Book Review: Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter

“Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter” by Melissa Francis, Weinstein Books, 304 pages.

As I was working at the studio on a script about the great and tragic silent comedienne, Mabel Normand, the producer stepped into my office to discuss a few problems in the screenplay.

As we were shmoozing, the producer, hugely successful, a soft-spoken and sensitive man, wandered over to the window overlooking one of the massive sound stages. As we pondered the problems in Act II — always a narrative mine field — the producer screamed:

“Criminals! Bastards! Child abusers!”

I sat behind my desk, stunned and baffled as the producer trembled with rage and hurled curses to some unseen enemy down on the studio back lot.

Joining my producer at the window, I looked down and saw a group of women milling about with their children. Obviously, this was a casting call for child actors.

“Stage mothers,” said the producer. “They should be locked up.”

There were tears in his eyes.

I knew that my producer had gotten his start in Hollywood in the late 1930s as a child actor. I had even seen a few of his films, but that was a long time ago. He had backed out of acting and turned into one of the most prominent producers in Hollywood. Though we had a good relationship, it was not exactly intimate, and I never probed his glittering but troubled history. In truth, I was dying to ask questions about the old days, for this producer had known all the legendary actors, producers and directors.

Now, my producer spilled, telling me that his life as a child actor had been a horror. His mother, a frustrated actress, turned all her considerable energies into making her son into the star she could never be. “I hate her to this day. She stole my childhood, and every penny I ever earned.”

Classic.

Melissa Francis has written a sharp, well-observed memoir of her years as a child star. Francis is best remembered for her stint playing Cassandra, the little girl who is adopted with her brother (played by young Jason Bateman) by the Ingalls family on the hugely popular 1980s series, Little House on the Prairie.

Melissa’s career path is all too familiar: an ambitious stage mother, a decent but passive father, and a slow rise to fame, starting with commercials and then into series TV, that deeply distorted the normal family dynamic. When a child becomes the prime breadwinner, parental authority diminishes, and the child is invested with a power to which she is hardly prepared, nor should she be. Thus, family dysfunction becomes pathological.

Baby Peggy, Diana Serra Cary, the first Hollywood child star, nailed this perverse dynamic in her classic memoir, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?” when, in 1922, already a veteran of silent serials, she observes a party of children romping on a lawn, eating ice cream, playing and shouting at each other.

“What in the world are they doing?” I asked Louise.

“What do you think they’re doing? It’s a party and they’re playing!”

“But it’s a weekday!” I cried, genuinely outraged at the children’s shiftlessness. “Why aren’t they working? Who will take care of their parents?”

Jason Bateman, Michael Landon and Melissa Francis on the set of “Little House on the Prairie.”

Not surprisingly, Melissa’s professional trajectory mirrors that of pioneer Baby Peggy. Melissa’s home life is also a tale of quiet desperation. Her mother is prone to fiery bursts of anger and physical violence. In fact, Mother is a bit mad, horrifyingly manipulative, using psychological torture like a North Korean agent on each member of her family. Melissa’s older sister, Tiffany, under the shadow of Melissa’s success, is ignored and turns into a troubled young woman who takes solace in drugs.

This memoir is at its most powerful when Melissa puts herself back into the mindset of her younger self. Her evocation of a little Hollywood professional recalls the manner in which Shirley Temple, in her fine child star memoir, recalls the past.

There is a simple elegance to Melissa’s prose, a refreshing lack of self-pity and over-the-top melodrama. Here, mother lectures Melissa on her lack of acting chops in the short-lives series Morning Star, Evening Star.

“Do you understand what that means? To commit to the character? You have to get into her shoes and really believe you are her and believe what you are saying. Not thinking about getting back to the schoolroom to finish your math work. Not thinking about what you want for lunch. I’ve always left the acting up to you. Just taught you the lines and left the way you said it up to you. That’s worked for fourteen years. But this is what [acting coach] Sherry and the writers are saying. In fact, they told me to talk to you because they don’t think you are taking Sherry seriously.”

I hadn’t moved a muscle during the lecture, hadn’t made a sound. I hated what I was hearing, hated what I knew to be true. But that wasn’t slowing her down.

“You are not always disciplined about acting. You are not taking your craft seriously enough. I think you take it for granted. You have to get serious now and work harder. If this show doesn’t get picked up, you only have these performances, and every single one is a precious gift. You need to work like every performance could be your last. Because it could be. I am seriously afraid it could be.”

Only fourteen years old, and Melissa is already a Hollywood burn-out.

In truth, Melissa was happiest when on set. Most crew members go out of their way to be nice to child actors. Up close, they see the cruelty of stage mothers and the unnatural pressure under which the child operates. On set, the child actor is rewarded with a surrogate family, which is watchful and affectionate to the hard-working child.

And though there are numerous laws that protect child actors, no law can make up for a lost childhood. No law can guard against psychological trauma. The inversion of the child-parent relationship takes its toll first in love and trust, and then plays out in finances, eventually working its way, like poison, into every aspect of family life, making a mockery of the traditional family unit where children count on mothers and fathers for love and sustenance.

In spite of the laws that protect a child actor’s earnings — and Melissa made a small fortune — greedy stage mothers will find a way to get their hands on that money. Melissa’s mother was not just greedy. She was a larcenous monster who stole from her child and her husband, and helped destroy her tragically lost daughter Tiffany.

As Melissa said to Seraphic Secret in an e-mail about her current relationship with her father:

Now, we are like war veterans that survived the same catastrophe.  There are things that only the two of us understand.

