What can you say about a 10-year-old girl who won an Oscar? That she was precocious and irresistible. And also, tragically, that she had an ulcer at 7 and that this triumph as Best Supporting Actress in Paper Moon may be Tatum O'Neal's last best hope to put together the pieces of a broken life. "It's hard to say," says her father and Paper Moon costar, Ryan O'Neal, "but Tatum has lived more than any 10 people three times her age. I want the best for Tatum, because she has lived through the worst."
Her father, now 33, had a jail record (for assault and battery) and was a movie stuntman before switching successfully into acting in TV series like Peyton Place. Her mother, Joanna Moore, eight years older than Ryan, was an aging Hollywood starlet who had gotten about as far as she would go in films on a charming Georgia accent. Seven months after their marriage they were parents of a baby girl, whom they gave the Southern name of Tatum after her maternal grandmother.
When Tatum was 3 (and a son they had subsequently was 2) Joanna divorced Ryan and that same day he married another Peyton Place player, Leigh Taylor-Young. Before that marriage ended in divorce too, his women included Ursula Andress and his What's Up, Doc? costar Barbra Streisand, just to name two of the most prominent. His behavior cost him the kids. "The judges always give them to the mother," he discovered, "and particularly if you have a jail record and have been involved in so many public love affairs."
Ryan continued: "I saw Tatum and her brother only on Saturdays and, man, I missed a lot of Saturdays. Then Tatum ran away from her mother and I realized I had to do something drastic." The ensuing custody fight with Joanna Moore brought forth charges of child abuse, drugs and debauchery, while both children were living in California in what Ryan described as a commune with their mother and her flock of itinerant hippies. As Tatum summed it up: "I had some bad lives when I lived with my mother."
"But she was strong, my God, she was strong," says Ryan. "When I took her away, she had $1,200 hidden away and she had made it all on her own by running the biggest ring of bicycle thieves on the beachfront." He first thought that the answer would be special schools. "But Tatum was violent, she fought with other girls, she stole from them, and when they put her with the 6-year-olds because she was so far behind in school she ran away. She told me she had to share a bed with a baby who still wet. I decided that she had to live with me and have a special tutor. Then, out of nowhere, out of a miracle, came Paper Moon."
At Paramount director Peter Bogdanovich found the property, and his then wife Polly Platt suggested Tatum. "He came to our house one afternoon," Ryan says, "and thought he could gamble on Tatum without a screen test. I knew Peter made good movies, honest movies, heartfelt movies. This was the first opportunity to try to channel her energy and mind into something constructive, and this movie would give her what she never had enough of—love. For once, she would be able to be real proud of herself."
Paper Moon is the depression-era tale of an orphan who hooks up with a grifter specializing in bilking widows. It is also the story of a girl in search of her father. In the movie Tatum is never certain that she has found him; but as a result of the movie Tatum found—or refound—her real father. The movie hit just as big as Ryan and Bogdanovich had hoped, making Tatum, as ever preternaturally early, an overnight national celebrity. She appeared on the Johnny Carson show. She was interviewed by (the since deceased) transvestite Candy Darling and asked to pose nude for Andy Warhol's Interview. She declined. Last fall, when her father was elected to star in Stanley Kubrick's The Luck of Barry Lyndon, she traveled to his British location, and he says, "got to run with an interesting crowd." That meant partying with super sophisticates like Marisa Berenson and Dewi Sukarno and going to the horse races with Bianca Jagger, whose walking stick and, at the Oscars, male attire Tatum has come to ape. In the process, Tatum developed some nouveau superstar bad manners. As early as the Paper Moon location, she was ordering around waitresses and even sending back toast in Kansas diners.
Last week in London, Ryan, mercurial as ever, backed away from his February pronouncement that he was "retiring" Tatum from films until she is 16. Almost sounding as if he were talking about some of the prize-fighters he has invested in, Ryan said if the right role in the right picture by the right director comes along, of course Tatum will be available—the right directors being the likes of "Fellini, Bergman, Bogdanovich and Kubrick."
At present Tatum is enrolled at an upper-middle-class boarding school outside of Los Angeles where she can ride horses, one of her passions, as well as study French and fractions in the fifth grade. In appraising her present state of development, Ryan notes in almost the same breath, Tatum's extraordinary maturity, raucous wit and the sad fact that she has never had any real friends of her own age. Except for a mouthful of cavities from her dolce vita, Ryan brags that Tatum is in great physical shape and can do 25 pushups and 125 situps, and run a mile in less than eight minutes. As for brainpower, she has played chess-shark Kubrick to a draw, though admittedly he was distracted by film work.
As Oscar night drew near, Tatum smelled victory, and that's why she turned up—on the arm of her paternal grandparents. After the ceremony, her call to Britain reached Ryan just before dawn:
Tatum: "Daddy, Daddy."
Ryan: "You did it."
Tatum: "Guess what I'm holding?"
Ryan: "It's pure gold."
Tatum: "No, it's bronze."
"It was as if she had already had it appraised," her father quipped later.
Ryan's prayer for his daughter at this point is "to be happy, not indulgent, and to know where the limits are." He was raised as a Catholic, but though Tatum has not been, "she knows God exists," he says. She is also into astrology, and in one of her first manifestations of self-discipline has given up smoking, which she took to fiendishly while filming Paper Moon. Ryan sees his daughter's tenacity as an outgrowth of her mother's inherent intelligence and, without specifying Joanna, sums up the current family situation this way: "Everybody's in place, and we try to keep the lid on.
"I now see my own mistakes, how I've let her down, how I've failed Tatum," Ryan concedes. "But I'm an optimist. I started with nothing, and I've got a lot. Tatum is like me. She's undaunted, absolutely. She may have been deprived of a childhood, but she still has a gift for living. I think about her scars, but what we've seen with Paper Moon is like a rebirth. My baby," concludes Ryan, "is going to live."