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Hollywood’s Whiz Kids

25 minute read
John Skow

The pessimist’s short catechism—”It will get worse, it will get worse, it will get worse”—applies to tennis elbow, OPEC exactions, the seven ages of man, Skylab, the Middle East, airline food, the New Conservatism, college tuition, smog and the length and lack of substance of presidential campaigns. It does not apply to 17-year locusts—they come and they go—or, it is startling to realize, to movies. Just now, for instance, a trend is flowering unexpectedly and delightfully: for some reason that no one even pretends to be able to explain, an unusual number of extremely gifted young women—girls really—are making their presence felt in films.

Typically, these whiz kids were barely in their teens, or even younger, when they started to act. Diane Lane was 13 when she shot her first film, A Little Romance, last year. Mariel Hemingway, 17, who plays Woody Allen’s very young lover in Manhattan, was 13 when she began her movie career as the younger sister of the character played by her own sister Margaux in a gaudy and brutal film called Lipstick. Linda Manz, the tough little New York City street kid whose scarred face and back-alley accent gave a saving balance to the prettiness of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, is the oldest of the lot at nearly 18, but she looks the youngest; in the Malick film, shot three years ago, she seems no older than twelve. Brooke Shields, 14, appeared in Alice, Sweet Alice at nine. Tatum O’Neal, who is 15 now, broke into the big time at nine, playing her dead-end father Ryan’s dead-end kid in Paper Moon. Some of the roles these child-women have taken are precociously and shockingly erotic, and some are proper and conventional. But whatever they are asked to do, these surprising children and their adventurous directors are showing the camera new ways to look at the young.

It is an unsettling view. An adolescent stumbles through a fog of self-fascination, with no clear view of himself; then, by the time he is grown and has children of his own, a swirl of love and rage occludes his perception of them. Literature offers a useful look, but most often it is a look at that minority of tormented adolescents whose members grow up to write novels about the pain of puberty, not the joy. Films of the traditional sort did not risk truthtelling, largely because of the hoodoo of sex. What they gave us was Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland sipping one soda through two straws. The suggestion that Judy wore a bra, and that Mickey might have wanted to unhook it, would have been so unthinkable that to mention it, even now, seems boorish.

Yet two of the most memorable portrayals in recent films were of twelve-year-old prostitutes, and they were played by girls who really were twelve—Brooke Shields in Louis Malle’s misty legend of 1917 New Orleans, Pretty Baby, and Jodie Foster in Martin Scorsese’s contemporary shocker, Taxi Driver. Each movie caused a mild outcry, but the general reaction was nervous acceptance. The phenomenon they dealt with was real enough; as Malle took to pointing out, you can hire a twelve-year-old whore any night on Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue.

The two movies about subteen hookers did not, as some people feared, lead to a succession of increasingly pornographic feature films starring moppets.

Instead their effect seems to have been to clear the air, so that the sexuality of the very young can now be dealt with without the eye rolling formerly considered appropriate to the violation of a taboo. Thus a distortion that falsified whole characterizations has been removed. To see the difference, one need only watch television drama, where the taboo still holds.

In an episode of ABC’s popular series Family, the tomboyish daughter Buddy, 16, played by Kristy McNichol, also 16, was getting pressure from her boyfriend Zack (Leif Garrett) to sleep with him.

Buddy didn’t feel ready for sex, but another teen queen was buzzing seductively around Zack, and Buddy didn’t want to lose him. Would she or wouldn’t she?

Since this was TV, the answer is not hard to guess. Buddy’s decision to remain chaste was realistic for a girl her age. Going to bed with Zack also might have been realistic, except that television’s conservatism, especially in hit series, ruled it out. The show was not really about making a choice; it was a coy and irritating tease.

A slightly easier problem is confronted in A Little Romance, the new film starring Diane Lane. Lane has a dizzying breadth of untroubled brow, a braces-just-came-off prettiness and a shy grin.

Where McNichol’s Buddy role forces her toward cuteness, Lane is allowed to play a real kid. She is Lauren, an American child living in Paris, who falls in love with Daniel (Thelonious Bernard), a French boy just her age. Parents get in the way, but the children find an ally in an elderly French windbag (played foxily by Laurence Olivier) who says that he is a retired diplomat, but who turns out to be an unretired pickpocket.

Soon the three of them have given the adult world the skip, and are running away toward Venice, where the lovers intend to bind themselves together for eternity by kissing in a gondola under the Bridge of Sighs. This agreeable silliness works because the script by Allan Burns is sharp and funny, the two young actors are fresh and effective, Olivier is a howl, and Director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy, The Sting) has a fine comic touch.

