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Hayley Mills was just 12 years old when she made her film debut in Tiger Bay. Little did she know that first role would change her life forever, as it caught the attention of mogul Walt Disney, secured Mills a six-picture deal with Disney in 1960 and led the rising star on a whirlwind journey of starring in films such as Disney’s Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners and That Darn Cat.
On the surface, the daughter of Sir John Mills and playwright Mary Hayley Bell’s rise to stardom would seem like every aspiring actor’s dream, but as she releases her memoir Forever Young (Grand Central Publishing) today, Mills is ready — though not without lingering nerves — to offer an honest account that details the highs and secret lows of her life and career for readers.
While speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the memoir’s launch, the 75-year-old is quick to laugh and say of the release, “It’s a little bit nerve-wracking, actually! You don’t know what people will make of it.”
For 18 months, Mills says she revisited prominent moments from her life and career as she jotted down her story, writing amid the pandemic because “there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.” Though she says it had crossed her mind “many times” to write a memoir, she didn’t decide it was time to pen her story until a visit to the Disney studios a few years ago when she experienced a sense of deja vu.
“They re-created his [Walt Disney’s] office exactly how it was when he was there in the ’60s. And I remembered it so well. It was extraordinary, like I had been taken into a time machine. I expected him to come walking through the door at any minute,” she recalls to THR.
After accessing the archive department, Mills says she found a “treasure trove” of memorabilia including memos and letters between herself, her parents and Disney. “I didn’t know it existed,” she tells THR. When she later went home, Mills recounts her family encouraging her that it was time to write a memoir after all. “I didn’t know if I was capable of it,” she admits, but found she support in her eldest son, who offered to assist with sorting the structure of the book, and put together a timeline of events, using her old journal entries as points of reference, to formulate a “blueprint that was invaluable.”
That blueprint resulted in Forever Young, as Mills takes readers on her journey from a young girl meeting Walt Disney as she played with her family puppy to becoming the star of iconic films and eventual winner of an honorary Academy Juvenile Award (the first recipient was Shirley Temple), among other accolades. The memoir centers primarily on her early career and, as Mills writes, offered an opportunity for her to make sense of “the strange and remarkable things that happened” to her, as well as to “that young girl who went through the looking glass.”
When speaking about the late Disney, Mills is quick to express admiration and describe him as “a really sweet character” who was “warm and very accessible.”
“My first film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi [and] Pinocchio. So, Walt Disney was all of those wonderful films. I think what shocked me when the door of the Harlequin suite opened in the Dorchester hotel was actually, [that] it was a man. Walt Disney is actually a man and a man who looks like that,” she says with a laugh, of her first encounter with him. “I won’t go so far as to say it’s like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz because the man that comes from behind the curtain is disappointing. Whereas Walt Disney was not disappointing. He was, I think, probably everything I would have hoped him to be.”
Mills also describes Disney as someone who was “very much forever young” and once told her that he hoped his films would simply “show people the best in themselves. … When you think about his movies, that pretty much does sum it up. Whatever these people go through, we see human beings on the screen that we enjoy, that we like [and] that we identify with. I think his films make us feel kind of reassured about being human,” she says.
Despite winning a golden Disney ticket, Mills writes in her memoir that her parents were hesitant to sign the contract simply because Hollywood was a “shark tank, where fame and fortunes are made, and the weak are eaten alive” and Mills admits she wasn’t even sure a career in acting would be her destined calling. “When I was much younger, I didn’t think about being an actress. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I didn’t really know,” she tells THR.
But after signing the contract, Mills writes that her life “was tipped on its head” and she “was plunged, literally, into Wonderland, often feeling very much like Lewis Carroll’s bewildered Alice.”
While chronicling her life, Mills offers readers a portrait of the Tinseltown she remembers, with mentions of who she worked alongside, including Maureen O’Hara, David Swift, Nancy Olson, her Parent Trap body double Susan Henning and more. “The Hollywood that I knew has gone, so I really enjoyed going back and visiting those places in my memory. It was sort of agony and ecstasy,” Mills says.
Readers can also expect a fun account of her date with the Beatles’ George Harrison from Mills’ own journal entry at the time. “[It] was extraordinary to have a little bit of an experience about what it was like being a Beatle in those days,” she says.
Though she credits Disney for giving her the opportunities and career she’s had, Mills’ memoir also details how that association resulted in a childhood that was “rather protracted” and prevented her from not only seeking new roles but also caused her to face an ongoing identity crisis. “I had some amazing luck and good fortune, but it all came at a price,” she writes.
“I think by being under contract to Walt Disney, as much as I really appreciated the opportunity it gave me, [and] the career it gave me, quite frankly, it hampered me from getting more different kinds of roles and eventually it also influenced how I felt about myself. I wasn’t sure what I was capable of,” she tells THR.
While under contract, Mills was offered roles in films such as The Children’s Hour alongside Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, Doctor Doolittle and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, the latter of which she considers a role that got away and declined because it “undermined the Disney image.”
“I’d love to have played it. It’s fascinating. And to work with [Stanley] Kubrick, James Mason and Shelley Winters — wow,” she tells THR of Lolita. In her memoir, Mills writes about the irony that Sue Lyon would forever be labeled as the girl who played Lolita, whereas she would be Pollyanna, something perhaps much easier to embrace.
“Absolutely chalk and cheese aren’t they? People expected her to be the nymphet, even when they met her. I think people did expect me to be a bit like Pollyanna,” she says. “We get labeled by the parts that we play and people have to deal with that. [It’s] just one of the things that happens in our business.”
Of the potential roles, Mills says, “They would have all been really interesting, but who knows what effect they might have had on my career. We just don’t know.”
Out of all her parts, Mills writes of Pollyanna having the most lasting impact on her, even describing the role of the orphan who moves in with her aunt as a “blessing and a curse” that followed her as she got older. But she admits she doesn’t still believe that, even if the pressure to uphold the always-positive demeanor of the character followed.
She explains: “I think maybe curse is a bit strong, but being able to contract to Disney meant that there were films that came up that I couldn’t do because they were inappropriate. Some of them were quite wonderful and it was difficult to turn down, even at my young age.”
In the book, Mills also details the struggles she faced behind the scenes as a young girl rising to fame while also yearning for her own identity apart from the one created for her in the public eye, echoing what the new generation of Disney stars have been outspoken about. “There was the me, who I thought I was — looking at the world, trying to make sense of everything. And then there was this identical twin — ‘Hayley Mills’ — staring back at me: an image projected by my movies, by the Disney publicity juggernaut,” she writes.
The personal struggles she writes in detail about include developing bulimia as a means of preserving a young image she felt pressured to have, her marriage to Roy Boulting (their 32-year age difference garnered attention and criticism), and the tax case that led her to lose the Disney fortune she was supposed to have access to when she turned 21. A 91 percent tax rate set up by the Inland Revenue in England resulted in her trust being wiped. Her appeal would eventually be shot down. In a candid moment, Mills even admits she had a fear that her life would parallel that of the late Judy Garland’s, given she too felt a similar sense “of powerlessness,” “being a studio ‘asset,'” and enduring “the intangible pressure and expectation a child feels.”
“I wanted to address my own experiences,” Mills says, but adds that some of what happened to her happens to many people. “I had struggles, which I realized was really universal. Whatever the situation of my life, the elements of my life, the Hollywood and fame, and working with all these amazing people, my adolescent battles were the same that everybody goes through.”
She writes about family struggles behind the scenes, such as her mother’s alcoholism and her success coinciding with that of her father’s. “I knew Daddy was proud of me, but he never spoke of it,” she writes. She also writes that when her family glossed over things “that were real and important, like being awarded an Oscar, they were unwittingly denying milestones in my life.” It wasn’t until writing her memoir that she realized she didn’t even have a photograph with her Oscar, which she eventually lost.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” she tells THR when discussing her “little statuette. … It was taken. I went to America to do a television show and when I came back, it had gone. Of course, I turned the house upside down, and I asked everybody I could think of, and I did everything I could … Maybe it will turn up one day.”
At age 20, Mills’ contract with Disney was nearing the end, meaning she was on the precipice of freedom to explore other roles and career opportunities. Despite the fear of leaving all she knew, Mills decided not to renew her contract. “There was kind of a feeling and a similarity with the characters that I was playing. By the time my contract came to an end, I felt that I was repeating myself, which was not a good feeling,” she explains.
Though Mills went on to star in projects onstage and in television after her Disney run, readers can’t expect tales beyond the snapshots shared in the memoir of her early career, life and becoming a mother.
Mills expresses hope that Forever Young acts as a story not just “for people” but something that could be “about them too,” while also acknowledging that though life may bring trials and tribulations, we can all continue to hold on to our youth: “Our childhood is very significant, and it influences the rest of our lives. It’s who we are. The child in us is always there.”
Forever Young is available now.
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