Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 18, 2013
As today is Natalie Wood’s day on TCM, I can’t help but ruminate on how her career is one of the better examples of a child actor turned adult actor out there. She didn’t grow into puberty and out of film roles like so many others. She gracefully and gradually transitioned from childhood roles to adolescent roles to full-fledged grown-up roles with no problem at all. Others, like Shirley Temple, found their careers drying up around the age of 21 and retired or, in the case of Jackie Cooper and Margaret O’Brien, went almost exclusively to television when they got older and had very successful careers out of the limelight (O’Brien, in fact, is still active in tv and film today!). But Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall and Dean Stockwell all had no problem making the adjustment and formed their own version of the eighties Brat Pack long before it existed.
Everyone knows about the big time child actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who hit the big time and reached the height of popularity that would make them living legends throughout their careers. But Wood, Taylor, McDowall and Stockwell were all born within ten years of each other (six if you exclude outlier McDowall, born in 28 while the rest were born in 38, 32 and 36, respectively) and formed a group of child actors all making a successful transition to adulthood at a time when rock and roll and a counterculture in its infancy were just taking the stage. Other actors of their age, including Dennis Hopper (1936), Sal Mineo (1939) and the king of them all, James Dean (1931), joined them as they took classic era Hollywood by storm (Giant alone had Taylor, Dean, Hopper and Mineo as well as Rod Taylor and Carroll Baker).
But unlike the Brat Pack of the eighties, they didn’t spend a lot of time making movies together, rather, they branched out on their own quickly and successfully, to different degrees. They had the occasional Rebel Without a Cause, that was clearly directed at the younger generation, but more often than not they merely had good parts in good movies that had nothing specifically to do with youth culture. Movies like The Searchers, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Compulsion were just movies, not movies about rock and roll obsessed youths rebelling against their parents. In this way, the culture was vastly different and allowed, I think, for an easier transition to adult roles.
Natalie Wood went from adorable child actress in classics like Miracle on 34th Street and The Ghost and Mrs Muir to adolescent roles in Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers to full-fledged adult roles in This Property Condemned and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice without any difficulty. Her career was defined by some of the biggest movies the era saw, including not only those already listed here but multiple Oscar winner West Side Story, as big a movie as Hollywood makes. Wood was put in the unfortunate position of having her songs dubbed which led to her performance being denigrated by many, including the complaint that she was not a Puerto Rican but was portraying one (Wood was born to Russian parents). This same complaint was nowhere to be found for George Chakiris, Oscar winner for his performance and born of Greek descent, setting a double-standard that Wood had to bear. It was completely unfair to Natalie but she wasn’t one to be held back by such negativity and flourished in the sixties, in light comedy especially, for which she had a natural talent (I would have cast her in Barefoot in the Park over Jane Fonda, personally).
Elizabeth Taylor also avoided teenager roles in her transition to adult roles. From being a little kid in National Velvet to getting married in Father of the Bride, it honestly felt like she had no transition at all. One minute, she was a kid, the next, she was in a love affair with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. From there, well, pretty much she took over the world. Of the ones I’ve mentioned here, she easily had the most successful career, making blockbusters and winning Oscars with ease.
Dean Stockwell was next and didn’t transition with anywhere near the kind of success of Wood and Taylor. He first got real notice in the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra movie, Anchors Aweigh, and went on to several other well played juvenile roles. Nothing much stood out about these roles except an odd confluence of the word “green” in his early roles and movies (The Green Years, Tommy Green in Gentleman’s Agreement, The Boy with Green Hair) until his excellent performance in Compulsion in 1959 as one half of a murderous young duo (based on the Leopold/Loeb case) really showed the world what a fine actor he was. In the eighties, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and television’s Quantum Leap saw a revival in his career that was richly deserved (although his tiny but memorable turn as Howard Hughes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream, may be my favorite).
But for all they did, Roddy McDowall, the older one born in 1928, had the career that interested me the most. Roddy McDowall was a true adventurer and took on roles that were as different from each other as any character actor could ever hope to achieve. From Lord Love a Duck to The Planet of the Apes to The Legend of Hell House, Roddy truly had an eclectic career. And honestly, say what you will about It! (and most people say it’s awful) but I love it (er, It!) and Roddy in it. See, the thing about Roddy was, however good or bad the movie was had absolutely zero impact on his performance. He gave it everything every single time out.
Later child actors had about the same ratio of success. Some made it, some didn’t. The ones who did, Ron Howard and Jodie Foster, still have successful careers today (although Howard’s is as a director at this point). But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Becoming famous as a little kid makes it incredibly difficult to be seen as an adult by the adults who watch you grow up. Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Stockwell and Roddy McDowall all avoided those pitfalls and became famous for their whole careers, not just one short part of it. That’s an impressive achievement in and of itself and one not recognized nearly enough.
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