One of the most familiar but ethically dubious storylines of the celebrity culture in which we exist is the former-child-star-has-a-breakdown. It has a crushing repetitiveness: A once cute kid, famous for some movie or TV show, grew up but went off the rails. Check out how they aged! It’s not a pretty picture! All the details when we’re back after this commercial break.
Showbiz Kids (Tuesday HBO 9 p.m. ET) doesn’t have much of that. It stands back from that ugly media spectacle and lets former child-actors talk. In fact when filmmaker Alex Winter – himself a former child star on Broadway and a star of the move Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – first broached the subject of this film with producers, he was rejected because it wasn’t salacious enough. Then, when the #MeToo movement arose, he got his chance.
Many of the people interviewed in the vividly compelling 90-minute program are rueful, angry, or outright incensed. Some are angry at parents, others at the industry or agents and lawyers who handled their careers. Few are happy.
The documentary opens with a cautionary tale from someone from the remote past. That’s Peggy-Jean Montgomery who had a movie contract when she was just three years old. She was the star of several silent-era movies such as The Darling of New York, and at age 5 in 1923 she signed a new contract with Universal Pictures worth $1.5-million a year. Then her dad got into dispute with Universal about money and as she says herself, “My career was over at 7.” Montgomery later changed her name to Diana Serra Cary and died this year, aged 101, shortly after being interviewed for the doc.
But the bones of her story appear over and over in other interviews: Money, parents and the pressure to perform are at the core of everything.
Wil Wheaton is coolly angry at how his parents allowed him to work on terrible movies after he achieved fame in Stand by Me. He praises Rob Reiner, who directed that movie, but has scorn for others. “I worked in a phenomenally abusive environment,” he says. He also states he “hated” being a teen idol. “My parents were pushing me,” he says. “And when I turned 18 I had this revelation – I don’t have to do this any more.”
Abuse becomes an underlying theme, particularly as women’s voices come to dominate. Evan Rachel Wood, immensely articulate, grows more and more indignant. She says she loathed being a teen star, being made to wear a dress for a photo shoot and told to look “pretty.”
“My mom clung to me during that time,” she says. “I felt like I couldn’t complain about anything any more. No one ever asked me how I was doing. No one checked in.”
Later she says, “You start to allow yourself to be abused.” Wood also says she became aware of how boys and young men were being abused. She was appalled but didn’t have the skills to deal with it. At one point she says, “At the Golden Globes I watched a pedophile get an award.”
Milla Jovovich explains with a grim exasperation how her mother pushed her into sexualized roles when she was a teenager. “You couldn’t get away with it now,” she says of her treatment at the hands of directors and photographers. “My mother emancipated me when I was 16, so I could work adult hours.”
We see the audition that got 11-year-old Henry Thomas the starring role in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. And we hear the 48-year-old Thomas paint a painful picture of what his life became. Never trained as an actor, he struggled for years. He looks older than his age and sounds, at times, formidably unhappy.
Showbiz Kids is both illuminating and melancholy. It is framed around the story of one young boy whose parents take him to Hollywood to audition during TV pilot season. In the end, he goes back to just being a kid, and that’s the solitary feel-good segment of the documentary. Mostly it’s as disturbing as the public and media interest in the child star who goes off the rails.
Also airing – Frontline: Once Upon a Time in Iraq (Tuesday, PBS, 9 p.m.) is stunningly good, surreal at times and the type of journalism that PBS does well. It’s a two-hour program in which Iraqis who have lived through the 17 years since the invasion of their country in 2003, tell their stories. You can meet an elderly man still loyal to Saddam Hussein, who says, “I miss him every moment of every day.” And many others, some who have been through unimaginable pain and some who are astonishingly cheerful about the chaos they lived through. “It’s very dangerous to forget,” one man says. “Memory is all that is left to us.”
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.