Talent helps. But another reason the film succeeds is that Director Hill allows the kids to be madly romantic—they are 13, it’s the right age—without sentimentalizing them. The ceremonial kiss in the gondola is the movie’s steamiest scene, and active sexuality for these two is well in the future. But there is no pretense that it is not coming. Daniel and a buddy persuade Lauren to see a porno flick. She watches for a few minutes, then walks out, feeling sick. Daniel follows, ashamed of himself, trying to comfort her. Lauren nods; she is all right. She did not enjoy her view of the hydraulics of sex, but it has done no damage. The viewer feels that real children are, in fact, like this.

“Movie children were not always like real children,” says Lament Johnson, who directed Mariel Hemingway in Lipstick and Diane Lane in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a western film scheduled for release next spring. “Until about a decade ago, girls were dainty untouchables, unless they were little mutts. Hollywood had a Latin view of them, the whore or the madonna.” If a script called for a very young girl to play a suggestive role, directors looked around for slightly built older actresses. When the film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in 1962, it was considered scandalous that Sue Lyon, a not particularly slight 14 when she was selected for the role, was so young. Actually she was old to play the part, because Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert was fascinated by seductive little girls only until they reached puberty.

If Lolita were to be filmed now, the title role would be played by an eleven-or twelve-year-old, and the controversy, if any, would be about how well she acted.

“I look first to see if the eyes are wide open and if they express intelligence,” says François Truffaut, whose films about children include the haunting The 400 Blows and Small Change. Truffaut also looks for “vivacity, above all vivacity.” He usually does not prepare a detailed script for children. “I prefer giving them the essential ideas of the scene, and then letting them express the ideas with their own vocabulary. I think that’s the biggest difference.” Adolescent actors sometimes get the giggles, reports Truffaut, but they rarely have inhibitions, at least at the beginning. Says he: “They usually get scared on the third film.”

Truffaut may be underestimating the coolness of the newest wave of young actresses. Brooke Shields smiles sweetly when told of his theory. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten nervous, and I have done six films,” says she. (Four have not yet been released; the most recent to appear is Just You and Me, Kid, with George Burns, 83.)

Hill says that sometimes acting comes more easily to children “if you make it a game of make-believe or fooling people. That’s what acting really is, anyway.” Once kids think of moviemaking as a game, he says, “they will do all kinds of things to fool you.” He took a somewhat different approach with the two young stars of A Little Romance, “since on a romantic level it’s an adult movie.” The initial problem seemed to be that Thelonious Bernard was very shy with Diane Lane. “It was mostly the language thing,” says Hill (Thelo at first spoke almost no English, though he learned fast). To solve the chemistry problem, he says, “I made them hold hands and not break eye contact for ten minutes. Soon they started giggling, then arguing, and then breaking into gales of laughter.” Thelo loosened up. And when Olivier was around, “it was almost like having three kids on the set. He’d joke with them, without patronizing them. He always tried to break them up.”

The mood on the Pretty Baby set was quite different. Shields recalls that Director Malle “usually talked to my mother, not me. She’d come back and tell me what he said. He was afraid to talk to me, I think. In the beginning, on the set, no one knew what to say to me. Then I tried to talk to the people on the set more as an adult than a little kid. After that it was fun. In the beginning Malle directed me more than the others, but soon we were all treated the same.”

Their first auditions, the moments when someone looked and guessed correctly that the Arriflex cameras would like what they saw, are so far in the past for some of these veterans that it is hard for them to remember how they felt. Lane, who was six when she won a role in a La Mama Theater production of Medea—in Greek—was asked to say words backwards to determine her linguistic facility. Shields had to smash plates, because the young whore in Pretty Baby has a scene in which she smashes glass photographic plates. Mariel Hemingway did not have to go through an audition; as Lipstick began to take form, someone mentioned to her older sister Margaux, the star, that a girl had to be found to play her younger sister. Margaux thought of Mariel, and a few months later critics were saying that this serious, chubby-faced 13-year-old was the better actress. Tatum O’Neal auditioned for her role in Paper Moon without knowing what was going on. Director Peter Bogdanovich dropped by the O’Neal house, and Tatum’s cool backchat persuaded him to hire her.

