Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 13, 2013
I never saw the transformation Judy Garland, Roddy McDowall or Elizabeth Taylor made from child actor to adult star. Or Mickey Rooney. Or Dean Stockwell. Or any child actor who successfully moved on to a movie career as an adult before 1980 because to me, I saw it happen all at once. I might see Rooney in Boy’s Town one day and The Black Stallion the next. I might see Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz in the evening after watching her in A Star is Born that morning. And Elizabeth Taylor might transform before my eyes from the little girl in National Velvet to the destructive Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in nothing more than a week. But for each one of us there is a period where we saw the transformation in real time, maybe for some of this post’s readers it includes the actors I listed above. My cinephilia came into its own in the late seventies and early eighties and more than a few of the stars today got their start then. When I look back on it, I can see how wrong or right I was and how some completely blindsided me, one in particular.
The early eighties were a particularly fertile period in my cinephilia. Having just gotten both cable and a VCR, it seemed that, after years of reading about so many movies, now I could finally watch them. And I did, one after another, the VCR becoming my best friend. But also, like any teenager/twenty-something, I watched a lot of whatever was on cable. Again and again and again. Two of those movies were Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Taps. Now, had you asked me at the time, right then in 1982 when I was watching these movies on cable, who would become stars and who wouldn’t, I would have probably given the wrong answer on some, the right answer on others. Certainly Fast Times left me clueless. I found it to be dull, unfunny and shoddily put together. I probably would’ve said that maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh will go on to big things, and maybe her goofy brother, Judge Reinhold, but nobody else. Oh, I thought Sean Penn was good enough as Spicoli, it’s just that with nothing else to base it on, I couldn’t be sure if this was a performance or, like Pauly Shore later, this was all he could do. Eric Stoltz? I couldn’t even tell you what he did. Forest Whitaker? The football player? Doesn’t seem like he did much. If you told me at the time that both Penn and Whitaker would go on to be highly respected Oscar winning actors, I probably would’ve assumed you’d been smoking some of that Spicoli weed again. Oh yeah, and did I mention Nicolas Cage? That’s right, Fast Times at Ridgemont High had three future Best Actor winners in it. Holy cow.
For Penn, the difference came when I saw Taps. Being young and stupid, it took me a couple of viewings, and paying attention to the credits, to realize that the cavalry friend of Oscar winner Timothy Hutton was the same guy who played Spicoli in Fast Times. Now I could see something and I was duly impressed. But the person who really caught my attention was some guy named Tom Cruise. Now Cruise is an actor with whom I have a tolerate/hate relationship (love doesn’t enter into it). I mostly think he’s good at playing jerks and a-holes. Anything outside of that and he can come off as alternately dull or cloying. In his action movies, just dull. But jerky or crazy angry? Oh yeah, he’s got that down pat, my friends, and his role as the utter jerkwad militant wacko shooting up the front gate with his machine gun while drooling with delight and screaming, “It’s beautiful, man, it’s beautiful!” was the role he was born to play. And Frank T.J. Mackey. And the producer in Tropical Thunder. Point is, I was half right and half wrong. I saw that he would be big but I probably would’ve guessed, “This guy will become a classic heavy, with millions of fans loving to hate him.” I guess I was kind of right anyway.
Later, when I was watching The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and the now bonafide star, Tom Cruise (playing a cocky jerk in a rather pointless sequel, or is that statement redundant?), I remember watching the scene where Eddie gets played by a young hustler played by Forest Whitaker and I thought, “Hey, that’s the football player from Fast Times again and that other movie, Vision Quest.” I was beginning to recognize him in very small parts but he still had nothing big to go on.
Vision Quest, on the other hand, had this new guy, Matthew Modine, and after watching that and Birdy, I was convinced he would be accepting an Oscar any day now. His lead in Full Metal Jacket soon after seemed to confirm that this was an actor on his way to stardom. And yet, despite steady work and reliable performances, it just never quite happened. More than any of the actors I’ve already mentioned here, he’s the one, at the time, I would’ve pegged for lasting stardom and Oscars.
Or how about his costar in Full Metal Jacket, Adam Baldwin, who’d also made a big splash in My Bodyguard and had a brief role in Ordinary People? He’s certainly a terrific actor and has worked steadily since but stardom eluded him.
The other guy in Birdy, Nicolas Cage, impressed me more but I still would have never, ever pegged him for stardom. By Moonstruck, I was starting to see it but I still thought his performances were too big and broad to make it. By Vampire’s Kiss, it was becoming clearer. And by now, they were all starting to connect. Adam Baldwin was in Ordinary People with Tim Hutton who was in Taps with Penn and Cruise, Penn was in Racing with the Moon with Cage and Cage was in Birdy with Modine who was in Full Metal Jacket with Baldwin and on and on. Except…
There was this other group called “The Brat Pack.” Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald. They were in The Breakfast Club and Ally Sheedy had co-starred with this other great new kid, Matthew Broderick in War Games. Say what you will now, at the time, I would’ve pegged them all for stardom, especially Molly Ringwald. Not just the stardom she had, or the steady work she’s received, but major stardom and the box office and Oscars that go with it for her whole career.
As it was, I watched all of them grow into actors taking on adult roles and succeeding for the most part, even if they didn’t all become big stars. I definitely didn’t see Penn’s star rising so fast nor did I see Whitaker as a major force until Bird, but there was one that completely blindsided me: Robert Downey, Jr. When I noticed him at all, in things like Weird Science or The Pick-Up Artist, he just seemed like a pretty boy riding out his youth in front of the camera for as long as anyone would pay him. Some might still think that but I’ve come to really enjoy his work, especially in Zodiac where he gives one of the best performances of his career. One person that wasn’t blindsided was my mother. I still remember her telling me in the late eighties that he was the best of the lot. I was highly skeptical but I think she was right.
In the end, all the actors I’ve mentioned here were and are good ones with varying degrees of success. And unless we’re all the exact same age, we’ve watched different actors become stars in different times. As to who among the youngest actors in movies today will be the stars of tomorrow, I couldn’t say for sure. Tell you what, though. Let me ask my mom and I’ll get back to you.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Academy Awards Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art Direction Art in Movies Asians in Hollywood Australian CInema Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Black Film Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Children Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fantasy Movies Film Composers Film Criticism Film Festival 2015 film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films About Gambling Films of the 1930s Films of the 1960s Films of the 1970s Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Film Hosts Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Memorabilia Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Posters Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movie titles Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Sequels Serials Set design/production design Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Steven Spielberg Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Programming TCM Underground Telephones Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies U.S.S. Indianapolis Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies