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