Linda Manz went to school one day three years ago in Manhattan—something she did not always do—and was told that a casting agent named Barbara Claman had put out a call for street kids. Manz, tough and wiry, an alley cat, swaggered into Claman’s office and bummed a cigarette; if nothing else came of the interview, she would be one smoke to the good. She remembers that Claman “told me to pretend that I got busted for pickpocketing and that I didn’t do it and I was telling the cop about it. So I just let loose with some four-letter words, and I think that did it.”

Whatever did it, Manz, like the rest of this season’s crop of wild flowers, bloomed quickly. A look at the garden:

Diane Lane. She was just back from ten dusty weeks in Durango, Mexico, where she had filmed Cattle Annie and Little Britches with Burt Lancaster and Amanda Plummer. “Every day was the same,” complained Lane. Also, she said, there was no Bubble Yum. “I always wanted to do a western,” she sighs. “Zip, there goes another childhood dream.” In Los Angeles not long ago for photo sessions at Walt Disney Productions, for which she is about to do A Watcher in the Woods, she sported black cord jeans, yellow tank top and hair tucked up under a San Luis Obispo Rugby Club cap (a gift from her acquaintance Steve Ford). She talks funnily about A Little Romance, confessing mock disappointment over the casting of Thelo Bernard (“I had John Travolta more in mind”) and noting that Thelo did not want to kiss her (“We had to shoot it seven times”). She says she learned poise at six, in Medea, for which she memorized her Greek lines phonetically. “I was one of Medea’s children and was supposed to be dead in this man’s arms,” she recalls. “I was trying to be limp and all of a sudden, I gotta go and I can’t hold it in. So I pee all over him in front of the audience. Oh, I hid my face! Go to the bathroom first is what I learned.”

Diane played her child-prostitute role in the Public Theater production of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways, and turned down a chance to follow the show to Broadway in order to film A Little Romance. She has visited Paris nine times, but she can talk with animation about her favorite skateboard run, under the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan. Or she can coolly run down her reasons for rejecting a part in a forthcoming movie because it entailed undressing. “It’s too soon for that. I decided not to take it because there were too many ifs about how it would be edited, how it would be publicized.”

As she makes this convincing speech, her father/manager, Burt Lane, enters the conversation and steps all over her fine performance. He was the one, he insists, who urged her not to take the role. Burt, a former real estate salesman, is now a cab driver, and he took the job because the flexibility of its hours lets him shepherd Diane through her career. Diane’s parents were divorced when she was two weeks old, and she grew up living with her father in a series of Manhattan residential hotels. Diane’s mother, whom she has “a good relationship these days,” she says, is an interior decorator in Georgia.

She earned $13,000 for A Little Romance; for Watcher her fee is $75,000. “Essentially, it’s my social life with boys that is being sacrificed,” says Diane. She attends a school for professional children when she is in New York, and “I’m nervous walking into a school dance.” She is afraid that boys will think she doesn’t want to be bothered by such unprofessional matters as dating. The trouble with that, she says a little plaintively is that “I want to be bothered.”

Mariel Hemingway. Her latest film is Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and she is the most striking figure in it, a girl whose extraordinary face—all cheekbones and eyebrows and spring-fed soul—is lit with love for the 42-year-old bumbler played by Allen. Yet it is hard to imagine her living in New York. Mariel Hemingway does share an apartment there with another young actress when she is in town, but this parents’ home summer in she is Ketchum, hanging out Idaho, next door to Sun Valley, and that is where she seems to belong. Ketchum was a favorite place of her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, and it was there, four months before Mariel was born, that he committed suicide. Mariel, up at 6:30 a.m. for a run with the family’s two Labradors, dirtyblond ponytail bouncing, is hardly a brooder about the past. “People tell me I look like him. I dunno. I never really thought about being his granddaughter.”

City Mouse Woody Allen (who became a friend during the shooting of Manhattan, though she finds the rumor that he was actually her lover grotesquely silly) couldn’t understand Mariel’s attraction to Ketchum. “What do people do out there after dinner?” he would ask. Well, they ski in the Sawtooth Mountains, ride horses through the cotton woods by the Big Wood River, work out on the trampoline, drive into town for an ice cream cone (Mariel is a vegetarian who also disapproves of refined sugar, and she eats her cone with a stop-me-before-I-lick-again expression). They also grow big and strong; nearly 5 ft. 11 in., Mariel is a bit shorter than Margaux, 24.

