What becomes of Hollywood’s child stars? VHS Revival brings you a case in point
Beneath the glitz and glam of mainstream superstardom, Hollywood has something of a dark reputation. In a profession where beauty is first and foremost, it is hardly surprising. The Academy Awards is a worldwide event, a supposed celebration of the industry’s hottest talent, but in reality it is more a platform for celebrity, a promotional affair where the faces of the world’s biggest brands come out to sparkle. In a consumer society, stardom is the ultimate dream. Not only does it promise adulation on a global scale, it brings fame and fortune. It paints images of lavish locations and sprawling mansions. It leaves you feeling invincible.
In reality, superstardom has its trappings, and the only way to avoid the inevitable fall from grace is to stay ahead of the game. For many, this is a lifelong task: the constant reinvention, the ceaseless backscratching, a devotion to playing the media lest they get played. In the end, what kind of life are you left with? How many friends do you truly have in the world? How do you live up to the expectations of the millions who support you from a distance, whose understanding of you is wholly synthetic, whose loyalty and passion are illusory and forever tenuous?
As an adult you are prepared for such consequences; on some level you know what you’re in for, but child actors are an entirely different prospect. For one thing you sacrifice your entire childhood. This is the point in a person’s life where personalities are shaped; a bad experience can make or break you. Sure, the idea of being in the movies probably sounds great to a kid who’s only used to being in front of a camera, but the magic is created on the editing floor, and acting, particularly for a young, free spirit, can quickly become an oppressive grind. As soon as you’re in the spotlight you’re expected to play the game. Everyone is real nice at first, but as your wealth and status accumulates there are more and more smiling faces, and at some point you’re gonna have to figure out who to trust — a tricky prospect when the well-schooled vultures descend upon your fickle throne.
Nothing sells quite like cute, and child stars have been subjected to all kinds of horrors throughout the years. Back when the Hollywood Studio System owned its biggest players, studios were privy to swapping talent and human rights were a distant afterthought. Of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Shirley Temple was arguably the biggest of all child stars tied to Tinsel Town, even receiving a special Juvenile Academy Award in February 1935 for her outstanding contributions to the industry. Temple was a million-dollar treacle machine who dripped all kinds of financial honey: dolls, clothes, you name it her face was attached to it. Her wholesome image was ruthlessly marketed to a consumer society that just couldn’t get enough sugar. The young sweetheart who melted hearts across the world would set an unwholesome precedent.
Temple would become something of a recluse in her later years, but in many ways she was the exception to the rule. Unlike many of her peers, she would not succumb to the ravages of the industry, but early Hollywood was rife with schedule-fulfilling narcotic stimulants, and stars were regularly sent to a studio-imposed doctor who would inject their stars with regular doses of ‘vitamins’. Perhaps the most tragic case of the era was that of Judy Garland, who would immortalise herself as Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz at the age of just 16. The young actress was soon plagued by addictions to alcohol and pills — the result of gruelling work schedules and her struggles to live up to Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s image of beauty at a time when producers were known to refer to her as the ‘ugly duckling’. The actress would spend time in a sanatorium following a nervous breakdown as her addictions continued to spiral. Worn to the bone, Garland was found dead in a bathtub from an overdose of barbiturates in 1969. She was 47 years of age.
The studio system would ultimately succumb to the Supreme Court’s anti-trust laws, but a successful blueprint had been established, and there was a ceaseless influx of cutesy fodder primed for the merchandise machine from ambitious parents who were willing to sacrifice their offspring as celebrity became the be all and end all of a newly globalised world. Child stars would thrive throughout the decades, and tragedy would carve out other avenues as the cocaine 80s exploded in a blizzard of Brat Pack decadence. At a time when the limelight was expanding to meet the demands of the modern media, extra promotional and advertising pressures would mount, and teen heartthrobs were expected to constantly maintain their manufactured image.
Drew Barrymore was arguably the biggest story of the early 1980s having shot to fame at only 6 after appearing in Steven Spielberg’s kids in peril blockbuster ET: The Extraterrestrial. Barrymore, who had been starring in commercials since she was eleven months old, was young enough to believe that her latex co-star was in fact real, but her naivety was not always such a blessing. The actress has admitted to having her first line of cocaine at was ten years old, and was already in rehab by the time she was fifteen. Luckily, she was able to turn her life around and experienced something of an onscreen renaissance in the late 90s, but others weren’t so lucky.
