Showbiz Kids (Sky Documentaries)
One of the most voluble, articulate and appealing contributors to the HBO documentary Showbiz Kids is Cameron Boyce, star of the Disney Channel franchise Descendants and the teen comedy series Jessie.
Tragically, Boyce didn’t live to see the finished documentary, which is dedicated to him. He was found dead in his bed in July of last year at the age of just 20. When an actor dies so young, the temptation is to jump to conclusions. It was alcoholism, or a drug overdose, or depression-induced suicide.
Boyce, however, died in his sleep when his ongoing medical condition, epilepsy, caused him to suffer a fatal seizure. Showbiz Kids – a deceptively mundane title for a subtle, nuanced film – didn’t entirely ignore the more lurid consequences of child stardom. The opening titles featured a montage of some of those who were either damaged or ultimately destroyed by the insane pressure of fame at an early age (Judy Garland, Lindsay Lohan, Corey Haim, River Phoenix), as well as those who survived and prospered (Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Daniel Radcliffe).
The final photograph in the montage is of Alex Winter, the film’s writer and director. Winter, best-known as the co-star (with Keanu Reeves) of the Bill & Ted comedies, has carved out a successful parallel career as a first-rate documentary maker.
As a child star, Winter was sexually abused at 13 while appearing in a Broadway show. The fact that he’s been through the mincing machine and come out the other side in one piece no doubt gives him a unique affinity with the interviewees here, all of them immediately recognisable faces.
Henry Thomas, most recently seen in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, was the most famous child star in the world after Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial came out in 1982. Thomas talks of not really understanding what was happening to him – he was a kid of 11 who just wanted to play with his toys – and of feeling “imposter syndrome” around the other child actors (seven-year-old Drew Barrymore, who played his little sister, was practically a movie veteran).
He’s painfully honest on the moment when you realise your career as a child star is over. While waiting at auditions in the late 80s, he noticed producers would take turns to surreptitiously look him over. They’d expected to see the same cute 11-year-old from E.T. What they got instead was a gangly kid on the cusp of adolescence. The audition would be “postponed” until another day, which never arrived.
Wil Wheaton, who shot to fame in Stand By Me and appeared as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, makes it clear it was his mother, her own acting ambitions thwarted, who pushed him towards Hollywood. “I gave up my childhood for this industry, and it wasn’t my choice,” he says.
Wheaton hated being trapped in the teen idol box and withdrew from Hollywood by choice. He still acts when he wants to, but his main career now is as a successful writer, publisher and blogger.
On the other hand, Mara Wilson, who sparkled in Mrs Doubtfire and Matilda, desperately wanted to be an actor.
By her teens, though, with her button-cute moppet days receding, she found herself targeted on one side by internet creeps who faked up porn pictures of her, and on the other by leering older men in Hollywood. She pulled the plug and went to university.
Others here still in the business, including Milla Jovovich and Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood, speak of being sexualised at a grotesquely young age, while they were still struggling to work out their own feelings and sexuality. That they all stayed alive and sane is a small miracle.
In between the interviews, the film focuses on two young hopefuls – one of them, you suspect, there because of his pushy parents – doing the annual round of TV “pilot season” auditions. You yearn to tell them to go home now and just be normal kids, before it’s too late.