Despite her crazed stage mother, Melissa Francis rebelled, gave up acting, worked hard in school, and went to Harvard. She is now a happily married wife, mother, and broadcast journalist on Fox Business Network.

Melissa Francis’ memoir is a powerful cautionary tale that will be lost on all true Hollywood tiger moms. But the rest of us can find a measure of hope, for some in Hollywood manage to get out alive — and thrive.

A riveting and highly recommended Hollywood memoir.

Melissa Francis today with her husband and two sons.

Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives and lovely and peaceful Shabbat.

This entry was posted in Books, Hollywood and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comment Rules


Seraphic Secret is private property, that's right, it's an extension of our home, and as such, Karen and I have instituted two Seraphic Rules and we ask commentors to act respectfully.

  1. No profanity.
  2. No Israel bashing. We debate, we discuss, we are respectful. You know what Israel bashing is. The world is full of it. Seraphic Secret is one of the few places in the world that will not tolerate this form of anti-Semitism.

That's it. Break either of these rules and you will be banned.


13 Comments

  1. Posted November 28, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    It’s ironic that I’m getting caught up on some posts I missed and came across this entry — just yesterday she was interviewed by a local radio host during the morning drive segment. She is funny, intelligent and seems well-grounded. She recognizes that it’s not only the good moments or the bad moments in our lives that define us. It’s both.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Dear Robert: To be fair to Melissa Francis’s mother, we only have Melissa’s side of the story.

    Anyone who grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder knows that the Ingalls’s family life was pretty grim at times and the series could get impossibly preachy, cute and saccharine. 

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  3. Barry
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Robert:

    It appeasrs your producer friend was lead by his mother into an interesting, profitable and successful life. Imperfect perhaps but not all negative. 

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Barry:

      Not all negative, but my friend is haunted.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Seems that Melissa is one of the very few to leave that with her sanity. Those could probably be counted on 1 hand.
    From my years of reading Seraphic Secret I have to say that I haven’t read of a stage mother who really made life easier for her child. 
    Then I am thinking of the Jon Benet case. To subject 6 year olds to beauty pageants….
    I think it is all a case of misplaced desires on the part of the mothers. Same goes with sports.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Johnny
      Posted November 23, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Bill, you are absolutely right about it not just parents of actors. My kids played sports all through school and I coached them in their club teams. The leagues were never meant as a pathway to the pros and we just wanted to teach the game and good sportsmanship. We always had to be aware of parents that thought their kid was going to be the next Stan Musial if only we knew how to coach. 

      The saddest thing I remember was my daughter’s 8th grade volleyball playing another Christian school and the opponent’s coaches were a husband and wife with a daughter on the team. It was embarrassing the way this couple publicly berated their daughter over every perceived mistake. The girl was pretty god but she quit the game in high school as her parents killed her love for the game.

      The funniest thing was when I coached my daughter’s high school age softball team. One of the girls on the team was the daughter of a coach and former player for the Cardinals. He never could come to the games since the Cardinals were either on the road or playing their own game when we had ours. But during the all-star break he made it one of our games. When the girls would do something wrong we would let it slide or bring it up later in the game or the next practice. Coaches on both sides let stuff go unless it was a blatant violation of the rules (we had 15 and 16 year old umpires for goodness sake). So after about 3 innings of watching this the dad came up to me and asked why our catcher didn’t block the plate or the pitcher had backed up the wrong base, I shrugged and said they’re still learning the game and we’ll talk about it at the next practice. I explained that the first goal is to have fun, impress their boyfriends in the stands and then become better players. He shook his head and laughed but his daughter didn’t return to our team the next year. But he did autograph a baseball for me.

      In my experience, the parents of female athletes were the worst because a lot of them saw college athletic scholarships in the little girl’s future if only their coaches were any good. Parents of boys were more realistic about their son’s abilities to play at the college level. But the parents of girls just knew their little angel could get a full ride at the school of their choosing. Back in the late 70′s when I had coached my girlfriend’s softball team it was a lot more relaxed for the girls. 

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Johnny:

        Every once in a while I see news clips of sports-crazed parents getting into punching matches at Little League games while their children stand off to the side taking it all in… and learning. Tragic.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Johnny – from what I have read of some of these tennis stars their lives are hellish from the parents from an early age. I forget who the Tennis Pro was/is but I remember reading that he was so disgusted with the game that after he retired he wanted people to know how much he hated it. All because of the pressure he endured from his parents at a young age. 
         
        i wanted to mention a conversation my mother had while shopping and meeting June Lockhart – and June was talking about the problems young Jon Provost had while filming Lassie. But the conversation was a good 55 years ago and I have forgotten the exact circumstances.
         
        Suffice it to say being a child actor – or sports protege – is no idyllic experience ;-) 
         
        In my short list of child actors who survived sane – Shirley Temple – Billy Mumy (the kid in lost in Space), we’ll include Melissa – and Jon Provost is still making movies so he apparently kept his sanity.
         
        In writing this I am thinking of the fates of all those child actors from the 70s sitcom Different Strokes
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/29/diffrent-strokes-curse-tr_n_594327.html
         
        This article mentions Jodie Foster – I’ll add her to my short list

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      Child beauty pageants are beyond any sense of decency. When parents deliberately sexualize their children it is nothing less than child abuse.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted November 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Robert – I remember seeing pictures of that little 6 year old – all tarted up – and thinking how sick…

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting