Tatum O’Neal Is The Youngest Ever Oscar Winner, But Her Childhood Achievement Came At A Dark Price

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Tatum O’Neal is the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award; she was a mere ten years old when she received the honor in 1974. Now as a grown woman, she’s spoken out about what it was actually like to have such stardom at a young age. And her father Ryan features heavily in her recollections.

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Tatum’s father is Ryan O’Neal, famous for starring in movies including Barry Lyndon, A Bridge Too Far, and Love Story. Ryan was actually Oscar-nominated for the latter film, but he didn’t win. Tatum, on the other hand, nabbed one; and she’s indicated that this incident caused a rift between father and daughter.

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Tatum spilled all in her two memoirs, 2004’s A Paper Life and seven years later with Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home. The books go into lots of detail about her childhood, but they don’t make for easy reading. Tatum may have been a child star with an Oscar, but it was a hard life.

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Tatum was the first child of Ryan O’Neal and Joanna Moore, who divorced before she turned five. She has a brother called Griffin, and two half-brothers named Patrick and Redmond. Her mother was also an actress, famous for Follow That Dream, Walk on the Wild Side and more. As a result, Tatum naturally had access to the world of Hollywood.

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Tatum’s first film acting role was Paper Moon in 1973, in which she played Addie Loggins, the onscreen daughter of a character played by her real father, Ryan. And for the part, Tatum received a “New Star of The Year” Golden Globe Award as well as the Oscar.

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After Tatum won the Oscar, People magazine did a feature on her. It began, ominously, “What can you say about a ten-year-old girl who won an Oscar? That she was precocious and irresistible. And also, tragically, that she had an ulcer at seven 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.”

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But was Tatum’s life broken at the age of just ten? Her father, interviewed for the piece, certainly seemed to think so. Ryan had a criminal record, and he told People that it had prevented him getting custody after the divorce. He said, “The judges always give them to the mother, and particularly if you have a jail record and have been involved in so many public love affairs.”

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People related to readers the things Tatum – who’d become “an overnight national celebrity” – had been asked to do after her Oscar win. One sounds deeply shocking; the actress was “asked to pose nude for Andy Warhol’s Interview. She declined.” Something like that, of course, would not be allowed today.

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At the end of the interview, Ryan told the magazine, “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.”

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Tatum did another film with her father after Paper Moon: Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon in 1976. However, it was a flop; film critic John Simon was vicious about the flock, writing, “Anyone who caught himself laughing at Nickelodeon should serious consider committing himself to the nearest mental hospital, even though the chance for a cure was hardly hopeful.”

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Tatum did several more films, among them The Bad News Bears, International Velvet, and Little Darlings. She also got to act alongside a lot of legendary actors; these included Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer and Richard Burton. But as she got older, her work became more sporadic.

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Elsewhere, Tatum’s relationships began making the news. By the end of the 1970s she was dating none other than Michael Jackson – a man who had some very serious allegations made against him during the course of his career, and still more after he died. In 2002 Michael was interviewed by Martin Bashir and he had some things to say about Tatum.

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Michael claimed that Tatum tried to sleep with him, but he was so afraid of sex that he refused and she walked away. The former said, “She knew I was too shy for it. That’s what happened.” Martin Bashir then asked, “Did you not feel tempted at all?” Michael responded that he wasn’t, he was only frightened.

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And when the documentary Leaving Neverland came out in 2019 with more allegations against Jackson, Tatum was on the side of the accusers. Although she claimed she “didn’t see anything myself,” she also said there were “so many disgusting things going on in Hollywood.”

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Tatum’s most major romantic relationship, though, was with famous tennis player John McEnroe. She first started seeing him in 1984, and just two years later they were married. Together they had three children: Emily, Sean and Kevin.

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In 1990 Tatum gave an interview to The Chicago Tribune, where the actress spoke about her life and John. When she’d met him, she said, “it was love at first sight.” And she added, “It was total connection. It was like, if I don`t marry him, I’ll die.” John’s career in tennis appeared to be on its way out at that point, but Tatum reassured the newspaper, “He never had to be Number one for me to be in love with him.”

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Ryan was also interviewed by The Chicago Tribune for that article. He claimed that Tatum had reacted badly when he’d began a relationship with actress Farrah Fawcett. Ryan said, “I bent over backward for her for years, and it was time for her to bend over backward for me. But she wasn`t for it.”

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Ryan and Tatum had for a long time veered between not speaking, reconciling and then falling out again. Ryan told the newspaper that Tatum had to “deal with both her caring and jealousy,” but said they were “treading lightly” on a father-daughter relationship. As for his son-in-law John, he said, “I like him a lot. He`s a decent human being and a great tennis player.”

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Ryan hadn’t even been invited to his daughter’s wedding – none of the O’Neal family had been. Tatum claimed in the article that she was “doing good,” however. Talking of herself and John, she added, “We’re just smart enough to want a marriage that works. I want my children to be children and have a good young life.”

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Sadly, however, John and Tatum’s relationship ended in 1992, and in an interview with Entertainment Weekly the following year, she talked about his alleged infidelity. Tatum said, “I had a girlfriend betray me – she started dating John. I had a couple of nannies, too, who went with John.”

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Tatum went on, “I’ve always been someone who trusted people until they burned me, and now I don’t trust people very well at all.” Tatum’s friend Sherry Goffin, meanwhile, claimed to the magazine, “[John] was emotionally abusive and difficult to live with. It’s not my place to say, but I don’t think there’s a chance in hell they’ll get back together.”

