KIDS IN THE CRED­ITS

For­mer child actors dis­cuss strug­gles then and now in thought­ful HBO doc

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

You know the sto­ries of for­mer child actors such as Gary Cole­man and Ma­caulay Culkin, Lind­say Lo­han and Drew Bar­ry­more — but have you ever heard the tale of Baby Peggy, one of the biggest young stars in the his­tory of Hol­ly­wood?

Born on Oct. 29, 1918, in San Diego, Peg­gyJean Mont­gomery was signed to a long-term con­tract when she was just 3 years old and be­came a na­tion­wide sen­sa­tion af­ter star­ring in silent films such as “The Dar­ling of New York” and “Helen’s Ba­bies.” At the age of 5, she signed a con­tract with Universal worth $1.5 mil­lion a year — some $22.5 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars. And then, af­ter a con­tract dis­pute when Peggy was 7, she was essen­tially out of show busi­ness.

The 101-year-old who changed her name to Diana Serra Cary to dis­tance her­self from her child star past is fea­tured in ac­tor-di­rec­tor Alex Win­ter’s fas­ci­nat­ing and thought­ful HBO doc­u­men­tary “Show­biz Kids.” Ms. Cary, who passed away shortly af­ter the mak­ing of the film, says, “I didn’t know what a reg­u­lar kid was be­cause I didn’t have any friends. … I didn’t know there was an­other world out there for chil­dren, and the life of a child was not my life.”

What rang true in 1920 rang true in 1950 and still holds true in 2020, even as more chil­dren than ever are thrust into the spot­light and yearn for their five or 10 or 15 min­utes of fame, thanks to an un­prece­dented num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties, from “reg­u­lar” TV shows to so­cial me­dia plat­forms. The un­nerv­ing rise and some­times tragic crash of the child star has been tabloid fod­der for decades; we know so many of th­ese sto­ries all too well. And yet di­rec­tor Win­ter, best known as an ac­tor for his co-star­ring role in the “Bill and Ted” movies, de­liv­ers a thought­ful and fresh take on the sub­ject, thanks in large part to ex­ten­sive in­ter­views with for­mer child stars such as Wil Wheaton, Milla Jovovich, Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Thomas, Todd Bridges and Mara Wil­son.

We see an as­ton­ish­ing au­di­tion for “E.T.” by young Henry Thomas, who has us chok­ing up as he becomes El­liott in an in­stant, prompt­ing an off-screen Steven Spielberg to con­firm he’s got the job. Cut to the now-48year-old Thomas, a hand­some and con­tem­pla­tive fel­low, talk­ing about feel­ing like the cen­ter of the uni­verse on film sets, be­ing treated as an equal or a su­pe­rior by adults — and then go­ing home to ru­ral Texas and feel­ing lost and want­ing to get back to show busi­ness, “be­cause the circus peo­ple, they’ll be cool to me.”

Framed from the hind­sight of #MeToo, the sto­ries told by Milla Jovovich and Evan Rachel Wood are par­tic­u­larly har­row­ing. Jovovich re­calls be­ing sex­u­al­ized and “wear­ing tons of makeup” for mod­el­ing shoots when she was still an ado­les­cent: “I looked re­ally grown-up . . . . I thought I looked like a mon­ster. I was this lit­tle Lolita . . . . It was so bizarre and risqué, you’d never get away with it to­day.”

Wil Wheaton, the “Stand by Me” star who has had suc­cess as an adult ac­tor (“Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion”) and has be­come a huge force on mul­ti­ple me­dia plat­forms (he has 2.8 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter), laments agree­ing to star in a trashy movie called “The Curse” and fol­low­ing the ca­reer guid­ance of his mother, say­ing, “Her be­ing my man­ager was all about what was best for her and not for me.”

Di­rec­tor Win­ter oc­ca­sion­ally cuts to a cringe-in­duc­ing, cau­tion­ary tale in the mak­ing, as the Slaters, a cou­ple from Orlando, Florida, take their young son Marc to Hol­ly­wood for pilot au­di­tion sea­son. Mom and Dad talk about how much their boy wants to be an ac­tor and how it’s al­ways his choice — but in a ses­sion with act­ing coach Marnie Cooper, the child stum­bles through a stiff line read­ing and looks like he wants to be any­where but right there. “Do you like do­ing this stuff ?” says Cooper. “Then why are you yawn­ing so much? Is this in­ter­est­ing to you? Sort of ? If you don’t fall in love with act­ing, then you need to talk to Mom and say this is not some­thing I love do­ing.”

Later in the film we see Marc back home, play­ing with toys, splash­ing about in a swim­ming pool, hav­ing a blast with his friends. He’s not do­ing any act­ing at all. He’s gen­uinely happy, just be­ing a kid.

UNIVERSAL STU­DIOS; HBO

“Show­biz Kids” in­cludes rec­ol­lec­tions from Henry Thomas (left) as well as the mov­ing au­di­tion that landed him the star­ring role in “E.T.” (above).

PIC­TURES; HBO

Wil Wheaton (above left) starred in “Stand by Me” as a boy. Now an ac­tor ac­tive on so­cial me­dia, the grown-up Wheaton (right) ap­pears in “Show­biz Kids.”COLUMBIA

SUN-TIMES FILE

“Baby Peggy” Mont­gomery, a silent-film star at age 3, later said that she “didn’t know what a reg­u­lar kid was.”

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