Literature Society: In Tatum O'Neal's A Paper Life, Ryan O'Neal Emerges as a Shitty Actor, Even Worse Father

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Winning an Academy Award for acting is generally the culmination of decades of hard work. It’s a reward for a movie or performance, sure, but it also honors the almost incalculable amount of time and effort winners have expended on their craft. It’s the dreamed-after end result of those long, long hours spent studying acting, going to auditions, enduring rejection and believing in yourself when the show business universe looks like a never-ending gauntlet of painful rejection.  

What happens when winning an Academy Award is not a life goal achieved after decades of striving and furious labor but rather a reward for the first thing you’ve ever done as an actor? That was the surreal, perversely unenviable situation Tatum O’Neal found herself in when winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon in 1974 at ten years old made her the youngest Academy-Award winner in history. 

The record-breaking win was both a blessing a curse, but it was primarily, and overwhelmingly, a curse. In a moment that says everything about her traumatic early life and her toxic relationship with her actor father Ryan, her Paper Moon costar reportedly responded to news of his daughter’s nomination by punching her. 

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O’Neal could never forgive his daughter for winning an Academy Award for Paper Moon when he wasn’t even nominated for his performance in the same film. For O’Neal, competition was everything. He saw his children not just as rivals but as opponents that he must not only defeat but destroy through verbal, physical and emotional abuse. 

It’s not easy peaking professionally when you’re prepubescent. Tatum (who I will be referring to by her first name to differentiate her from her flaming sentient garbage fire of a father) was consequently cursed to live her life in the long, lingering shadow of an award she won when she could barely read and her character's wildness reflected her own untamed, barely parented free spirit. 

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That was not the only long, dark shadow over Tatum’s life and career. She was similarly cursed to live first in the shadow of her dope-smoking, womanizing, abusive movie star father Ryan and then in the equally vast, equally intense and harsh shadow of tennis superstar and short lived talk show host husband John McEnroe.

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In classic tragic Hollywood form, Tatum had everything she could possibly want and absolutely nothing that she deeply needed. Tatum rocketed to stardom early but before Paper Moon made her an actress, a movie star and an Oscar winner all at the same time her existence was less glamorous than borderline feral. 

Because Ryan had zero interest in being a father, Tatum spent part of her childhood in the “care” of her mother, a Southern belle so drunk and strung out on speed that her children were left to fend for themselves, to put up with the violent rages of their mother’s 15 year old boyfriend, one of a series of tragically inappropriate and abusive partners her mother and father introduced into her life as malignant, toxic presences and ferocious competition for their love, only to discard them not too much later. 

When she won the Oscar for Paper Moon, Tatum went from literal rags to riches, from wondering where the next meal would come from to entertaining what her next film would be. Yet the horrifying fundamentals of her life remained unchanged: she was still fundamentally abandoned, left to her own devices by a drug-addicted parent who was pursuing their ragged addictions and wild pleasure at the expense of their children’s safety and security. This, in turn, led to her following in her dad's footsteps not just professionally but also in devoting her life to a reckless, self-destructive, drug and sex fueled pursuit of pleasure at any cost, including her own sanity and safety. 

Posing with the late Cary Elwes. 

Posing with the late Cary Elwes. 

The lines weren’t just blurry in the Hollywood and Europe of the 1970s: they were non-existent. One minute Tatum is horrified to find her BFF Melanie Griffith in bed, having sex with her father, the next she finds herself in a drugged-up orgy with Griffith and a few extra folks. Ryan was the demon on his children’s shoulders, forcing them to do things like drive across town, even though they were underage and did not have licenses, to pick up his drugs. 

In A Paper Life, Ryan’s cruelty knows no bounds. When the suicidal depression-prone author slashes her wrists in a desperate cry for help, Ryan grouses that she cut the wrong way. Then he becomes involved with Farrah Fawcett, and what little affection he might have felt for his children was instantly and completely transferred to his rich, famous, sex bomb of a partner, a woman revered for her world-class beauty. In other words, a feather in a demented misogynist like O’Neal’s cap. 

Tatum, meanwhile, whose dalliances include Jean-Claude Van Damme, Prince Albert and a sex-obsessed Michael Jackson, who she dated, sort of, as a 12 year old in the weird way that women dated Jackson early in his life, before he got, you know, weird, found a household name of her own in tennis legend and professional angry person John McEnroe. 

