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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Growing pains in Hollywood

Wednesday 10 September 2003, by isa

By Bob Strauss Film Writer

We’ve suffered seemingly endless coverage of 15-year-old TV pop star Hilary Duff’s every date, fashion accessory, music release and contract negotiation this summer.

While tweens and their parents may love her TV show, music and movies, odds are in 10 years she may be forgotten.

As if we didn’t need reminders that most kid actors fail to make a successful transition to adult show-biz careers, two movies opening today emphasize the point.

"Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,’ in which David Spade plays a 1970s TV moppet who becomes, by his 30s, a parking valet at Morton’s, makes comic hay out of everybody’s perceived notion that the Brady, Partridge, Cleaver and other network family kids grew into lives of deserved obscurity.

Then there is the indie release "Party Monster,’ in which "Home Alone’s’ Macaulay Culkin — who a decade ago was the most successful child movie star since Shirley Temple 60 years before him — finds rare work portraying a gay, drug-addicted murderer.

To make matters even more poignant, Universal Home Video has just released a bunch of John Hughes’ popular teen movies from the 1980s under the "High School Reunion Collection’ marketing banner. Just looking at the covers of "Sixteen Candles,’ "Weird Science’ and "The Breakfast Club’ makes you wonder whatever happened to the predicted big things expected for then teen stars Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall (and, in the case of "Breakfast,’ what their older co-stars Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy were thinking when they hitched their stars to the now-forgotten Brat Pack).

Aging gracefully

Of course, such legendary names as Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Diane Lane and Ron Howard have made bigger show-biz splashes as grown-ups than they did as children. Today, young adults who appear to be beating the child-star curse range from big-screen princess Kirsten Dunst to television’s "Buffy,’ Sarah Michelle Gellar, and from Macaulay’s younger brother Kieran Culkin to "Who’s the Boss?’ survivor Alyssa Milano (who, besides her regular gig on TV’s "Charmed,’ enjoys a character role in "Dickie Roberts,’ as opposed to all of the other grown child actors who are relegated to making fun of themselves in the film).

And even those who don’t make it in Hollywood needn’t necessarily go the wayward way of the "Diff’rent Strokes’ cast (Todd Bridges’ legal dustups, Dana Plato’s deadly overdose, Gary Coleman’s campaign for governor), or spend their twilight years like that Little Rascal Robert Blake, fighting off a murder rap. After being rejected by audiences as a young woman, the icon Temple went on to a distinguished career in international diplomacy.

But let’s face it: Turning a childhood of acting into a rewarding later life is mighty tricky business. On the professional front, one often insurmountable difficulty is built into the equation.

"Especially when they look ... I would hate to use the word ’worse,’ ’ says Robert W. Gustafson, director of the Entertainment Industry Institute at California State University, Northridge. "But when the childish cuteness goes away, it’s just so difficult. And if it stays, they look bizarre.’

Which might explain why the likes of Taylor, Dunst, Gellar and Milano make the transition more easily; they simply grew into hot-looking adults. But so did Shirley Temple, and it was not enough to overcome nostalgia for her cute kid image. It can be argued that Garland’s and Rooney’s grown-up careers were based more on talent than appearance, and that that’s why Howard made his biggest impact behind the camera over the last 20 years.

Although no one considers her unattractive, ability and intelligence are generally considered Jodie Foster’s primary on-screen attributes. If that’s the key, then this generation’s biggest child star, "The Sixth Sense’s’ Haley Joel Osment, may have the best shot at lifelong stardom of any minor working today.

"I really respect the transitions that Jodie Foster and Ron Howard have made,’ says Osment, 15, whose voice broke during the making of his most recent movie, the coming-of-age story "Secondhand Lions’ (in theaters Sept. 19). "That’s the thing that I want to do, follow the right roles from being a successful child actor into being a successful adult. That’s a difficult undertaking, and they sure did it.’

As for avoiding the emotional damage that might come from working when you should be playing, Osment makes sure he takes plenty of time off to enjoy what he calls "normal kid stuff,’ which in his case has run the gamut from collecting lizards to hanging out and doing nothing with his (non-show-biz) friends.

This appears to be a popular survival strategy among today’s better kid actors. It sure is with Dakota Fanning, who currently co-stars (with former-kid-actor-turned-20-something-It-Gi rl Brittany Murphy) in "Uptown Girls’ and will be coming at us again this November in the big-budget "Cat in the Hat’ movie.

"When I go home, I play with my baby dolls, I pretend like my stuffed animals are real dogs,’ says Fanning, who excels at appearing more mature than most of the grown actors she works with. "I really do all that stuff; I just sort of think of myself as 9 years old and I just do something that I love to do. I don’t feel like I give up normal kids’ stuff to do this. I play with my sister and we have a great time. I have my ballet lessons, I have my three best friends that I hang out with.’

The parent trap

Of course, a lot of how child actors turn out depends, like any child’s development, on their parents. The stereotype of crazy, demanding stage mothers and fathers can be all too real, and have an effect on both the child’s and the future adult’s behavior, both off screen and in a career.

They can affect the kid’s job chances. Who knows how many employment opportunities went unoffered due to the difficult reputations of Macaulay Culkin’s dad or Brooke Shields’ mom?

"When we auditioned kids,’ notes "Dickie Roberts’ star David Spade, "some parents would be in the room and they’d be like, ’Do it again! You’re doing it wrong! He’s doing it wrong! Do it like you did in the car!’ And you just think, forget about the kid; I don’t want the dad on the set, I don’t want to deal with that every day.’

Spade also observes that the justification stage parents often make for driving their kids to work can be antithetical to basic, youth-rearing tenets.

"Some parents go, ’They love it. They love show business; I can’t stop ’em!’ ’ Spade explains. "I’m like, they also love candy and money and playing in traffic. They’re kids; they don’t know. You’ve gotta stop ’em, that’s your job.

"It’s tough, how to deal with that. I don’t know if I’d put my kid (in show business), if I had a kid.’

As a bit of irony, "Dickie Roberts’ has former child stars Barry Williams, Leif Garrett, Danny Bonaduce, Corey Feldman and Dustin Diamond playing themselves and complaining about their fate.

But nowadays, once a child star makes it, though, only an indifferent public can slow down the juggernaut. With cable TV, direct-to-DVD movies, Internet sites and the old standbys of pop music crossovers and merchandise branding all being synergistically hyped like never before, child stars can be marketed in more ways than ever.

Whether that will help them once their fan base gets out of puberty remains to be seen. Attractive a teenager as she became, Shirley Temple never had anything like the recent Rolling Stone cover that declared midriff-baring twin teen conglomerate Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen "America’s Favorite Fantasy.’

"That transition from kid to sexpot is pretty difficult terrain to maneuver,’ CSUN’s Gustafson points out. "But I think, in the past, a lot of people’s careers became pretty difficult when their voices changed. With these young women, at least, it looks like there’s a lot of TLC happening. There is a concerted effort on the part of the kids themselves and their industry representatives to somehow make that transition work, rather than do the ’Get out, you’re too old’ thing.’

Which means that — yikes! — Hilary Duff could have the last laugh on all of us?

"Success cannot be predicted,’ Gustafson cautions. "But at least they’re giving the person doing the transition a good shot at hitting the ball. They’re giving them opportunities.’

— - Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670 bob.strauss@dailynews.com