River Phoenix, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Brandis, Corey Haim, Dana Plato, Bridgette Andersen, Christopher Pettiet — all of them child actors who died for reasons relating directly to their fame, and the list goes on. Some of them, like River Phoenix, succumbed to the pressures of living in the public spotlight, while others, such as Corey Haim, fell victim to sexual predators in an industry that often seems insulated from the laws of society. The likes of IT‘s Jonathan Brandis struggled with their fleeting fame and were unable to adapt to life beyond Hollywood once rejection reared its fickle face. One of the reasons why child actors are unable to maintain their celebrity are their changing looks. Cute may sell when you’re barely a teenager, but what happens when the dimples fade? If you’re lucky enough to grow up beautiful there’s little need to worry, but life is rarely so fair.
Macaulay Culkin is another example of a child star who would outgrow his cutesy appeal. Back in 1990, the actor who portrayed plucky young whippersnapper Kevin McCallister would vicariously fulfil the dreams of watching kids the world over with his star turn in Chris Columbus’ festive comedy Home Alone. Penned by writer/director John Hughes, a highly successful filmmaker renown for getting the best out of kids, the movie is a cat-and-mouse tale that sees a spoilt brat come of age when forced to defend his home from a pair of inept cat burglars. The movie was pure wish-fulfilment, allowing kids to indulge in their most impossible fantasies while ultimately learning the true value of Christmas and the family who make such festivities what they are. Such was Home Alone‘s impact on modern culture that it is now referenced as one of the handful of essential seasonal movies, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, Gremlins and Die Hard.
For those watching through adult eyes, the movie may have seemed like yet another in a long line of comedies looking to cash-in on the holiday season — which Christmas-related movie released during the holidays isn’t? — but for all the money-oriented trash kids are subjected to year after year, Home Alone is genuinely funny, possessing the kind of festive magic most can only dream of. It doesn’t have the classic poor-people-prosper narrative that many festive movies seem to hinge on, but it does create the kind of warmth and sense of togetherness that punters invariably pay to see. Like the majority of John Hughes screenplays, the movie promotes idealism, and in the grand scheme of things it is hard to muster any real sympathy for a selfish brat who flies first class to Paris with a whole legion of privileged siblings when those less fortunate are mired in poverty. The best Christmas morality movies are based on real hardship, the kind the McCallisters are completely insulated from. In fact, the only characters who aren’t well off are the criminals, an unconscionable rabble who steal not out of desperation, but from an innate cartoon treachery that requires no explanation.
Still, as an exercise in commercial filmmaking, Home Alone hits all the right notes. Aesthetically, it is a picture perfect ode to the festive season, but like more and more movies post-Gremlins, its themes are less than conventional. Gross parental negligence, child abuse, faux suburban ghouls and general cynicism are not the traditional ingredients for a seasonal filmic roast, but this was the turn of the 90s, and dysfunctional families were becoming the celebrities of the day thanks in large part to the emergence of prime time animated sitcom The Simpsons, a show so anarchic and groundbreaking that US president George H. W. Bush famously denounced them during a presidential speech, suggesting that Americans should be more “like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons”. Protagonist Kevin is very much in the Bart Simpson mode, an adorable kid with an uncanny knack for cutesy villainy. He also has a doctorate in the kind of elaborate violence typically found in the dark corners of a sociopathic mind. Culkin is a revelation as the pugnacious Kevin — adorable, smart-mouthed and irresistibly impudent.
But Home Alone benefits from a wonderful cast in general, a host of a-list talent embracing a movie that could easily have been phoned-in for the pay cheque. John Heard and Catherine O’Hara bring a real sense of 90s cynicism to proceedings as Kevin’s long-suffering parents, projecting a familial warmth in a less traditional and maudlin mode. The latter is particularly impressive after realising that she has mistakenly left her youngest child halfway across the world, alone at Christmas. Her take-no-prisoners response to crisis is typical Hughes: determined and indignant in the face of dismissive authorities who approach her cries for help with an infuriating glibness, yet sad and distinctly human when trying to convince an elderly couple to sacrifice their plane tickets for the safety of her youngest.
Further down the pecking order, the late Roberts Blossom injects a heartwarming dose of redemption as fabled resident Old Man Marley, a neighbour banished to the annals of juvenile folk law by kids who peep at his solemn frame from behind closed curtains. In reality he has been estranged from his family, forced to sneak a peak at his granddaughter in the local church where she partakes in perhaps the most breathtaking chorus of choir singers ever confined to a local church. The movie was scored by Spielberg stalwart John Williams and his contributions to the movie cannot be underestimated. More than the morality plays and sense of togetherness that Columbus and Hughes set out to create, it is he who provides Home Alone with its true sense of magic, delivering a typically colossal score of spine-tingling enchantment. Hughes go-to actor John Candy also makes a decidedly low-key appearance as a travelling band member who offers less-than-ideal assistance. Perhaps he was worthy of a more prominent role, but the late comedian’s mere presence is enough to bolster any feelgood movie.