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They say that we marry our parents and are subconsciously attracted to our abusers. That was certainly true of Tatum. She went from living in the shadow, and fearing the violent tantrums of a rage-choked, pot-smoking jock alpha male movie star father who was cold, controlling and ruthlessly competitive to living in the shadow and fearing the violent tantrums of a rage-choked, pot-smoking jock alpha male superstar athlete husband who was cold, controlling and ruthlessly competitive. 

Tatum sought comfort from the never-ending thunderstorms of her father’s abuse and her mother’s madness in the arms of the angriest man in 1980s sports. John McEnroe didn’t get a reputation for being the most tantrum-prone brat in all of sports for nothing. No, he earned that motherfucker the same way he earned the opportunity to host his own poorly rated basic cable talk show and while at first he was charming and seductive and good to Tatum it wasn’t long before his famous temper manifested itself in his marriage. McEnroe devolved slowly but surely into a verbally, emotionally and physically abusive bully who controlled Tatum's life and demanded absolute obeisance but gave little to nothing of himself emotionally. 

Let’s just say that the tennis pro initially scored big with the troubled actress. Tatum hoped they would be the perfect couples pair but their stormy, star-crossed bond ultimately proved to be no love match. Also, Wimbledon and throwing chairs. 

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When love turned to hate and the unhappy couple divorced, the custody battle turned intense and traumatic as McEnroe went from bored, disinterested, emotionally neglectful father to fierce competitor intent on winning at any cost. 

Tatum faced an uphill battle in facing McEnroe’s high-powered legal team and his millions that she tanked when she went back to hard drugs and doing heroin with a sexy twenty-year-old Bohemian boyfriend from the art world whose vices brought out the addict in Tatum, leading to a horrifying relapse that undid many of the tremendous gains she’d made as a person. 

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Reading about Tatum’s family and emotional life is the emotional equivalent of watching a slasher movie. Every time Tatum returns to her father in a state of crisis, strung out, or broken, and in a state of deep despair, desperately seeking the love, approval and validation she's needed all her life, you want to yell at her, “No! Don’t go there! Nothing good can come from opening yourself up to that man’s bottomless hatred and despair! That man can’t love you! He can’t even love himself! He loves no one!”

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Yet Tatum returns again and again to her father in times of need and times of crisis, and his words and actions devastate her again and again. To cite a typically brutal example, when O’Neal scores a high profile comeback role in Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story as the title character, the elder O’Neal insists on being on set to guide her performance. When she protests that she’s a grown woman and also, you know, an Academy Award winning actress, and consequently can handle herself, he tells her that she’ll never be able to carry a mini-series because she’s a terrible actress. 

While Ryan may know bad acting, he knows nothing of good parenting. Yet Tatum retains a fierce, protective loyalty towards him deep into adulthood that might just be the most heartbreaking aspect of the book. She is forever pining for a return of the white knight she distantly remembers from very early in her childhood, who took her from a life of squalor and deprivation to a world of excess and well-heeled decadence before devolving into a rage-filled, stoned, resentful, abusive beast when Paper Moon catapulted his daughter to into the spotlight in a way he not only resented but despised. 

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Tatum is only forty at the end of her memoir. Yet she’d already lived three eventful, draining and dramatic lives, first as a child star/wild child, then as a woman desperately miscast in the role of a superstar athlete’s adoring, compliant trophy wife and then finally the life of a battle-scarred, sober survivor. 

The specifics are unique and vividly captured, but the broad strokes of Paper Life feel awfully familiar. Throughout the book I was reminded of both Mommy Dearest, which I wrote about recently for my Fractured Mirror column for TCM Backlot, which was similarly about growing up with a rage-choked alcoholic obsessed with competition, and the nightmare world of rampant child sex and drug abuse chronicled in Corey Feldman’s memoir. 

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Yet Paper Life retains a dark, morbid fascination all its own. If you’re as fascinated by the Hollywood decadence of the 1970s as I am, it’s a hell of a juicy page-turner about a woman who began her acting career at the very pinnacle of show-business success, then worked her way backwards as she struggled, and ultimately succeeded, in carving out an identity for herself as something beyond a movie star’s complicated daughter and a famous athlete’s wife. 

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