Films

Something small is growing big

Lawrence O’Toole April 9 1979
Films

Something small is growing big

Lawrence O’Toole April 9 1979

Something small is growing big

Films

By Lawrence O’Toole

On the whole, babies and young children appear to have been left to survive or die without great concern... What psychological effect this may have had on character, and possibly on history, can only be conjectured... If children survived to age seven, their recognized life began, more or less as miniature adults. Childhood was already over.—Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calam itous Fourteenth Century

In the pop culture of the past children have always relied on the kindness of strangers: adults. Everything for them is first filtered through an adult’s censorship. Until very recently kids have been viewed as works in progress, not quite the finished form. Carefully conditioned, sequestered in limbo, they inched toward their final destiny: to be grown-up. Childhood was a nowhere-land—a kind of durable emotional training bra.

The movies—the biggest catechism of all—fortified that popular notion of kids, albeit unconsciously. Seen but not really heard. And, as everybody knows, the problem with kids is that they’re so small you have to look down to see them. What effect this may have had on adults, apart from a severe case of strained neck, can only be conjectured. The ’70s, not having given anyone good reason to keep his nose up in the air, have brought about a different perspective. We’re beginning to look at kids as having emotions as deep, and personalities as unique, as adults; nowhere has this been reflected as lucidly as in the movies. Kids’ emotions, previously pastel and patronized, now have rougher edges.

A few things to remember about kids in movies from the ’70s:

• Tatum O’Neal wearing her outrageous cloche hat and fleecing victims for their dough in Paper Moon. The kind of kid W.C. Fields would have offered a double shot of gin.

• Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver talking about what she would like to do with her life if she wasn’t forced to turn tricks.

• Scott Jacoby in That Certain Summer having to come to terms with his father being homosexual.

• Richard Dreyfuss feeling he has to charm Marsha Mason’s wisecracking daughter Quinn Cummings to get to the heart of Mason herself in The Goodbye Girl.

• The look of absolute wonder on Cary Guffy’s face in Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind when he first sees the aliens.

• Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, asking her first nervous client, a dull middle-aged man, to go easy on her.

A partial list of movies starring children, however good or gratuitous they were, can easily be summoned: The Bad News Bears, Conrack, The Exorcist, Mon Oncle Antoine,

Days of Heaven, Who Has Seen the Wind, Bugsy Malone, Lies My Father Told Me, Billy Jack,

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Small Change, Get Out Your Handkerch iefs, The Wild Ch ild, Uncle Joe Shannon, The Champ.

It wasn’t always such a relatively happy state of affairs. The child of the ’30s (Shirley Temple, Freddie Bartholemew, Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper) was so cute you could kill it. During and after the Depression musicals and comedies were churned out to take people’s minds off the grim realities, and the cuteness of kids was the

perfect palliative. That cuteness also reinforced the idea of the miniature adult: kids were funny because they were something small trying to be large. The, Littlest Rebel, Little Miss Marker and Little Lord Fauntleroy were endearing. When they behaved like adults, kids were cute. Only Baby LeRoy, as W.C. Fields well knew, behaved like a true baby—a brat. Somehow, in the ’30s, kids’ cunning was taken away from them.

In the ’40s the tremblingly sensitive little people arrived in droves: Claude Jarman, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, Natalie Wood, Peggy Ann Garner. Shirley Temple had grown up and her cuteness value took a plunge: Shirley’s stocks at the box-office just weren’t performing. After the war, during the baby boom, children were viewed sentimentally; and sentiment, at this time, unlike satire, did sell on a Saturday night. Such a protective atmosphere reigned that children, ironically, were set apart from the adult world, their communication restricted to dogs, horses and crippled fauns. Childhood, to adults, was still a foreign place. In the ’50s, while everyone was enjoying the great economic boom and moving to the suburbs, children were all but forgotten. Kids in the movies were almost invisible: they ate cornflakes and caught the bus to school. Role-model-

ling was silently, strictly enforced. Mommie and daddy were busy discovering divorce. In Shane, Brandon de Wilde found the true model for all little boys—the strong, silent, good-as-God gunfighter— and thereafter every little boy got a gunand-holster set for Christmas. When a child was disturbed, like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, the bad behavior was chalked up to lousy genes. The only great movie dealing with kids in the ’50s, The Night of the Hunter, wasn’t even seen by enough people to fill an elevator. Incarcerated in the Disney studios in the ’60s (except for Lolita, and look at the stir that caused), kids never became anything close to “real” until after the great social upheaval of the ’60s,thereafter entering what could be called the Golden Age. Codes of behavior relaxed to the point where a PG rating could include peppery language and sex. The growing minority consciousness, including feminism, changed concerns too. (This is, after all, the Year of the Child—a nod to a new minority.) Not coincidentally, the biggest child stars of the ’70s have been pre-pubescent, girls and not necessarily sugar-and-spice: Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster,

Quinn Cummings. Ten years ago Linda Manz, the Huck Finn-like heroine of Days of Heaven, would have been played by a boy. Gone is the sweet-toothed ethic of Father Flanagan in Boys Town—“There is no such thing as a bad boy.” In fact, it’s not so much that children have changed drastically as much as the rest of the world’s view of them has.

If there’s a memory of the child from the Golden Age that lingers and still shines bright, it’s Alfred Lutter in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Adrift and suddenly on her own with a kid, smack in the middle of her life, Alice keeps telling Tommy, “We're in this together. " He tells her exasperating jokes and she puts up with him; she has as much trouble making up her mind as Margaret Trudeau and he’s patient with her. The final shot, of the two of them wending their way down a sunlit street together, says enough about the new status of the child. No apologies are made for the smart-kid-with-glasses anymore.

Capable of an extended emotional range, the child is now considered a person, not merely a dim reflection of what he or she will grow up to be. Kids keep surfacing now in movies, are even often at the centre of them. (It took 30 years for a child star to be placed again among the top 10 box-office draws—Tatum O’Neal in 1976; before that it was Margaret O’Brien in 1946.)

But, in keeping with the tenets of the age, the child is a consumer, too, and the studios were pretty swift in picking up on that. The biggest grossing film of all time, Star Wars, may also be the ultimate kids’ movie; the rest of the super-hits of the decade—Jaws, Grease, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—have all been PG (Parental Guidance) as well. Pure kid stuff. Over 10 years ago when the Motion Picture Association of America^ began its new ratings system, the studios soon discovered that a PG could literally double their take at the wickets. Despite the successes of Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the top money-maker of 1969 was Disney’s The Love Bug. Nowadays there’s a fight nearly every week by the studios to get one of its restricted ratings dropped down to a PG; a G, or General Audience rating, almost always means a gold mine. Half-price notwithstanding, kids are solidly determining the direction movies are taking. The major upcoming product from the studios, which are mostly comic-book fantasies— Flash Gordon, Alien, the sequel to Star Wars, Star Trek—seem custom-made for children. Cheapie products (the Wilderness Family series) are four-walled (given a saturation ad campaign and shoved into as many theatres as quickly as possible) and have kids to thank for their success. Small change may be small change, but a lot of small change is still money.

Still, whatever kidsploitation has been

going on ( The Exorcist and its ilk) has also been balanced by the fair deal kids have generally gotten in the last decade. A good thing too: would you want your kid growing up and writing a Mommie Dearest?