How a little star outshone the fame game
Shirley Temple created a unique persona but had the vision to outlive it – unlike many who followed in her footsteps, writes Hannah Betts
Published 15/02/2014 | 02:30
HOLLYWOOD legend Shirley Temple has gone to the The Good Ship Lollipop in the sky. Technically, Temple was 85; in the collective imagination, however, she will remain forever six, hoofing it up, all dimples, precocity and 56 perfect curls.
Lil' Shirl was the moppet embodiment of Depression-era cheer, the most popular star in 1930s America, photographed more often than President Roosevelt, who remarked that it was "a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles".
Those of us who grew up on a diet of repeats starring Curly Top/Bright Eyes/The Little Princess may have been less enamoured. Still, even the ringlet-resistant could not fail to be impressed by Shirley Temple Black as an adult – UN delegate, ambassador, former chief of protocol and stalwart breast cancer campaigner.
Temple not only created the role of child star, she finessed it: living the dream to its fullest potential, then moving on from it with grace, wit and intelligence. Alas, those lisping striplings who followed in her wake have proved how stupendously difficult a feat this is.
Where Temple quaffed her eponymous non-alcoholic cocktail and sold mini-me dolls, so the Culkins, Lohans, Biebers and Cyruses of this world have variously indulged in more dubious substances and/or made sex toys of themselves.
Elizabeth Taylor and, more especially, Judy Garland, did much to define the child star's kamikaze career hurtle. Both engaged in substance abuse, weight extremes, multiple marriages, Herculean spending and what one might refer to as a certain diva attitude that rendered Taylor difficult and Garland impossible. (Indeed, next to the swaggering, pill-popping Judy, the character who acts as a "tribute" to her in Jacqueline Susann's 'Valley of the Dolls' – the needy, nutty Neely O'Hara – sounds charming).
But this is not just female territory. Michael Jackson, king of the reluctant-child-star-to-adult transition, was raised in an impoverished Chicago suburb, in which his 12-strong family occupied a three-room house. Signed to Motown at 10, his childhood was something he considered stolen.
From here, it was not too great a Peter Pan leap to the falsetto-voiced man-child who built Neverland, home to fairground attractions, Ferris wheels and an inability to distinguish childhood from adulthood and fact from fiction.
Jackson befriended not only Taylor, but Macaulay Culkin (now 33), the most popular child star since Temple, following the success of his early 1990s 'Home Alone' blockbusters. Famous at 10, a millionaire by 12, he was labelled a 'has-been' at 14.
Culkin went on to "divorce" his parents (an option his forebears might have envied) and has since struggled with substance abuse, alongside other more metaphysical issues that confront the formerly cute.
Justin Bieber's one-time appeal was based on beguiling little girls by looking and sounding like one. Now he alienates them by behaving like a not-so-little boy. Of late, the singer (19) has been accused of drug issues, stun-gun issues, spitting on fans, circulating images of his rear and having his monkey impounded (no euphemism intended).
His female equivalent, Miley Cyrus (21), has traced a similar trajectory from saint to good-girl-gone-bad. As Disney's Hannah Montana, she personified the squeakiest of cleanliness. More recently, she has become the embodiment of soft porn (barely) dressed up as art: an all-singing, all-twerking, tongue-waggling and bong-brandishing road accident.
Personally, my favourite bad-assed nipper is Lindsay Lohan, now 27 – and not merely because I today look younger than her. This late-90s Disney ingenue was launched into Planet Sleb as a freckled, 11-year-old carrot top in 1998's 'Parent Trap' remake.
However, by her last real starring role, in 2005's 'Herbie Fully Loaded', her hell-raising reputation was such that her image was removed from many of its posters.
This is a woman who does sex, drugs and rock and roll, one-night stands with dubious chaps, lesbian love affairs, car crashes – both literal and metaphorical – alleged jewel thefts, rolling rehab and Hollywood parents straight from central casting.
She not only indulges in endless court appearances, but chooses to do so with 'F-ck U' inscribed on her manicure.
Lohan knows that there's no point doing child-star rabble-rousing unless you think big and her performance would make Garland and Taylor blush. Indeed, she recently played the latter in the biopic 'Liz and Dick'. On one occasion, colleagues had to ask the emergency services to knock down the door of her penthouse after she failed to appear. Its producers were also forced to settle an unpaid bill at Chateau Marmont, where she had run up a tab in the thousands of dollars.
Larry Thompson, producer of 'Liz and Dick', observed: "There were times it felt surreal. I'd go on to the set and it was art imitating life imitating art ... This is the first occasion I've had to take out 'incarceration insurance'. I didn't know such a thing existed. But when you are working with Lindsay you need insurance to cover everything. To say she is difficult is an understatement."
Still, not every mini-star is destined for disaster. Mickey Rooney, 93, crawled on stage as a 14-month-old, landing a recurring Tinseltown role aged seven. By 15 he was a certified – yet not certifiable – star and made it into adulthood in one diminutive piece, despite often playing Garland's sidekick.
The industry boasts other good eggs – Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, Daniel Radcliffe and Nicholas Holt, to cite a few – as well as those have erred and then redeemed themselves, namely Drew Barrymore. After all, who could blame her for a wobble?
As the lovely Deanna Durbin, Garland co-star and teen idol, commented after her friend's death from an overdose in 1969: "People put child stars on a pedestal. They expect them to be perfect little darlings and to remain that way when they grow up. People criticise them when these stars grow up and prove themselves to be human beings with their own faults."
Last year, Mara Wilson, child star of Matilda (1996), now a 26-year-old 'civilian', struck a similar note when she said: "Not many child stars make it out of Hollywood alive or sane."
She added: "Years of adulation and money and things quickly become normal and then, just as they get used to it all, they hit puberty – which is a serious job hazard when your job is being cute.
"It's basically a real-life version of 'Logan's Run' ... Most of you reading this felt pretty disgusting and useless while you were going through puberty.
"But imagine that people you once relied on and trusted – as well as millions of people you'd never met, who had previously liked you – had told you then, 'Yeah, it's true. You are exactly as ugly and worthless as you feel.'
"If I were to talk to Lindsay Lohan, I'd encourage her to get the hell out of acting and into something soothing. Take up botany or something."
To which I would expect my idol to retort: "Yeah – and who's still famous now?" (© Daily Telegraph, London)