art was superb. Without sentimentalizing Mose, he made him human and appealing, even when preying on widows or trying to bilk Addie out of the money he had extorted in her name. That extortion yielded the famous, lisping exchange that my children used to delight in repeating:

“I want my $200. If I don’t get my $200, I’ll tell a p’liceman how you got it and he’ll make you give it to me ’cause it’s MINE.”
“But I don’t have it.”
“Then GIT it.”

At the time, Ryan was considered one of America’s best and most versatile actors. In What’s Up, Doc? he’d been laugh-out-loud funny; and in Love Story, he was a beautiful, crystal clear man with blue eyes and a soft miracle voice—an irresistible heartthrob.

In Paper Moon, he was truly at the top of his game. He deserved an Oscar nomination at the very least, even against the tough competition that year, when Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Robert Redford all lost out to Jack Lemmon for his role in Save the Tiger. However, as Peter Bogdanovich would say of Paper Moon: “Ryan’s wonderful in it, and he sat there and watched the kid steal the picture.”

Maybe that’s what first tipped the hair-trigger scales of our relationship. Jealousy is rife in showbiz families. Legend has it—and people tell me—that when I got the Oscar nomination, Ryan slugged me. I don’t remember that, but there are memories that I’ve blocked.

I remained Ryan’s companion on the Hollywood party circuit, growing inured to sex and drugs before I was in my teens. A needy little girl, still haunted by neglect, I clung to him and even to the women in his life—Bianca Jagger, Angelica Huston, Melanie Griffith, and many more. However, the more love I craved, the more distant and abusive he grew, emotionally and physically. The role I longed to play was never written into Ryan’s script: daughter.

I would go on to marry John McEnroe, another punishing man. He brought his trademark tantrums home from the tennis court and later, when I left him, to the court of law, trying to wrest my kids away. For a time, he succeeded because, after our divorce, I slipped into the darkness of depression and addiction that seems to be the family curse. To see my kids, I’d endured the humiliation of drug tests and supervision, but believing I’d failed them was my most agonizing shame. I’d told my children honestly of my struggles, and they responded with compassion greater than I’d imagined, or even thought I deserved. They forgave me at a time when I could barely forgive myself.

So, ultimately, Paper Moon didn’t bring me love. But I did find it, with them.

Sitting with my beautiful, brilliant, healthy kids to celebrate the anniversary of the movie that saved me, changed me, and set me on my life path was the supreme joy. The film itself is a diamond, a work of art, just as beautiful and poignant and evocative today as when we made it. I felt privileged to be a facet of such a jewel in the crown of American cinema. That—besides the gift of life itself—was my father’s greatest gift to me.

Watching myself play Addie from the perspective of adulthood, I can see the wise old soul behind that tiny plaintive face, and I think, I love that little girl. It’s painful to remember the heartaches that left her so self-possessed, so tenacious and brave—and sad to know that certain struggles never end—but I’m proud of her. I’m proud of what she’s accomplished and what she has overcome:

I’ve overcome neglect and deprivation.
I’ve overcome abandonment and abuse.
I’ve overcome physical and mental brutality—and fought back.
I’ve triumphed over addiction.
I’ve stood my ground in life, alone, even against overwhelming forces with the might and money to crush me. I’ve purged myself of bitterness and anger and remained open to love. I’ve kept my moral compass intact and aimed at true north.
I have survived—and won.

The foregoing is excerpted from A Paper Life by Tatum O’Neal. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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