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.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns