The former child star bounces back in the TV movie ''Woman on the Run''

By Kate Meyers
Updated May 14, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

The betrayal.” That’s what Tatum O’Neal says she related to most when probing the mind-set of Lawrencia ”Bambi” Bem-benek, the former Milwaukee cop who claims she was framed for the 1981 murder of her then husband’s ex-wife. As interpreted by O’Neal in the NBC movie Woman on the Run, Bembenek ”was being betrayed by everyone.”

And that is the feeling Tatum O’Neal says she has had since childhood, and one that has only gotten worse.

”When Paper Moon came out (in 1973), there was a change in people,” says O’Neal, whose performance in that movie made her, at 10, the youngest Oscar winner ever (as she still is). ”I think I started to learn what it meant to be famous — that it affected the people in your life.” At age 29, she still feels let down by people who once were close. Separated from tennis star John McEnroe last November after six years of marriage, she says, ”I had a girlfriend betray me — she started dating John. I had a couple of nannies, too, who went with John. I’ve always been someone who trusted people until they burned me, and now I don’t trust people very well at all.”

After meeting McEnroe in 1984 and marrying him in 1986, O’Neal turned her back on Hollywood and tried to create an ideal home life, perching devotedly in tennis bleachers to cheer her husband on and mothering their three children: Kevin, 7, Sean, 5, and Emily, 2. ”I’ve totally been available for my kids,” she says, ”and I feel like no matter what happens they’ll feel like they are the priority.” But when she was offered Woman on the Run last December, she decided it was comeback time. ”I had to push myself out there,” she says of her first major role since she played a prostitute in 1985’s failed Certain Fury, which was the last in a string of mediocre films after Paper Moon. ”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.”

Her return to acting so soon after her breakup with McEnroe has led to speculation that her temperamental husband had opposed her working, but O’Neal, her blue-green eyes steely below her short, many-shades-of-blond hair, refuses to discuss the marriage or the possibility of a reconciliation. She does, however, give the okay to friends to offer their takes on the situation. ”I think they really love each other, but they have different wants and different needs,” says her close friend Kelly Cunningham, ex-wife of actor Eric Roberts.

O’Neal’s lifelong friend Sherry Goffin, daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, views the relationship much less charitably. ”It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that he [McEnroe] has a bad temper,” Goffin says. ”He 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.”

O’Neal has spent most of her life in households of chaos and tumult. Her parents, actors Joanna Moore and Ryan O’Neal, divorced when Tatum was 4. Her mom suffered a period of alcohol and drug abuse; at age 7, with an ulcer already under her belt, Tatum went to live with her dad, her eventual costar in Paper Moon. ”She’s an incredible survivor, and she doesn’t want to put up with any more bullshit,” says Cunningham. ”She has been a caretaker for everyone: her brother [Griffin, 28, has also battled substance abuse], her mother, and her children. Now I think she’s happier, because working gives her a little something for herself.”

Still, after seven grueling weeks of filming in Toronto, O’Neal is happy to be home in New York City and settled back into her domestic routine with her kids (she took Emily on location; Kevin and Sean divided their time between their parents).

”Women have a much harder time proving themselves,” she says. ”They have to be everything. They’ve got to be a great mother. They’ve got to be beautiful. They’ve got to be thin. They’ve got to be bloody talented. They’ve got to be tough. And the list goes on and on.”

Feeling such pressures, O’Neal swings wildly between complete confidence (her husband once called her the ”female John McEnroe”) and incredible insecurity. ”If this [movie] is total shit, then what am I going to do?” she anguishes. ”I believe that I’m good, but I have this other side of me that’s really ‘I don’t know.”’

Although she’s pursuing feature-film roles, her most pressing concern seems to be finding a summer house that’s ”big enough for my kids to run around in.” Which is a task she promises to undertake with the same can-do determination she displayed 20 years ago as the little con artist in overalls. ”You have to look at the positive. Out of all the trouble comes strength and willpower,” she says. ”Power to go through three unanesthetized births and major heartache and to survive that and keep going. That’s the trick. That’s how you make it.”