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Tatum O'Neal: Telling the Truth

06/11/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

I emailed Tatum O'Neal not long after I heard she was busted for drugs in New York City. I didn't know what to say other than: "Hang in there. Nobody's perfect."

I have her email because I've interviewed her three times since 1990 - most recently for the New York Times last year.

The movie she won an Oscar for in 1974, Paper Moon, is my favorite film. The character she played, Addie Loggins, resonated with me -- so I've followed her career ever since.

Paper Moon was an unsentimental little movie about an orphan-turned-con artist who was a tenacious survivor. Articles about Tatum over the years, including those written by me, have chronicled what a victim she was in childhood -- and what a survivor she seemed to be.

Tatum told Andrea Peyser of the New York Post today that she was "saved" by the cops who arrested her and that, thanks to them, she narrowly missed a relapsecaused by sadness over the recent death of her dog.

Do I believe that? All I can say is, Addie Loggins would approve. She knew how to get out of a tight spot.

Tatum O'Neal was the first person I ever interviewed for a magazine. I flew from New York to Malibu in 1990 to talk to her for the now-defunct Fame magazine when she was married to John McEnroe and her two sons were little.

When I first met her at her beach house, she tried to be friendly. But I could see a tension and unhappiness -- as if she was a rubber band pulled too tight by life.

What I remember most from that 1990 interview was Tatum's determination not to be like her mother, the '50s B-movie starlet Joanna Moore, who was an alcoholic and drug addict and lost custody of Tatum when she was little.

Tatum told me she wanted to be a great mother and do everything the opposite of what had been done to her. At the time, I think she was achieving that. Her little boys were running around in baseball caps and seemed very happy.

I also remember a beautiful portrait of her mother in a large silver frame in the bedroom she shared with McEnroe.

The next time I interviewed Tatum was in 2002 for Premiere magazine at Brasserie 8 1/2 in New York City. She'd just been in a small movie.

She was coming off a bad divorce from McEnroe and had lost custody of her three kids because of drug problems. She later spilled everything in her 2004 book, one of the bleakest Hollywood memoirs ever.

People criticize her for being self-pitying, and that may be so, but she seemed in real pain. She was just raw. She didn't hide it, apologize for it, or try to charm me. She didn't have it in her.

That's why she was so good in Paper Moon, which was a love story about a con man and a little girl who may or may not be his daughter.

In the movie, she got very tough and pissed off when she was hurt and disappointed. In real life, she's the same way.

When I interviewed her last year at a restaurant in SoHo not far from where she lives and where she got arrested, she still had that edge to her -- even though she'd put together her first real comeback since she was a kid -- in some decent TV shows and more small movies.

None of it would ever match her early triumph -- but for a once washed-up actress of 43 it was impressive.

So that's the story I wrote -- and again it paralleled the gritty Addie Pray in Paper Moon.

I'm not so sure about her drug problem and recovery efforts. But in her case, it seems less about addiction than the scary lure of public self-destruction. If she just wanted to do drugs, she didn't have to buy them on the street.

I'm sure it's horrible for her kids and no one is going to admire her for what she's done. She'll get hammered.

But there it is.

There's no sugarcoating the life of Tatum O'Neal and there's no happy ending. Yet. But she always makes for a colorful story.

I'm still rooting for her. Just because she seems all too human to me. And she made one really great movie.

I like her for her flaws. She hasn't got it all figured out and when she acts out -- as she did Sunday night going to buy cocaine -- it's as if she's resolutely telling the truth about her life in a way my articles, and others, never do.

Nobody's perfect.