Tatum O'Neal was the youngest Oscar winner
”You’re not a director until you direct a child,” the great Vittorio De Sica once told Peter Bogdanovich. And those words Bogdanovich never forgot. In fact, he says they were his inspiration to make Paper Moon, starring Ryan O’Neal as a Bible-peddling 1930s con man and O’Neal’s daughter, Tatum, then just 9, as the orphan who tags along.
Not only was Tatum a child, she was a child making her acting debut. And in the end she stole the movie, bagged an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress — and at the 1974 ceremony became the youngest winner in Oscar history. Bogdanovich was a director all right. But was this whiz kid an actress? One thing was certain: She was a star.
As Addie Loggins, Tatum won over critics and audiences alike by being a cute kid doing not-so-cute things. She smoked cigarettes, cursed like a cowboy, and helped bilk lonely widows, all with an unflappably solemn demeanor that, at the most disarming moments, gave way to a mischievous twinkle. The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby called her ”a charming, tight-lipped little girl who has — and this may well sound absurd — the quality of a teeny-weeny Joanne Woodward.” To anyone who had seen the film, it didn’t sound absurd at all.
Indeed, Bogdanovich suggests that he never would have made the movie without Tatum. The director had been looking for a project to do with her father (the star of his last film, What’s Up, Doc?) and was considering Paramount’s Paper Moon. One problem: He couldn’t think of anyone to play the girl. His ex-wife, Polly Platt (Paper Moon‘s eventual production designer), suggested Tatum, whom they’d both seen on the set of O’Neal’s film The Thief Who Came to Dinner. Intrigued by the idea of casting father and daughter together, Bogdanovich met them at O’Neal’s Malibu home, where he found a precocious kid loaded with Addie attitude.
Tatum clinched the part during a casual meeting in which the athletic Ryan asked Bogdanovich to go jogging sometime. ”Tatum said, with that raspy voice, ‘Oh, Dad, he’s not the type,”’ Bogdanovich recalls. ”I said, ‘What makes you say that, Tatum?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know…. You always keep your shirt on, and you never take off your shoes.’ I looked over at Ryan and said, ‘She’ll do.”’
Tatum’s father thought the film could bring stability to what had been a troubled childhood. Ryan and actress Joanna Moore — Tatum’s mother — separated when Tatum was only 2. Over the next several years, Moore would battle with addictions to alcohol and pills, often ignoring Tatum and younger brother Griffin. By the time Moore entered rehab in the early ’70s, an alienated Tatum was ready to live with her movie-star father. What better way to bond, Ryan thought, than to make a movie together? ”This was her first opportunity to channel her energy and mind into something constructive,” O’Neal would say later. ”And this movie would give her what she never had enough of — love.”
But Tatum wasn’t quite the natural she appeared to be on screen. She had trouble reading lines, so Bogdanovich dictated them on tape, complete with desired inflections. She had trouble staying focused, so he offered playful little bribes. ”I’d say, ‘Okay, Tatum, if you do this right right away, I’ll give you 50 bucks.’ Or she’d say, ‘I want some shoes,’ so I’d say, ‘I’ll buy you some shoes if you do it right.”’
The result of this collaborative alchemy was a performance that rewrote the book on movie moppets. Breaking the sweetheart mold of child stars from Shirley Temple to Hayley Mills, feisty Tatum was a child star for a hip, cynical, post-Watergate age. Hollywood responded by deeming her the first preteen worthy of an Oscar nod since To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Mary Badham in 1962.
Tatum and a fellow supporting actress nominee, 14-year-old Linda Blair (The Exorcist), weren’t universally embraced. Some traditionalists felt these upstarts shouldn’t be competing alongside the likes of Candy Clark (American Graffiti), Sylvia Sidney (Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams), and Tatum’s Paper Moon costar Madeline Kahn. And then there were those who thought she had been nominated in the wrong category. ”She should have been up for Best Actress,” Bogdanovich says. ”She had the lead role. There’s only one scene in the picture she’s not in.” Paramount, in fact, wanted to push her for Best Actress, but Bogdanovich says: ”I think Ryan felt there was no way they’d give Best Actress to a 9-year-old. And I think he was right. I don’t think she’d even have been nominated.”
On the notorious Oscar night when Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace arrived in a coach drawn by two white horses and a streaker bum-rushed the stage, the most indelible image had to be little Tatum, in a tuxedo and a tomboy haircut, trooping up to the stage to accept her award from Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland. ”All I really want to thank is my director, Peter Bogdanovich, and my father,” said Tatum at the podium. Afterward, she went backstage to meet the press, cried, then called her father, who was in England filming Barry Lyndon.
”Guess what I’m holding,” she demanded.
”Is it gold?” her father asked.
”No,” said Tatum. ”I think it’s bronze.”
That night was supposed to be her swan song as a child star: Months earlier, Ryan had announced his daughter’s retirement. ”I want her to stop being a movie star and return to being a little girl,” he said. ”She can go back to all that when she’s 16, if she’s still interested.” But two years later, he allowed her to star in The Bad News Bears. Playing the only girl on a ragtag Little League team, she gave a streetwise performance that proved Paper Moon was no fluke. But growing up too fast in Hollywood took its toll. Tatum dropped out of school, made shaky career moves (International Velvet, Circle of Two), and by 1983 was virtually out of show business. By 1986 she was married to tennis star John McEnroe and starting a family.
Since her 1992 split from McEnroe, Tatum — whose last acting gig was a cameo as an art collector in the 1996 indie Basquiat — has been trying to restart her career. She’s also had to deal with her mother’s death from cancer and the loss of primary guardianship of her three kids in an ongoing custody battle due to, among other things, her struggle with substance abuse. This year, however, the 35-year-old actress finally caught a break when Bogdanovich cast her in his upcoming comedy Squirrels to the Nuts, as a madcap Manhattanite who takes over her psychiatrist mother’s practice. ”It’s probably the funniest part in the movie,” he says. ”I wrote it for Tatum. She deserves it.”
Can the man who helped make Tatum O’Neal a child star help make her a comeback kid? Is that even important to her anymore? Tatum isn’t talking. But in 1993, she told an interviewer: ”I’ve worked really hard to come back to acting…. I want to accomplish many more things and to give back a lot of things, too.”
It may be only a paper moon, but for Tatum O’Neal, it may yet be within reach.