You’d think it would be easy to make a movie about the dangers of child stardom and the pressures put on children who want or are pushed to become actors at a young age. All you’d have to do it present a chronicle of the many young actors whose careers and sometimes lives melted down prematurely in the wake of early success.
But while Alex Winter shows us some of those cautionary tales in his new HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids,” they don’t occupy center stage. His focus, instead, is on a group of smart and articulate former child stars, some of whom still have careers in Hollywood – and while you wouldn’t think of Evan Rachel Wood, Jada Pinkett Smith, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton or Milla Jovovich as casualties by any means, the stories that they tell make “Showbiz Kids” even more powerful than it would be if it just ran through the usual list of burnouts and early deaths.
Without ever delving into sensationalism, and by holding back when he could easily have gone in more lurid directions, Winter presents a calm, lucid and enlightening case for why kids should stay away from showbiz and parents shouldn’t encourage them – not that the ones who are so inclined will listen, of course.
Though he’s best-known for playing Bill in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Winter has become a prolific documentary filmmaker in recent years, starting with his 2012 Napster doc “Downloaded” and including films on bitcoin, blockchain, the Panama Papers and Frank Zappa. While the Zappa film was scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest this year, it was put on hold by the coronavirus, making “Showbiz Kids” the first movie of his to premiere this year.
(Presumably, “Zappa” and the third Bill & Ted installment, “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” will eventually make it a three-movie year for Winter.)
In a way, “Showbiz Kids” is the most personal of Winter’s documentaries, since he was a child stage actor himself. But the director never puts himself in the film, which is perhaps surprising, since he has spoken about being molested by an older male actor while working on Broadway at the age of 13.
Instead, he starts with a sobering statistic – 20,000 child actors audition for parts every year, and 95% of them don’t book a single job – and then starts telling stories. Two of them involve following young performers as they look for work: Marc Slater, a young boy who moved from Florida to Los Angeles for pilot season with his mother, and whose heart might not be in it; and Demi Singleton, who headed for New York at the age of 3, has appeared on Broadway in a number of shows and seems obsessed with making it.
Their stories, which are not smooth sailing, thread through the film – but the heart of “Showbiz Kids” is in the interviews with former showbiz kids, beginning with the first real child star, Diana Serra Cary, who became famous as Baby Peggy in silent movies. Her career, she said, was over at the age of 7, but she laid the groundwork for many who followed, including Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney a decade or two later.
Later successors pick up the story from there, among them “E.T.” star Henry Thomas, who said he peed his pants before going onstage for the first time; Milla Jovovich, who felt pushed into acting by her mother, who’d been a star in the Soviet Union but who worked as a waitress when the family moved to Los Angeles; Evan Rachel Wood, who felt compelled to continue acting not because she wanted to but because she was good at it; and Wil Wheaton, another young actor who felt that his mother was pushing him to achieve the dream she could never reach.
The film bounces from one to the next, and at first the stories are amusing if occasionally uncomfortable. We glimpse other actors who seemingly made the transition to adulthood look easy, Ron Howard foremost among them, but they don’t sit for Winter’s cameras.
The ones who do are consistent in their discomfort with what a Hollywood career entails for a child, whether it’s Wheaton describing the abusive director who made him swear off ever again doing commercials or Jovovich admitting that she was a lousy actress who happened to look disturbingly alluring in glamour photos that were far more sexualized than they should have been at her age.
And almost to a person, the veterans of childhood stardom – who also include Mara Wilson from “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Todd Bridges from “Diff’rent Strokes” and Cameron Boyce from Disney’s “Jessie,” who died last year of complications from epilepsy – talk about how fame and recognition sucked away whatever sense of self they had before becoming known.
“That’s how you end up on a s—-y reality show,” says Wheaton. “You say, ‘Somebody please pay attention to me because that’s the only way I know I exist!'”
The tales get darker as Bridges says he was sexually molested at the age of 11 or 12 and Wood says “pretty much all” the young actors she knew were molested, and describes walking out of the Golden Globes in tears after seeing a winner who she knew molested young men. The film also acknowledges the flame-outs and the early deaths, including Lindsay Lohan, Corey Haim, Britney Spears, Dana Plato and River Phoenix, though it doesn’t dwell on any of them.
Instead, its heart of film lies in the cautionary tales being told by eloquent, self-aware actors like Wood and Wheaton. To all appearances they’ve survived nicely, but their thoughtful dissections of what it means to be a showbiz kid might even be enough to dissuade a few star-struck parents. Maybe.
“Showbiz Kids” premieres July 14 on HBO.