It wasn’t only a paper moon the night of April 2, 1974. The moon and the stars came out for 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal when she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her pint-size con artist in Paper Moon and became the youngest Oscar winner in history.
Dressed in a tiny tuxedo and accompanied by her grandparents (her dad and Moon costar, Ryan O’Neal, was shooting Barry Lyndon in London), O’Neal bounded on stage and solemnly thanked her father and director Peter Bogdanovich for their support. Later she called Ryan in London, reaching him at dawn. ”Daddy, Daddy,” she shrieked over the phone. ”You did it!” Ryan said, adding that the statuette was ”pure gold.” ”No,” Tatum deadpanned. ”I think it’s bronze.”
O’Neal’s precocity grew out of a painful childhood — she went to live with her playboy father around the time her mother was hospitalized for amphetamine addiction — that she hoped to erase when she married tennis bad boy John McEnroe in 1986. ”She really wanted to be a great mom and have a stable family,” says a girlfriend.
And for six years, O’Neal seemed to be making her desire for a happy family a reality. She abandoned her already fading film career (she hadn’t had a hit since 1976’s The Bad News Bears) and concentrated on her children with McEnroe: Kevin, now 10, Sean, 8, and Emily, 5. ”I’m doing everything [for my kids] the opposite of what was done to me,” she once said.
But her new life crumbled in 1992 when the McEnroes divorced. Though published reports said they split because McEnroe didn’t want O’Neal to resume her career, a friend says it was more complicated. ”McEnroe was impossible to live with,” he said. ”He was just like her father.” O’Neal, who remained in Manhattan with one of the kids, reportedly began a descent into drugs. Younger brother Griffin O’Neal told a tabloid show in February that Tatum had been in rehab three times recently for drug addiction. Like her mother before her, she lost custody, at least temporarily, of her kids to their father.
O’Neal’s publicist, Jason Weinberg, says O’Neal is ”fine” and refuses to discuss her reported struggle with drugs. (McEnroe was unavailable for comment.) Friends don’t deny she has battled drugs but say she’s now clean and wants her kids back. ”Anybody can hit a bump,” Cher told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about O’Neal. ”It doesn’t mean they can’t straighten themselves out and fly right. I know Tatum will.”
Though O’Neal, now 33, faces a tough custody battle with McEnroe — the two are expected in court this year and each wants to have the kids full-time — her longtime friend and hairstylist Burton Machen says Tatum still hopes for a happy ending. She made a cameo appearance in 1996’s Basquiat, but for now, Machen says, ”she wants to get her life back on track more than her career.”