Editor’s note: This piece includes mentions of statutory rape, abusive behaviours and self-harm.
The rumpus room, early 1980s. Darkness falls around us but the TV beams out loving rays. The videotape makes its satisfying sound of engagement and we pass around the cover. We are eleven, twelve, thirteen and we can be everything we see: pretty, popular, psycho, psychic or all of these things at once. For a long time no one in the neighbourhood had a video player but one by one the parents fell. I used to do Little Athletics on Saturdays. Now I lie around in my pyjamas, dreaming and snacking. I’ll only go to church if we can go to the video store after. The stacked shelves, the staff recommends, the shifting categories – this is my church.
If videos are my religion then the actors are my saints, and Tatum O’Neal is the patron saint of my becoming. I love her name. It’s exotic and defiant and definite – who would dare to shorten it? I love that she is the daughter of Hollywood movie stars. I don’t even know how I know, but I am all over Tatum’s lineage and celebrity friends. There is a photo of her and Michael Jackson boogie-ing down at a party – they look relaxed and happy: he’s in a kimono top, she’s in a pantsuit. In the future, their friendship will be blown up, touted as Michael’s ‘first public relationship’. He’ll say she tried to seduce him. She’ll say that at 12, she wasn’t of a mind to seduce anyone, and what she knew of sex (mostly sounds coming from father Ryan O’Neal’s bedroom) was ‘unappealing and gross’.
Tatum O’Neal is pretty but not precious. She’s a tomboy and a scowler, and I can relate. I’m always getting told to smile when my face wants to do otherwise. Tatum is nine when she makes Paper Moon (1973). I’m twelve when I see it. In the film she plays Addie Loggins: smart-mouthed orphan, road-tripping through the dustbowl under the suspect care of conman Moses (played by her real-life dad.) The movie soars on their push-and-pull and is a black mirror of their real life relationship. Moses wants to be free; Addie needs to be loved. While Paper Moon ends happily, it signals big changes for offscreen Tatum. For a while it’s fun, goofing on celebrity – she moves from her negligent mother’s dusty ranch to Daddy’s Malibu bachelor pad where there is a boa constrictor in the shower and a tarantula in a glass jar in the living room; where her Daddy and his room-mate smoke pot and beautiful girls come and go. But the drugs make him moody and unpredictable. ‘Sometimes,’ she writes in her memoir, ‘he would simply declare flat out, “I just don’t like you Tatum.”’
Tatum O’Neal is pretty but not precious. She’s a tomboy and a scowler, and I can relate.
Paper Moon makes me want to smoke and cuss and wrong the ancientry. What is this upper hand and where can I get one? I construct a false-bottomed memory box like the one Addie carries from town to town, but I don’t have many meaningful objects to put in it. My empty box is a symbol of my general sense of lack. There’s no real neglect in my childhood, just 1970s parenting. I suppose you could say that I don’t feel seen enough. Does anyone? Playing by myself at the primary school one weekend I find broken glass on the netball court. I slide it along my arms and legs. My skin surprises me, how easy it slices. I walk home bleeding, a girl’s own horror movie, but when I get there no one seems to notice.
Clearly, everyone on TV is having a better life than me. I keep a close eye on showbiz kids. The hippie sister from The Wonder Years, Mallory Keating, even Vicki Stubing from The Love Boat warrant close study. I think about their hairstyles, the clothes they wear. It doesn’t seem so impossible; there could be more than one way to be beautiful. Martha Plimpton dancing and singing with River Phoenix’s radical fugitive family in Running on Empty; Jennifer Jason Leigh’s tiny teeth and proto-emo flat affect; Annabeth Gish, all heartbreaking hesitance; Molly Ringwald with her bit bottom lip and ‘smallish tits’. You can see how a girl might dream.
My next Tatum is International Velvet (1978). I am drawn to her mud-spattered face on the cover of the novelisation. I’m not that excited by the equine theme, but I like the puzzle of the tagline: In Every Girl is the Woman She is Destined to Become… And in Every Woman is the Girl She Used to Be. The irony is that off-screen at the time of filming, Tatum was living all the lives: partying in Europe with older, wilder ‘semi-peer’ Melanie Griffith, sampling opium and hash, accumulating erotic experiences, fending off her father’s friends. It was during the shoot that Tatum lost her virginity to a ‘much older’ stuntman. She was fourteen. They did it in the changing rooms. ‘It wasn’t very romantic and it hurt.’
Trespassing into the adult section at Ringwood library I read bits of Lolita, and the less literary Diva. In Diva, thirteen-year-old Alba wears leotards and subsists on Banana Nesquik and the blood of old men. She is my hero.
My next Tatum is my favourite. Little Darlings (1980) is set at a girl’s summer camp. I felt like it was made for me. Tatum plays rich Ferris Whitney to Kirsty McNichol’s poor Angel Bright. The two clash immediately – white linen versus blue denim – fighting on the bus, fighting in the cabins. When it’s revealed that they’re both ‘pure’, a wager is proposed: Ferris versus Angel, first to lose their virginity wins. Spoiler: Angel loses her virginity and the bet, because she refuses to cash in on something so personal. Ferris lies about doing it with an older counsellor, but has to come clean so he won’t lose his job. Angel and Ferris become best friends, which is how it should have been all along.
