Children of Paradise

How thrilling and/or evil are the byways of Hollywood for those of tender years? Young stars Edward Furlong, Sara Gilbert and Lukas Haas offer us their circumspect opinions.

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Someone's gotta play the kid. The casting call is out: We need 60 pounds of cute and a side order of sass. Haul in the mothers with their lambkins and let's get this over with, pronto. There was a time, of course, when we wanted someone to play the kid--just ask our present U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia. From the first moment that Shirley Temple's heliotropic, Christmas morning smile (and God, those sturdy little legs!) put the sunburn of unvarnished precocity on the cheeks of movie audiences, we were hopelessly hooked. Nothing short of Lassie was as irresistible as a kid in pictures. Spanky and Our Gang, The Dead End Kids, Dopey Opie, "The Brady Bunch," Andy Hardy, "A Family Affair," E.T.'s fervid little confederates--what Shirley hath wrought!

Someone's gotta play the kid. But when you can line the number of child actor hospital wristbands end to end and span the distance between Disneyland and The EPCOT Center, well, now we're not so sure. The Clearasil chronology of thespians in braces is spiked with suicide, substance abuse, criminal behavior, mishandled careers and bitterness. What we've learned is that kids not only say the darnedest things, they do them as well. The sentiment du jour proclaims the profession of child acting to be a one-way trip on the road to ruin, a form of child abuse. And when virtually the entire kid cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" winds up pregnant, in court or in jail, it's hard to argue. But having gobs of money and toys up the wazoo, traveling to exotic shooting locations, receiving attention reserved for royalty, and not having to attend school while still netting a better education than 99 percent of the rest of the planet (child stars have full-time tutors) is hardly the most pernicious form of child endangerment. Does tinsel really stunt your growth?

An adjunct to the child abuse matrix is the speculation that, sure, Macaulay Culkin is the picture of youthful propriety now while he's a big star. But when his first box-office flop comes along, or when he learns that facial hair doesn't wash off as easily as chocolate, whichever comes first, he's gonna look for a crack pipe and go for a highspeed chase through lower Brentwood. Still, for all the crash-and-burn victims, there are the Jodie Fosters and Ron Howards who've learned to live with their pubic hair.

With all due respect to the ruinous aspects of early fame, not to mention the tyranny of ambitious and controlling parents, my guess is that it's something else that turns the kid who once charmed our socks off into the monster that now holds up a video store with a pellet gun. The children audiences love most are the ones who affect adult behavior. We coax the kids into on-screen maturity; and then when they're offscreen, they're expected to behave like adults in real life too. We are the doting relatives who one or two times a year hear the scripted quips, see the irresistible mugging; when the reports of drugs and nude arrests reach us, we are suitably shocked. Not that the moviegoing public can be held accountable for Corey Feldman's alleged reliance on heroin. But would Mickey Rooney be the spouse-discarding warthog he is today if the responsibility for cheering up America during WWII hadn't depended at least a little on the irascible spirit of a 40-year-old being locked in a 15-year-old's body?

Someone, however, has got to play the kid. And if, indeed, the child acting profession is nothing more than a benign-looking environment for the growth of all things most foul, the theater of the cruel, we are left with two choices. We can harken back to the days of ancient Greece when males played all of the roles, and just let Steven Spielberg go ahead and slash his wrists. Or we can keep the kids and everybody else in business by telling ourselves that today's youngsters are better informed about the real problems of showbiz. Judging from the attitudes of the three young actors I talked with, a more sophisticated atmosphere of caution has indeed begun to take shape.

"I start school on Thursday. It sucks," Edward Furlong says in a voice that, like those of most 14-year-olds, understates the sensory overload roaring through his synaptic regions like The Blue Angels. We're sitting on the porch of Eddie's house like a couple of nearsighted, outlaw entomologists, watching the ants crawl over our shoes. The idea of going back to school has momentarily put his mood in a tailspin. To cheer him up a little, I ask him about the size of his new girlfriend's breasts. He throws a shocked glance at my profile and lets out an aborted cackle of relief. Then, looking furtively back over his shoulder into the house where his uncle is sitting, he elects to pass on the breast inquiry.

"I kinda want to go to school, because there's kids there. I wanna have a normal life--sometimes. All the attention's pretty weird, but worth the hassle. Most of my friends are friends I had from before. I have a friend or two I can trust. I have to be careful about who I hang out with and stuff."

The subtext here, naturally, is drugs. Eddie is perceptive enough to spare me from forcing the issue, and, despite the obvious fact that the importance of his image has been impressed upon him the way asthmatics are warned to take it slow, he manages the subject with a halting degree of veracity: "I'm pretty aware of drugs. I try and keep away from that as much as possible. If I did hang out with somebody who does that stuff, I probably would start doing it, too. I'm not saying that I won't hang out with them. I'm saying that I'll try and stay away from it as much as possible."

And now that he's a big star, what about curfews? "Yeah," he grins. "Yeah, I gotta be in. By usually eight or, if I'm going someplace special, 12."

"Wow. You gotta be in by eight o'clock?"

"Well, not eight." Eddie tries to revise his estimate but can't come up with an exact time. Craning behind him, he shouts through the doorway to his uncle, who's been eavesdropping.

"Sean? If I'm going out with friends, when do I have to be in?"

A diffident voice comes through the dark hole of the door: "Midnight."

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