Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Unaccompanied Children on the Set

People like to be entertained.  Some of the best entertainers are children, in part because they bring a certain innocence to their presentation that we, the adults, no longer have.  Some of their charm is that we remember resembling those very children, or maybe there's just a little bit of wish fulfillment, something along the lines of "I used to have dreams that went like this."

I had a pretty pedestrian childhood, perhaps a couple more spectacular bike accidents than was strictly typical but nothing else really remarkable.  And sometimes I wished amazing things would happen to me.  But it generally didn't and on the whole I think I'm probably better off.

Some kids, however, do have remarkable things happen.  They become actors, singers, dancers.  They become pundits, or enroll in college before finishing puberty.  The lives they live are entirely beyond the experience of rest of us.

How is a parent supposed to guide a child through that?  If your upbringing involved afternoon chores, a paper route and getting your homework turned in on time, what can you know about photo calls, agents, crazy hours because the light is so important?  Exactly: not a lot.

Now we come to the crux of the matter: if the parents don't know what's going on, how can they possibly raise the child?

Case in point: Amanda Bynes.  This is low-hanging fruit, Ms. Bynes is blowing up the headlines with bong-throwing, tweet-flinging and cop-accusing hijinks that go far beyond the usual former child star level of craziness.

If you step back just a short distance in history, we find Ms. Bynes was born about 25 minutes before I graduated from high school.  A few years later she's a cute little tot and appearing on TV and stage.  In her first movie at age 16, it looked like she was a solid hit heading for the fence.  That's a homer, folks, she's gonna be a star.

Well, maybe not.  With nothing appearing on her CV since 2010, it would appear that Amanda, whatever talent she may have had as an entertainer, isn't so swift at keeping herself occupied when not working.  Since March of last year her legal troubles have begun and rapidly gained altitude, from a mere ticket for talking on a cell phone while driving all the way up to this most recent drug arrest.  And let's be serious here, she looks crazy.  Crazy.  I don't know any better way to put it.  Her appearance has changed radically.  Now just ask yourself: where are her parents?

Granted Bynes is an adult by any measure, she's 27.  But you have to wonder for yourself, how weird a childhood did she have that this is how she comports herself?  This lack of self control as an adult suggests a distinct lack of any control when she was still a kid.  I would be fascinated to get to talk to the parents and find out what kind of kid Amanda was, what the home life was like.

Think of this: Courtney Love, generally regarded as a self-destructive slow motion train wreck in her own right, has announced that Bynes needs to "pull it together dude."  Yikes.

Another case: Lindsay Lohan.  There was a time when I thought she was one of the prettiest people on the movie screen, but that ship has sailed.  Drug and alcohol addiction - not the addiction itself but the refusal to actually go to and stick with rehab, bizarre behavior and an apparent inability to perceive the same world the rest of us do, have brought that infatuation to an end.  Now I just wonder what the hell happened.   She was a rapidly rising star, what went wrong?

It's pretty public knowledge that the relationship between Lohan's parents is less than stellar.  Dina and Mike Lohan have been in the headlines for their own reasons, few of them good.

Another case: Each of the series regular kids on Diff'rent Strokes.  Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges and Dana Plato each had their own highly public drug and behavioral problems.

It doesn't take very long to realize that there seems to be a statistically significant proportion of child actors who grow up to become trouble adults.  Being a child actor doesn't mean you're doomed to a future where your formerly famous face is best known for how different it looks in a mug shot, but it would appear to me that the chips more often fall that way than they do for the rest of us.  I think the problem is the parents.

Let me be clear: the problem isn't the parents themselves.  They might be doing the best they can, but in a situation like this it's important to realize that a portion of the parents' power is gone.  When we're kids in a normal household, the parents provide everything because they provide the paycheck.  Everything flows from whoever is paying the bills, and even if no one ever comes out and says it out loud, it's understood at some level that he who provides, rules.  There are even entire governmental paradigms that flow from this premise, it's called the Big Man system.  But when the kids are the biggest breadwinner in the family, a lot of the parents' authority just evaporates.  Whether it is actually gone or not, the child's faith in that authority is displaced, which amounts to the same thing.  And sometimes, it is the parents who lose faith in their own authority, especially if their faith was already shaky.

My suggestion: counseling before becoming a child actor.  As soon as a person under the age of 25 takes on an acting job, Both the actor and the family should be attached to a mentor, especially a mentor who's experienced his/her own difficulties and come out the other side okay - Drew Barrymore is a shining example of somebody who went pretty crazy, then got her head back on straight.  It doesn't hurt that she's wicked smart.

Other examples of mentor candidates: Maureen "Jan Brady" McCormick, Johnny "Jody Davis" Whittaker (who is an actual drug counselor in real life), Robert "Tony Stark" Downey, Jr. and many many others.

It turns out that acting is pretty dangerous.  You put a kid in front of the camera, tell him he's beautiful, important, valuable...until he isn't anymore.  Turn the lights off, send the kid home.  What's he going to do after that?  Pretty much everything in the world is a letdown after that.

This sounds like a job for the Screen Actors Guild.  What good is having a union if all you ever do is pay it dues? I think the SAG should provide more and better training for these people to pursue a life beyond the stage and set so they will be able to do something besides blow themselves up.

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