Young Gums

When I started writing this story, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Laura Dern, River Phoenix, Emily Lloyd, and Christian Slater were all young movie stars who seemed to have a reasonable chance of being around for a while. By the time I finished writing this story, at least one of them seemed to have hit the skits, and by the time you finish reading it, several of them may have been superseded by a new generation of Kiefers and Phoenixes. It depends on how fast you read.

This is not necessarily a reflection on the seven actors and actresses, for, with the notable exception of young Kiefer, they all seem to be reasonably gifted performers with fine teeth. But with no studio system to nurture their talents, to develop sturdy starring vehicles on which they can cut their baby teeth, there seems to be little logic to their careers as they carom from one dubious project to the next, hoping that a Rain Man will obscure the memories of cocktail and legend, that a Heathers will rescue one from a lifetime of penal servitude in films like Gleaming the Cube and Young Guns II, that a Blue Velvet will win one widespread critical acclaim while Fat Man and Little Boy pays the bills. Building a career like this is building a career on quicksand: you could end up like Brandon de Wilde or Sandra Dee - '60's versions of Christian Slater and Julia Roberts.

Ever since Hollywood started making movies, young stars have faced a number of serious problems. For one, they are locked into an auto-cannibalistic system that will eventually consume them. By and large, the Christian River Cruisers are young people being asked to play even younger people in movies aimed at even younger people. They are regularly cast as characters from a strange netherworld--not quite old enough to be adults, but not quite teenagers, either. They are basically People Who Are Too Old to Be Sent to Their Rooms. Unfortunately, the kids who pay to see their movies do eventually grow up, and part of growing up is turning against the things you enjoyed when you were a kid. Queen. David Lee Roth. Quaaludes. Once teens grow up, they're ready for serious actors--like Kevin Costner or Danny DeVito. The teens who have replaced them are ready for new Toms, new Julias. Bye-bye, Kiefer.

All of these actors--with the notable exception of Kiefer Sutherland--have made at least one decent movie, some two. But the good films they have made are not the films the public associates them with. Emily Lloyd had a full-blooded role in Wish You Were Here, but if the public knows her at all it is for her mugging in Cookie and bouncing around in a tank top in In Country. Tom Cruise's best movies are Rain Man, The Color of Money, and Born on the Fourth of July, but those aren't the movies that made him rich and famous. They're the movies he made to show that there's more to him than we saw in Top Gun, Cocktail, and Legend. But Hollywood didn't create Tom Cruise so that he could do Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, Hollywood created him to make 12 Top Guns, and will replace him if he doesn't.

Repackaging of the same product over and over again is what this industry is all about. With few exceptions (The Mosquito Coast, Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet), the 50 or so films these stars have made are interchangeable, life-affirming, rah-rah pulp dealing with one of the following themes:

1) You Can Make It If You Try

2) You Can Make It If You Try, Even If You're From the Wrong Side of the Tracks

3) You Can Make It If You Try, but You Might Need Help From Some Blind or Deaf Person or Somebody With a Horribly Disfigured Face

4) Sooner or Later, Love Is Gonna Get Ya

Over and over again, the same theme emerges: I May Be an Outsider or an Underdog, but I Will Triumph Over Adversity Because I Have a Will of Steel and Incredible Teeth. Tom Cruise has done the wrong-side-of-the-tracks routine in All the Right Moves, The Outsiders, The Color of Money, and Cocktail. Julia Roberts did it in Mystic Pizza, Satisfaction, and Pretty Woman. Emily Lloyd did it in Wish You Were Here, Cookie, and Chicago Joe and The Showgirl. Kiefer Sutherland did it in Young Guns, Promised Land, and The Lost Boys. Christian Slater did it in Tucker: The Man and His Dreams, Heathers, and Gleaming the Cube. Laura Dern did it in Mask. River Phoenix did it in Stand by Me, Running on Empty, and A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. It is amazing to think that in a society this wealthy, there could still be this much adversity for teens to overcome. It's not like they're black or something.

Bear in mind that, although the seven actors being discussed here have appeared in many, many bad films, they are by no means the worst films being made today. By and large, the Phoenix Tom Christians stay away from slasher movies, cop movies, and movies that require peering through a keyhole to watch cheerleaders in their underwear. If you appear in movies like that, you get nowhere fast. But if you make a habit of appearing in movies like Cocktail, Cookie, Young Guns, 1969, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, Satisfaction, Gleaming the Cube, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, Legend, and Crazy Moon, you'll probably get nowhere slow. But, chances are, you'll still get nowhere.

Now, a case-by-case evaluation of the stars:


Lots of people have commented upon Slater's Jack Nicholson-esque acting style, while ignoring his equal, and perhaps surpassing, debt to Leonard Nimoy. Yes, when Slater gets those hyperactive eyebrows going, it's like Vulcan Night at the Lido: All Patrons Accompanied by a Mr. Spock Impersonator Get in Free. This is the sort of tic that no normal person would notice right off the bat, because no normal person would sit and watch Gleaming the Cube, Heathers, Young Guns 11, Tucker, and Pump Up the Volume in rapid succession. But I noticed it, and once Slater starts making movies that reach a wider audience (he's got two on the way--Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which he plays second string to Kevin Costner, and Mobsters, which insiders are calling Young Tommy Guns), it's only a matter of time before influential critics with larger thumbs than brains start to notice it too. Better get clamps or something, Christian. And stop slapping your forehead every time you want to emote.

Slater is a good-looking, affable sort who has survived a number of bad movies to win critical acclaim in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume. He was utterly useless as a trainee monk in The Name of the Rose, where he did a lot of vacuous eye-rolling in the footsteps of the equally miscast Sean Connery, who tried to recycle an earlier performance as Robin Hood in Winter (from Robin and Marian) into the role of a medieval sage. Better luck next Inquisition, Sean. Slater had an inconsequential role in Tucker, somehow managing to avoid being blinded by Jeff Bridges's high-beam smile, and was thoroughly absurd in Gleaming the Cube, a sort of skateboard version of Valdez Is Coming. In Young Guns II, he was what you would expect: a Young Gun II.

Slater's reputation, such as it is, rests on his roles as rebellious teenagers in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume. In the former, he turns up the Jack Nicholson act full blast, providing a nice counterpoint to Winona Ryder's performance as a ditzy high school girl torn between social acceptance and mass murder. But he really came into his own in Pump Up the Volume, last year's highly entertaining saga of a repressed teenager with an illegal radio station in an Arizona high school. The only troubling element here is Slater's split personality: when he plays the Talk Hard DJ who rips into parents, police, the authorities, etc., he carves out a nifty, brash persona for himself. But then, when he reverts to being a shy geek, donning eyeglasses, hunching his shoulders, and digging his hands into his pockets, he resembles no one so much as River Phoenix. You can't build a major career by aping River Phoenix. One other thing: Pump Up the Volume got ecstatic reviews from adult critics who admired its message about twisted high school kids, but not enough twisted high school kids bought tickets to make it a hit; they were all over in the next plex, watching Young Guns II.


Until David Lynch worked his special brand of magic, Laura Dern had a dewy, Girl-Next-Door charm that posed baffling genetic questions, given that she's the daughter of veteran fruitcake Bruce Dern and scenery-chewing belle Diane Ladd. That charm first manifested itself in Smooth Talk, the fine 1985 adaptation of a surprisingly readable Joyce Carol Oates short story about a teenager crossing the line between being a child and being jailbait. Dern did a lot of frowning and wincing and lip biting in this film while trying to decide if it was a good idea to take a spin with Treat Williams (it is never a good idea for a young girl to take a spin with a man named Treat, or even a man being played by an actor named Treat), and herein defined the essential persona she would play in one film after another: the passive cupcake who does a lot of wincing and frowning and lip biting. Bear in mind that although Dern appears in David Lynch's creepy Blue Velvet, she has the only normal role in the film, as The Girl. And although she starts off at a pretty torrid pace as Nicolas Cage's slinky associate in Wild at Heart, she eventually gets burned to a crisp by the orthodontically macabre Willem Dafoe in one of the most memorable seduction scenes ever to take place in a puke-stained motel room. Ultimately, she winds up as a typical American Mom, raising a kid, waiting for that man of hers to come home. Germaine Greer, she ain't. Want more evidence? In Mask, the 1985 Peter Bogdanovich tear-jerker about a teenager who triumphs over the twin handicaps of having both a horribly disfigured face and Cher for a mom, Dern plays a blind cherub with a Sunkist smile. And in Fat Man and Little Boy, she actually plays a goddamned nurse. So this is a very problematic career: fine work in a low-budget artsy movie where she plays a troubled teen; a nothing performance as the Girl Next Door in the artsy Blue Velvet; a red hot performance as a roving sex machine in the artsy Wild at Heart. Having exhausted the possibilities of virginity, Dern seems ready for a career as a hot tramp, a la Sarah Miles or Charlotte Rampling. The USA Network is waiting.

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