On Tuesday, HBO premiered Showbiz Kids, a documentary directed by Alex Winter (best known as Bill in the Bill & Ted movie franchise). Through a variety of interviews with entertainers who rose to prominence in their youth, including Milla Jovovich, Jada Pinkett Smith, Wil Wheaton, Cameron Boyce (who died last year as a result of his epilepsy), and Mara Wilson, the feature-length doc attempted to illustrate the wide-ranging effects that early fame can have on a person’s life.
While never less than arresting and handsomely assembled, Showbiz Kids wasn’t exactly a trove of new information for anyone who’s been paying attention to the havoc fame has wreaked on countless young recipients. For one thing, horror stories were glossed over. Interviewee Todd Bridges’s (Diff’rent Strokes) story about being molested by his publicist when he was 12 (and his father subsequently siding with his abuser) was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief, and the real tragedies/tragic figures (like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Coogan, and Bridges’s co-star Dana Plato, who died of a drug overdose in 1999 at age 34) were often presented as a ticked-off laundry list of worst-case scenarios. Those who sat for interviews were sometimes rattled and seemingly traumatized by their time in the public eye, but their overall clarity and determination to survive cast a sunny sheen on a way of life that has been responsible for so much misery. Though not nearly as well made, Corey Feldman’s documentary from earlier this year, (My) Truth: The Rape of Two Coreys, I thought was a way more harrowing and raw account of the pitfalls of childhood celebrity and ultimately more effective.
At best, Showbiz Kids was a series of vivid sound bites that articulated particularly well things we already knew. Wilson, I thought, was the most eloquent (perhaps owing to the fact that she wrote a memoir on her life as a kid star, 2016's Where Am I Now?). On the bad habits that life on movie sets instilled, Wilson recalled:
“I didn’t really do well in school because I wasn’t used to setting my own schedule because you don’t have to develop a work ethic when everybody around you is telling you what to do at what time, all the time. When you have people escorting you to hair and makeup and to the set back and forth, telling you that they’re ready for you, it’s gonna be hard or you to set your own schedule to do your homework and to be doing these things.”
And I thought she made it easy to empathize with the discomfort of public recognition:
“For a long time, to me, being recognized felt like the way it does when you’re in a restaurant and they sing to you on your birthday. Just that like, ‘Oh God this is nice, but I don’t feel comfortable with this, and oh in front of everybody and everybody’s going to know…It’s nice but oh, okay.’”
Wheaton well summed up the drug-like effects fame has on a young mind:
“We’re doing the best that we can do on the set, but we also have to do it in public. And we have to live in public. And we have to get attention from people in public. And then one day it’s gone and you don’t know what to do anymore. And that’s how you end up on a shitty reality show because you’re like, ‘Please just somebody pay attention to me, ‘cause that’s the only way I know how to exist.’”
Evan Rachel Wood said that at some point she learned that “pretty much all” young boys in Hollywood have been molested and recalled her distress at watching an unnamed pedophile win a Golden Globe (“I knew, not a lot of people know, but I know he’s molested boys in the industry”). She also offered this explanation as to how abuse proliferates in Hollywood:
“Any industry that has that much power and is that competitive, because after a while it starts to become, ‘Well, who can take the most abuse?’” she said. “Because somebody’s waiting in line to take your place, so you just start to allow yourself to be abused in some form or another. Every actor is guilty of that. They’re lying if they say they’re not because it’s just part of the deal at this point. And unfortunately, until things change, there’s always going to be somebody willing to take abuse and stay quiet.”
I think this efficiently elucidates just how insidious power can be, and without victim-blaming, the ridiculous extent to which it can be seductive.
Wood also talked about how uncomfortable she was with photoshoots as a child, and Jovovich talked about her early modeling days, during which she was “like this little Lolita,” she said.
“You’d never get away with it today,” she said of the way she was presented. Jovovich also vaguely described getting into “messes” with “older guys” as a kid. “When I think now, ‘What were they doing with me?’ I’m like, ‘Jeez, what shmucks, what creeps,’” she said. “But at the time, I just thought because I’m so special and I’m so mature and this and that.’ And I guess I was, you know? I was like this magical little creature at the time. You know, it just saddens me that people would want to take advantage of that.” Jovovich said her oldest daughter has expressed interest in pursuing a Hollywood career, and that Jovovich has her reservations about this. “What you need right now is to become strong,” she recounts telling her daughter. “You need to be like a ship with full sails, with a crew that knows how to navigate.”