Review: Found: A Daughter's Journey Home by Tatum O'Neal
William Morrow, €17.99
In 1974, a chubby-cheeked little girl with the kind of pudding-bowl haircut utterly typical of the times ascended a stage and gracefully received an award, all grinning excitement.
But she hadn't just won the class English prize or come first in the sack race: nine-year-old Tatum O'Neal was picking up the Academy Award for best supporting actress (from Charles Bronson, no less, and besting the likes of Linda Blair and Madeline Kahn) for the film Paper Moon, in which she starred with her father, Ryan, whom she thanked.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Ryan and Tatum are sharing the screen again, this time in a "docu-series" -- Tatum quite reasonably points out that the term "reality show" more readily suggests "women fighting, women wearing couture and fighting, and women with money fighting" -- intended to chart their tentative steps towards reconciliation after 25-odd years of estrangement.
The first series of Ryan and Tatum: The O'Neals, made and broadcast by the Oprah Winfrey Network, drew to a close last week; whether it has even come close to fulfilling Tatum's desire for "an authentic investigation of a father-daughter relationship" that will eventually lead to a happy ending remains doubtful.
There is a lot of history, much of it already addressed in Tatum's 2004 memoir, A Paper Life, which Ryan claims not to have read, but took issue with anyway. After her parents' marriage disintegrated, Tatum and her brother Griffin lived in a dilapidated California ranch with their mother, actor Joanna Moore; Tatum recalls being beaten with fig-tree switches by her mother's 16-year-old boyfriend, and eating dog food.
They went to live with Ryan, but when Tatum was 15, he became more interested in Farrah Fawcett than in full-time parenting, at which point the successful young actor -- Tatum was commanding fees of $350,000 per film by the time she was 11 -- began to go seriously off the rails over subsequent years, searching for solace in alcohol, cocaine and heroin.
An eight-year marriage to former tennis champion John McEnroe brought her three adored children but years of bitter custody battles and court-ordered drug testing.
At one particularly low point, Tatum found herself living in New York's Mercer hotel; staff refused to restock her minibar with vodka. And then, in 2008, having been clean for some time, she broke a promise to her daughter Emily that she would always answer her phone.
"I knew that she would assume the worst," she remembers at the start of Found. "Rightly so. I had just been arrested for trying to buy crack cocaine on a street corner on the lower east side of Manhattan."
Somewhat perplexingly, given the agonies of her childhood, a return to California seemed like the answer, even though it also meant a return to Ryan, the man whom she once called from rehab only to hear him say: "Don't blame me for the fact that you're smoking the dragon" ("chasing the dragon", she mentally corrects him).
Even if opportunity knocked, few of us might choose to address our deepest personal traumas on camera, and it's a curious decision Tatum never really explains. Instead, she blends the kind of language born of 12-step programmes ("Evolving in the heart of this moment of reunion was the belief that I was finally strong enough, spiritually and emotionally, to find the beauty and humanity in the man, to keep the light, and to overlook the difficult past in order to have a precious future with him") with a far more acute, clear-eyed and sometimes even comical appraisal of familial dysfunction. She recalls her attendance at Farrah's funeral in 2009, at which her father appeared first not to recognise her and then to ask if she'd got a drink on her, with impressive steel. Describing a fight between Ryan and Griffin, which ended with Ryan being arrested for firing a gun, she remembers her father shouting: "I'm going to be in [TV series] Bones. Don't hit my face." Elsewhere, she makes us realise that even celebrities sweat the small stuff when she and Ryan fall out over a badly defrosted fridge.
For all its Hollywood craziness, Found is an affecting story of a child-woman who still craves her father's approval and desperately wishes things had been different. As with all memoirs of this type, it raises questions over what the other party might say -- although for that, we are supposed to turn on the television. And neither, perhaps, should we worry too much about Ryan's ability to put his side of the story. Asked recently on Piers Morgan's talk show for his memories of Tatum's past, he declared: "She had a wonderful childhood -- she met Queen Elizabeth."
Sunday Indo Living