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At the time of the separation, Kevin, Sean and Emily were seven, five and two respectively. But Tatum was determined to be a good mother to them no matter what else was going on in her life. She told Entertainment Weekly, “I’ve totally been available for my kids, and I feel like no matter what happens they’ll feel like they are the priority.”

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Tatum had decided to return to acting with a TV movie called Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story, she said. It was her first major role for almost a decade. She continued, “I couldn’t keep waiting for that great artsy project to come and take me into the mainstream. I sort of feel like there’s a biological clock ticking in terms of my work.”

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Unfortunately Woman on the Run failed to make much of an impact. People magazine wrote of it, “Not only is it slanted; the film is also hollow at the core because there’s still a good deal of rust on [Tatum’s] acting skills. She rarely raises her voice above a tentative whisper until late in the second night.”

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Tatum’s had a lot of ups and downs since those days; on the plus side, she appeared in several TV shows throughout the 2000s, including Sex and the City, Rescue Me and Wicked Games. And come 2006 she competed on Dancing with the Stars, although she and partner Nick Kosovich were sent home in the second round.

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But in Tatum’s personal life, things didn’t go so well. She developed drug problems and eventually lost custody of her children to McEnroe. Then two years after she did Dancing with the Stars, she was arrested in Manhattan for purchasing cocaine.

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People might have wondered at the time, what on earth happened? The answers, though, were within Tatum’s book A Paper Life. Her relationship with Ryan seemed to have clouded her whole life. She wrote of his reaction following her Oscar win, “In the press, he played the doting father. But in his eyes, I read the truth: deep resentment that his own brilliant performance was being dismissed.”

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After the success of Paper Moon, Tatum wrote, “[Ryan] began to make snide jokes, to belittle me and undermine me…. I soon started getting such bad stomach aches that the doctors thought I had ulcers. I felt shaken by the precariousness of my position, trying to clutch at a father who was doing his best to drive me away. He sometimes would simply declare, ‘I just don’t like you, Tatum.’”

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Tatum went on, “I’d started noticing that there were drugs around, which seemed to make my father mean. His emotional swings scared me so much that I started writing him little notes, ‘Please, Daddy, don’t be mad at me. Please, I’ll be a better girl. Daddy, I love you. Please don’t hate me!’”

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Sadly, Tatum was no better off with her mother, her memoir attests. She wrote of Joanna, “My mother seemed powerless – barely accepting responsibility for her own life, never mind for her children. She would take us with her to bars – shades of Addie’s mother in Paper Moon – start drinking and disappear. We’d be left clutching a slip of paper with my grandparents’ phone number. The bartender would call and have them pick us up.”

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And winning the Oscar didn’t improve Tatum’s life either. She wrote in A Paper Life, “There was no fanfare from anyone who mattered to me, so the pride and self-worth I might have gained from what most people would consider a life-defining honour was leached away. The feeling I most associate with winning an Oscar is an overwhelming sadness at being abandoned by my parents – both of them, for my mother remained silent – one more time.”

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In both of her memoirs, Tatum goes into detail about the alleged mental and physical abuse she apparently suffered as a child. She’s also always claimed that while she living with her mother and brother on a ranch after her parents divorced, she was beaten and molested by a teenage boyfriend of Joanna’s.

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Reading the book, one would think Tatum has every reason to loathe her parents. When she published A Paper Life in 2004, she told NBC’s Stone Phillips that it was “a chance to say, you know, things don’t just happen by accident. One doesn’t just fall off the edge of a cliff for nothing.”

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And yet, to this day Tatum still appears to care for her parents. She supported her mother financially during the 1970s, and was with her when she died of lung cancer in 1997. As for Ryan, despite everything – he’s said some incredibly cruel things about all his children in interviews – she still seems to be rooting for him.

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In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Ryan even admitted that he’d hit on Tatum at Farrah Fawcett’s funeral when he didn’t recognize her as his daughter. Yet he was furious for her for writing the explosive memoir, telling the magazine, “She wrote a book – bitch! How dare she throw our laundry in the street for money!”

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In the years since then, Ryan and Tatum attempted to reconcile; though it seemed to have been mostly the latter who wanted to. Nevertheless, in 2018, a time when the actress seemed to be doing much better in her life, she told the L.A. Times, “I learned a lot from my dad – all the good things I learned about myself.”

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And Tatum went on, “I think my dad got sick of being the caretaker. I think he wanted his own life and his own career and his own stuff. I’m over it now. I wasn’t for a while. He’s never really forgiven me for talking about it. I hope one day he will be able to let us be close again. It breaks my heart, actually.”

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In 2019 Tatum’s Instagram seemed to indicate that father and daughter were at least on speaking terms again. In one post, she revealed she was going with him to medical appointments. In another, she wrote “Dear daddy, Happy St. Valentine’s Day! I found a picture of us in better times. I want to tell you that I am me because of you, and I mean all my good qualities.”

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Tatum wrote in the post, “I wish things could be different, that I could have made choices you could be more proud of.” But she also listed the good qualities she had previously mentioned, and that list included, “The way I have taught my children the joy of irony and how to love.”

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Tatum’s three children have a great relationship with her now. In the 2018 L.A. Times piece, her daughter Emily noted, “She wasn’t given the tools to be a great mother, to be emphatic and to rise above everything. And yet she did. That’s the real kind of unbelievable feat in my eyes.” It seems that despite everything, Tatum was able to break the cycle.

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