It’s like, sex? Pffft! But then it’s like, SEX! It’s in the air and in Big M ads. It’s scrawled on walls in bus shelters: Ring a root! I am stunned when I first see this graffiti. Can it be true, that you can dial up sex like calling up the Time? At the third stroke it will be…
It’s like, sex? Pffft! But then it’s like, SEX! It’s in the air and in Big M ads.
Songs I hear on the radio: ‘Young Girl, get outta my mind…’ and ‘Don’t stand, don’t stand so, don’t stand so close to me’. All my male teachers are short with little unhappy moustaches, so I don’t know where those dudes are living. I only have to look around to know that teenage boys are rough and idiotic; they coagulate in a pack up the back of the bus; snapping training bras, trying to lift your school skirt with a ruler. But if they got you in a cupboard – like Matthew T did me at Kate C’s birthday party – would they even know what to do?
My sister and I take to calling up a late night radio DJ. We pretend we’re older. What do we even talk about? He invites us to come into the studio but for some reason I go alone. It’s a Saturday morning, I’m wearing fringed pleather cowboy boots. The station is in the part of a city I don’t know. Everything looks abandoned; like The Omega Man. I expected the radio station to be chic, but it’s cramped and windowless and smells like wet carpet. The only person in there is the DJ, who looks older than my Dad. He’s got a mullet and shifty eyes. He’s got high tight blue jeans with a worn patch on his crotch. Still, I go in and sit in the booth and watch him work. He puts an ad cartridge in and asks me if I know the origins of the word ‘Fuck’. I blush, No. He spells it out for me: ‘Filed. Under. Carnal. Knowledge’. Then he has to explain what carnal knowledge is. I leave before his show finishes, walking through the empty city to Flinders St Station, onto an eastbound train, feeling numb and humiliated. I never listen to him again.
Tatum is in danger of being typecast as a reluctant virgin. In Circle of Two (1981) she’s a sixteen-year-old student falling for a sixty-year-old painter. No one is happy with her choices. Tatum had her first nude scene in Circle of Two – it’s supposed to be a seduction scene but it looks awkward. ‘I felt weary,’ she writes, ‘as if I were a hundred years old.’
I am 60 per cent water and 40 per cent bad movies. I’m a video cassette that keeps getting taped over, and I get a little shakier with each recording.
This, then, is the wind-down. Decent scripts stall; there are clouds in Tatum’s coffee. She and Griffin, her baby brother, who’s even more messed up than she is, are practically living on their own. Ryan O’Neal spends all his time with Farrah Fawcett. They play a lot of racquetball. Then Griffin goes to rehab and Tatum falls back into her ‘self-destructive ways’ until she meets tennis brat John McEnroe, and falls in love, despite his bad dress sense and his pre-nup and his Are You Fucking Serious? He’s not so into her having a career, so they have babies, but even babies aren’t enough to stop the patterns of addiction and Tatum will lose them, win them back, lose them, win them back again. She will remake herself over and over into the next century, where I will find her on Instagram, looking good, posting TBTs like darts to the heart.
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Dear Daddy , Happy St. Valentine’s Day ! ♥️ I found a picture of us in better times . I want to tell you that I am me because of you, and I mean all my good qualities . The way I have taught my children the joy of irony and how to love . The ability to laugh ourselves . Love of movies . I wish things could be different that I could have made choices you could be more proud of . I have to live with myself and take pride in the woman I am today for better or worse . All I wanted, was for you to feel my love for you and know there is no preexisting reasons except that I love you . !!Just know that ! Baby Mozart at your feet . Love your daughter 🥰😘👫
Showbiz kids die young or sustain damage. They retreat or publish memoirs or have slight returns in BuzzFeed articles. Justine Bateman (Mallory Keating) wrote a book about surviving fame (‘I never felt like I was riding it. It was riding me’). Jill Whelan (Vicki Stubing!) sensibly moved behind the scenes. Martha Plimpton is still cool, still working, comparatively iconic.
When I was a teenager I didn’t think I was going to grow up. I mean, I just didn’t think about it, but here I am. Sometimes I feel like I’ve absorbed everything I’ve watched or read or dreamed about. Argentinian writer Ricardo Piagla wrote about memoria ajena, ‘alien memories’ – the feeling of one’s own memory being inhabited by other people’s stories. He was talking in terms of country, but I think it can be applied to personhood. I am 60 per cent water and 40 per cent bad movies. I’m a video cassette that keeps getting taped over, and I get a little shakier with each recording. In every woman is the girl she used to be: I’m still me, in the rumpus room, dreaming the dream forward. And I still love the video store. I feel lucky to live near one, dinosaurs that they are. I go with my son on Friday nights. We cruise the aisles like I did when I was his age, back when the world turned and my head turned with it.