Of course, as with most comedies of this ilk, the real stars of the show are the bad guys: Harry and Marv, a juvenile pairing who provide the perfect foils for a kid almost five times their junior. Harry is played by Scorsese legend Joe Pesci, an actor then more synonymous with movies such as Sergio Leoni’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America and gritty sports biopic Raging Bull. The fact that he was able to deliver this kind of slapstick performance just months apart from his dead-eyed turn as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas is a testament to his range and ability as a performer.
Perhaps even more impressive is Wonder Years voice-over actor Daniel Stern as Harry’s mental inferior. The wholly vacuous Marv provides the movie’s biggest belly laughs, particularly in that infamous final act where he walks blindly through Kevin’s house of destruction. His expressions of pain after standing barefoot on a nail and being smashed in the face with an iron are comedy gold, as is his raw and highly relatable reaction to having a tarantula placed precariously on his face. I’m chuckling to myself just thinking about it.
Booby traps would rise to prominence during the 1980s thanks to Spielbergian efforts such as The Goonies, but never have they been utilised to such startling comic effect. Come to think of it, the movie is pretty darn violent ― encouraging kids to burn off someone’s hair with a carefully rigged blowtorch or shoot them in the face with a BB gun is perhaps not the best idea, and certainly wouldn’t exist in today’s family-oriented arena. But Home Alone promotes violence the way Tom and Jerry do. This is Itchy and Scratchy come to life, the kind of cartoon violence that is able to get away with gross acts of physical sadism. Luckily for watching parents, a rocket scientist would struggle to pull off such well-laid hijinks, let alone a child. Of the plethora of thief traps imagined, devised and concocted, precisely none are achievable in the real world. When it comes to convoluted moments, it doesn’t get much less believable than Home Alone.
Perhaps because of this, Home Alone‘s final act was enough to transform Macaulay Culkin into a global megastar, and in Kevin McCallister he created the ultimate peewee antihero, a flesh Bart Simpson with a heart of gold and a penchant for puerile cruelty. Everywhere you looked post-Home Alone it was his face that would invariably greet you. For a while he became the Shirley Temple of his era, his adorable image peddling everything from lousy video games to soft drinks, even becoming the face of Sprite as parent company Coca-Cola attempted to establish their brand in an oversaturated soft drink market. When Wrestlemania came around, little Macaulay was sitting right there in the front row. He would even strike up a high-profile relationship with controversial pop superstar Michael Jackson, starring in his Black or White video as damning rumours began to emerge regarding the singer’s personal life. Culkin would later insist that those rumours were ‘ridiculous’, but rumours rarely die on the celebrity circuit, and the actor will always be synonymous with the ‘King of Pop’s’ more troubling period.
Culkin would star in a series of increasingly contemptible movies as the 90s rolled on, including an inevitable Home Alone sequel which upped the violence and lost the magic, but his time in the limelight was fleeting — at least in terms of movies. He would later sue his parents and remove them as the legal guardians in control of his $17 million fortune. Since then, Culkin has dabbled in music, art, and several other ventures one might undertake if they were bored and rich beyond comprehension. One of those was a career in drugs, but you have to take what you see in the tabloids with a pinch of salt. Millions of people experiment with drugs, but as soon as a celebrity is spotted with a joint, the same sensational narrative unfolds. How can the cute little boy who won the hearts of the movie-going public have fallen so far? He must be addicted to heroin. There must be something we can exploit.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Culkin would discuss the paparazzi and their supposed concern for the fallen star. When asked if they were right to worry, he would reply. “Not necessarily. Of course, when silly stuff is going on – but no, I was not pounding six grand of heroin every month or whatever. The thing that bugged me was tabloids wrapping it all in this weird guise of concern. No, you’re trying to shift papers.”
In the end, Macaulay will perhaps never escape the shadow of his most famous role, and he seems to have embraced that fact, starring in all sorts of Home Alone parodies as he plods on with a very familiar monkey on his back. Those are the breaks for child stars. They never really leave the spotlight, not unless their departure is self-imposed. A child star by their very definition is someone who peaked early, who reached the kind of heights very few do before crashing back down to reality. Any attempts to return to the limelight are usually underwhelming, particularly for someone like Culkin, whose once adorable features failed to develop into the realms of money-spinning masculinity, but just because gossip mags create that narrative doesn’t make it real, and tacky Who’s Hot and Whose Not articles are not the barometer for success or personal wellbeing. For a kid who had it all, anything beyond fame and adulation is deemed a failure by a celebrity-obsessed culture who enjoy nothing more than lifting a famous face out of the gutter, or indeed kicking them while they’re down.
Is former child star Macaulay Culkin a success or a failure? According to the mainstream barometer, he is probably edging towards the latter, but having experienced that world early he probably sees it for what it is, and true value is gauged by the individual not the consensus.