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‘Showbiz Kids’: HBO doc offers fresh takes on the struggles of child actors

Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Milla Jovovich and others open up to another veteran of youthful film work, “Bill & Ted” star Alex Winter.

The moving audition that landed Henry Thomas the starring role in “E.T.” is seen in the documentary “Showbiz Kids.”
Universal Studios

You know the stories of former child actors such as Gary Coleman and Macaulay Culkin, Lindsay Lohan and Drew Barrymore — but have you ever heard the tale of Baby Peggy, one of the biggest young stars in the history of Hollywood?

Born on Oct. 29, 1918, in San Diego, Peggy-Jean Montgomery was signed to a long-term contract when she was just 3 years old, and became a nationwide sensation after starring in silent films such as “The Darling of New York” and “Helen’s Babies.” At the age of 5, she signed a contract with Universal worth $1.5 million a year — some $22.5 million in today’s dollars. And then, after a contract dispute when Peggy was 7, she was essentially out of show business.

The 101-year-old who changed her name to Diana Serra Cary to distance herself from her child star past is featured in actor-director Alex Winter’s fascinating and thoughtful HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids.” Ms. Cary, who passed away shortly after the making of the film, says, “I didn’t know what a regular kid was because I didn’t have any friends. … I didn’t know there was another world out there for children, and the life of a child was not my life.”

“Baby Peggy” Montgomery, a silent-film star at age 3, later said that she “didn’t know what a regular kid was.”
Sun-Times file

What rang true in 1920 rang true in 1950 and still holds true in 2020, even as more children than ever are thrust into the spotlight and yearn for their five or 10 or 15 minutes of fame, thanks to an unprecedented number of opportunities, from “regular” TV shows to social media platforms. The unnerving rise and sometimes tragic crash of the child star has been tabloid fodder for decades; we know so many of these stories all too well. And yet director Winter, best known as an actor for his co-starring role in the “Bill and Ted” movies, delivers a thoughtful and fresh take on the subject, thanks in large part to extensive interviews with former child stars such as Wil Wheaton, Milla Jovovich, Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Thomas, Todd Bridges and Mara Wilson.

We see an astonishing audition for “E.T.” by young Henry Thomas, who has us choking up as he BECOMES Elliott in an instant, prompting an off-screen Steven Spielberg to confirm he’s got the job. Cut to the now-48-year-old Thomas, a handsome and contemplative fellow, talking about feeling like the center of the universe on film sets, being treated as an equal or a superior by adults — and then going home to rural Texas and feeling lost and wanting to get back to show business, “because the circus people, they’ll be cool to me.”

Henry Thomas, now 48, recalls his life as a child actor in “Showbiz Kids.”
HBO

Framed from the hindsight of #MeToo, the stories told by Milla Jovovich and Evan Rachel Wood are particularly harrowing. Jovovich recalls being sexualized and “wearing tons of makeup” for modeling shoots when she was still an adolescent: “I looked really grown-up. … I thought I looked like a monster. I was this little Lolita. … It was so bizarre and risqué, you’d never get away with it today.”

Wil Wheaton, the “Stand by Me” star who has had success as an adult actor (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) and has become a huge force on multiple media platforms (he has 2.8 million followers on Twitter), laments agreeing to star in a trashy movie called “The Curse” and following the career guidance of his mother, noting, “Her being my manager was all about what was best for her and not for me.”

Wil Wheaton (left) starred in “Stand by Me” as a boy.
Columbia Pictures
Wil Wheaton, still an actor and now a social media star, speaks about his experiences in “Showbiz Kids.”
HBO

Director Winter occasionally cuts to a cringe-inducing, cautionary tale in the making, as the Slaters, a couple from Orlando, Florida, take their young son Marc to Hollywood for pilot audition season. Mom and Dad talk about how much their boy wants to be an actor and how it’s always his choice — but in a session with acting coach Marnie Cooper, the child stumbles through a stiff line reading and looks like he wants to be anywhere but right there. “Do you like doing this stuff?” says Cooper. “Then why are you yawning so much? Is this interesting to you? Sort of? If you don’t fall in love with acting, then you need to talk to Mom and say this is not something I love doing.”

Later in the film we see Marc back home, playing with toys, splashing about in a swimming pool, having a blast with his friends. He’s not doing any acting at all. He’s genuinely happy, just being a kid.