Getting into movies was an accident, Mariel says; it wouldn’t have happened if Margaux hadn’t become a top model and then an actress. But success hasn’t been an accident: “People say now that I’m a natural, and was just playing myself in Manhattan. That’s not really right. I was working hard up there.” These days, she is limbering up to play a track star in a film by Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo). The exotic caperings of the coke-and-kink part of the film world seem to have little appeal for her. She flew to the Cannes festival with her father Jack for a screening of Manhattan, got sick just before the film’s final scene and had to leave the theater. It was coincidence—jet lag and a too-rich meal—but nausea wasn’t far from her feeling about the raging egos and the clicking Nikons at Cannes. She applies the standards of Ketchum, which have served her well enough so far, and dismisses the whole scene in her own emphatic teen-age terms: “It was screwy.”

Brooke Shields. A curiosity of Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby is that the only major character who does not seem to be damaged by her life in a Storyville whorehouse is a girl of twelve played by Brooke Shields. An interviewer who meets Brooke and her mother Teri two years after the filming sees a cheerful parallel in real life. “Brookie,” as Teri calls her, is a happy, confident teen-ager now, not in the least awed by her fame or the astonishing beauty that caught the world’s eye. She appears to love her life, for reasons that seem appropriate: “I get to meet a lot of movie stars. And I wouldn’t have a horse now if I weren’t an actress.”

Moviemaking can be hard, boring work—but not always; and for Brooke, as for some of the other kid actresses, summer filming sometimes provides what other teen-agers might find in an Outward Bound course. During the shooting of Wanda Nevada, Brooke got to whoosh through rapids on a raft and ride down a canyon on a mule. Told that Director Peter Fonda had said on the Tonight show that she was as good at acting as his father Henry, and better than his sister Jane, Brooke put her hand to her mouth and said, “Oh God, oh my! He said that? . . . I don’t think that is fair to say about his sister.”

She is tall enough (5 ft. 9 in.) to be mistaken occasionally for Mariel Hemingway (“I say, ‘No, but thank you. That’s a compliment’ “), and mature enough to play a character in Columbia Pictures’ The Blue Lagoon who grapples through a mild love scene, and has a baby. Her parents are divorced, and like other movie kids, she likes location shooting because the set is “like an instant family.” But she does see her two half sisters and her stepsister at her Helena Rubinstein executive father’s house on Long Island. What may be most reassuring about this child, who has been modeling since she did a soap commercial at the age of eleven months and asks $325,000 a movie, is that her conversation is the kind an adult tunes out, comfortable in the knowledge that things are all right: “Like this weekend at my dad’s house, a kid came in while we were watching television. And he kept staring at me. I couldn’t believe it. Then we got up and we had to fix our mopeds. You could tell he was acting differently. It doesn’t annoy me if he’s cute, and he was really cute.”

Tatum O’Neal. Zits are not allowed, baby fat is too dreary to think about, adolescent awkwardness is for other kids, and braces, if any, are done by Calvin Klein.

Movie kids are a breed apart, and at 15, tall, slim, poised Tatum O’Neal proves the point. She has just finished starring as a shy, rich girl in Paramount Pictures’ Little Darlings, scheduled for release next year. She is thoroughly at home in Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, visiting the city with her father. Yet Tatum says she has reached the awkward age, and from a professional point of view she is right. She can’t play little girls now, and she is aware that her best film role was her first, that of the rascally little kid in Paper Moon. She says that she could play a 16-year-old or 17-year-old now, “but 18 is taking a chance. I can’t have romances with older guys yet. Maybe next year the scripts will get more interesting, not so bubble-gummy.”

She recalls that she was offered the Shields part in Pretty Baby. “My dad turned it down. It wasn’t right for me three years ago. Brooke has always had the face of a beautiful woman.” She seems close to her father, who is her acting coach and manager too. But she sounds a bit defensive when she says, “I respect his judgment; he has been the greatest influence on my life,” as if she is aware that Ryan’s reputation is that of a great womanizer, not a great influence.

Tatum seems jaded just now; she is on the outs with a childhood buddy (“You can’t be friends with people who are not in the business; they are basically jealous”), and thinks that drugs and surfing, the normal amusements of rich, 15-year-old Los Angeles kids, are time wasters. “I think it is best that I grew up as fast as I did,” she says. “I have a productive thing going. Those poor kids have nothing. Their parents leave them with maids.”

Like Shields, who is a friendly acquaintance, Tatum feels most comfortable on a movie set. “You know everybody; it’s like a family.” She travels with Diane Lewis, a woman in her early 30s who has been her companion since she was small, and a friend called Esme, who is also her standin. Her only complaint about moviemaking is that in California—though not in England, where she filmed International Velvet—the law requires that child actors go to school for at least four hours a day. “On Little Darlings, the picture I just finished, we got in about three hours of work a day, what with lunch and makeup.” This month she begins filming Circle of Two, a love story about a teen-ager and a painter of 60, played by Richard Burton. Tatum will get $500,000 and a percent of the gross.

Will she continue acting? She looks surprised. “Sure. God, I don’t know what else I could do. They got me when I was a baby.” But the thought does not trail off there, and this teenager, who has been interviewed too many times, sounds resilient. “I also want to do other things, like open a business, maybe design clothes or go and help people with problems, like help the refugees in those boats.”

Linda Manz. “I didn’t have to act. I just did it. I was brought up scared, so I act scared.” Linda Manz, a street-corner scuffler with old eyes, whose half-deaf mother worked as a cleaning woman in Manhattan, tells about her first film role as Richard Gere’s kid sister in Days of Heaven. “Ursula was the name of the character at first, but they changed it to Linda, ’cause it was me. It ain’t no girl in the 1900s.” The film is a strange, dreamlike reminiscence of days when migrant harvesters followed steam-driven threshing machines through the wheatfields of the Texas Panhandle. As in a dream, a flickering story line is overwhelmed by visual images—blowing wheat, threshers outlined against a sunset, locusts darkening the sky. Linda’s Second Avenue voice threads through the film, speaking a moody narration, much of which is her own improvisation: “From the time the sun went up, till it went down, theys was workin’ all the time . . . Just keep goin’. If you didn’t work, they’d ship you right out of there. They don’t need ya. They can always get somebody else.” The gritty, childish voice holds the film together. Originally, the narration was to have been spoken by Brooke Adams, the older actress who plays Gere’s lover. But Days of Heaven came to be Linda’s film.

“She isn’t really an actress yet be cause she doesn’t have the disciplines,” says Barbara Claman, who has become a protective aunt to Linda. “But she’s learning very fast.” Linda works on dropping her accent. “I took a lesson in Southern, and all you have to do is draw out those words,” she says. “I could do a middle-class kid, but I’ll never be one. Maybe when I’m 95 and married.” She will be 18 this month, but it is not just her 4-ft. 10-in. height that makes her seem younger; her emotions have only just begun to unfold. She has not seen any big money yet. She gives a child’s answers to an interviewer’s questions. What role would she like best? “A mother, where I could be in control, be in charge.” She admires take-charge actors—John Wayne, Jane Fonda.

Linda runs the danger of being typecast forever as a tough runt, which is exactly what she plays in her latest film, The Wanderers, a campy teen-age gang movie in which her boyfriend is a shaven-headed, 6-ft. 6-in., 425-lb. tough named Terror. One scene required her to climb a high fence, and she notes, with satisfaction, that she rejected the director’s offer of a double. She has a daredevil’s face, marked by a scar that runs from the bridge of her once broken nose, across her right eyelid and down nearly to her cheekbone —the result of too many falls in playgrounds. Not long ago, she finished filming Orphan Train, a CBS-TV movie, in which she plays a little girl who runs away from her job as a thief in a whorehouse.

Manz is only beginning to shed the boys-are-creeps stage, and there are times when her most reliable friends seem to be her three cats (“But the cats can’t play cards or nothin’ “).

Her parents split up when she was a baby, and she has fantasies of meeting her father and punching him out. When she returns to her old neighborhood the street kids say, “Hey, there’s Little Star,” in tones that make her feel not quite comfortable. But working in the movies can be fun, she says. “It can straighten you out. I feel much better now. I used to feel that I was halfway dead.”

Claman says that “Linda has always lived on the edge of danger. If she has money, she’ll spend it on satin disco pants or gifts for her friends. If she doesn’t have money, that’s O.K. too. I suspect that Linda wouldn’t feel bad if no more acting jobs came up. She’d figure she could get a job working at the corner service station.”

Devil’s paintbrush, daisies, lupin, blowing in the hay grass, quickly sprouted and gone, lovely but not to be sentimentalized, the dependable product of sun, rain and horse manure. It is hard not to think of Liz Taylor, especially if the thinker happens to have been twelve when she was twelve, all brave and radiant in National Velvet. (Teddy Kennedy was twelve then, and so was John Updike, but they had not wandered into the witch’s house, were not on public view.) Some of the present class of very young actresses will become fat, will be many times divorced, will forever erase the lying promise of incredible early beauty. Some of these pretty children will do better, some worse, but that is for later, for the unimaginably distant future, for October. Just now the meadow is new. —John Skow

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