A child star coming of age

As I have noted, one of the key difficulties faced by child stars (and especially by girls) is how they revise their image as they grow up, and how successfully they make the transition to adult roles. Some effectively continue as children: Mary Pickford, for example, was still playing ‘little Mary’ when she was well into her twenties. Others – perhaps those who were more implicitly or explicitly sexual in the first place – seem to make the transition more smoothly: Elizabeth Taylor or Jodie Foster, for example. Many appear to crash and burn in their private lives, and never fully recover, attracting a great deal of voyeuristic publicity in the process: examples here might include Drew Barrymore or Macaulay Culkin (or indeed Michael Jackson). Yet others simply withdraw from the public gaze, or find alternative adult roles, such as Deanna Durbin or Shirley Temple.

Hayley Mills’s contract with Disney ended after five years, and was not renewed. I haven’t been able to find out whether this was her choice, or Disney’s. The Disney Studios might not have had much use for a young adult star, given its emphasis on ‘family entertainment’; and yet Mills herself (or indeed her parents) might understandably have wanted out as well. According to Richard Schickel, Mills was quoted in a New York Times interview a couple of years later saying that she had enjoyed her time at Disney, but…

…those films were very restricting. Conveyor belt jobs. So goody-good, you know? And there was this image I created which was hideous. I wasn’t supposed to be seen drinking or buying cigarettes or smoking in public. The reasoning was that the audiences for the Disney films were very young and if they saw me smoking eight cigars a day, why shouldn’t they?

It’s also important to bear in mind that this was the mid-1960s. After Pollyanna, Disney’s publicity machine worked hard to dispel the rather old-fashioned image of Mills that the film had created. According to Steve Watts, ‘a torrent of popular newspaper and magazine stories portrayed Mills as an earnest, pretty, unspoiled and personable young woman who was full of didactic moralism but also an active “modern” girl’. Modernity, however, was fraught with risks, not least in the off-screen behaviour of child stars. If Mills’s innocent star persona had been viable for a thirteen-year-old in 1960, it wasn’t quite so possible or attractive for a nineteen-year-old in 1965.

Mills herself had found it difficult adjusting to her success, and life after Disney was bound to be challenging. She had some success with her first post-Disney film, Columbia’s The Trouble with Angels (1966), but she then returned to Britain, apparently in search of more adult roles. She worked with her father on two other films that year: Sky West and Crooked (from her mother’s script, also known as Gypsy Girl) and an adult-themed comedy about young newlyweds, The Family Way. The latter included a film score by Beatle Paul McCartney, and was critically well received, yet it also put an emphatic end to Mills’s career as a child star. While gossip columnists had been somewhat tantalized by her first screen kiss in The Moon Spinners (1964), they were exceptionally over-excited about the film’s brief nude scene. This was compounded by the fact that she had begun an affair with the film’s director, Roy Boulting, who was 33 years her senior. Mills went on to live with Boulting for five years after he divorced his wife.

Many years later, in an interview with People magazine, Hayley Mills confessed that she had developed an eating disorder in the latter years of her time at Disney, which she did not overcome until her first pregnancy. Her sense of confusion and lack of confidence at this time is apparent in a television interview for the British programme Inside Film, conducted in 1967, when she was 21. Caught at an awkward moment of transition, Mills seems quite uncomfortable, frequently looking down, almost hiding from the camera, and playing with her hair. She describes herself as ‘terribly lucky’ to have won her Disney contract, but she clearly has some regrets. ‘I have been in the hands of other people for a long time,’ she says, ‘and it’s not what I want to do now’. Yet in terms of the future, she appears quite uncertain. ‘I believe myself to be an actress’, she says, and expresses a wish to ‘start again’, and see how far she will be accepted within the theatre world: she mentions wanting to perform in Ibsen and Chekhov. However, she remains very uncertain about the future:

This whole business is so ephemeral, and… you really just have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring. So I don’t make plans for the future, because I fear they’ll be thwarted. Because I don’t have much confidence in… ahead, really.

The interviewer Barbara Kelly presses her about newspaper stories to do with her ‘growing up’, and particularly the gossip about her and Roy Boulting. Mills worries that she will be seen as ‘frivolous’, or as having a ‘father fixation’, but she insists that they are in love. Asked which films she is most proud of, she fails to name any, although she does suggest that they are ‘not necessarily the most successful ones’. Success, she implies, has not bred confidence but insecurity, both financial and emotional.

Hayley Mills continued to act in mostly British movies until taking a break in 1975. Her popularity was waning, and several films with Boulting as director did not do well, either critically or commercially. While her career as a child star was clearly over, it seemed as though she was unable to make the transition to becoming an adult actor, at least in the medium of film. By 1976, as the Internet Movie Database charitably puts it, her film career had pretty much tanked. Mills appeared in three Disney TV-movie sequels to The Parent Trap in the late 1980’s, and in British TV series including The Flame Trees of Thika (1981), Good Morning, Miss Bliss (1987) and Wild at Heart (2007-2012). A series of unhappy break-ups led her to religion, although she later denied rumours that she had joined the Hare Krishna movement. Since the end of her marriage with Roy Boulting, several of her partners have been significantly younger than her. Mills has done very few films in recent years, and much of her work is now in the theatre.

In the final section of this essay, I want to return to two films from the final stages of Mills’s career as a child star: the British-made melodrama The Chalk Garden and her last Disney film, the comedy That Darn Cat! In different ways, both illustrate some of the difficulties of a child star ‘coming of age’ – particularly in the mid-1960s.

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