- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
I really couldn’t tell my story, honestly, in 90 minutes,” says director Alex Winter with a laugh. Sure enough, the only image of Winter — who is perhaps best known to audiences as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in the Bill & Ted trilogy — appears briefly as the opening credits of Showbiz Kids come to a close: an early headshot from his childhood fades in and out of view following a long line of other former child stars’ photos, many of whom appear in HBO’s documentary to discuss the highs and lows of working as child actors in Hollywood.
“This is a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Winter, who himself began acting in his youth and was performing on Broadway by the time he was a teenager. The film features such actors as the late Diana Serra Cary, Evan Rachel Wood, Wil Wheaton, Milla Jovovich, Henry Thomas and Mara Wilson. “I always had this form in mind: having a conversation across time, going back to the silent era up to the present day, just to show the universality of these experiences.”
What’s most striking about the documentary is that it quickly tears away any semblance of Hollywood glamour: It is a film about the work, not the fame and fortune. The subjects in Winter’s film speak of their unusual childhoods as professional actors (Wood describes hours and hours of waiting alone in solitude; Wheaton and Jovovich insist their parents encouraged them into the profession despite their lack of interest). For some, it was an extraordinary experience, but others found themselves in vulnerable positions that had dire impacts on their lives.
The former child star, living out a messy adult life in public, is now a familiar media trope. In Showbiz Kids, Todd Bridges — the sole surviving castmember of Diff’rent Strokes, and whose legal troubles were tabloid fodder in the late ’80s and early ’90s — shares his struggles with addiction stemming from the sexual abuse he experienced when he was 11, early in his acting career. “I think Todd has one of the most extraordinary and inspiring stories, just in terms of the level of trauma he went through and how much work he did on himself,” says Winter, who acknowledges Bridges’ story is hardly uncommon.
The impact that celebrity can have on a young person’s self-esteem also is examined in Hulu’s Kid 90. Directed by Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster fame, the documentary sees the former child star opening up what she calls “her Pandora’s Box”: a treasure trove of home movies that she shot as a young woman growing up in Hollywood.
“I really believe in a subconscious way it was the journalist in me keeping this incredible chronological blueprint,” says Frye. While digging into her archives — videos, diaries and tape recordings — she uncovered a history of Hollywood at a very specific time: a cohort that included the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Corey Feldman, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Balthazar Getty, Sara Gilbert and Jenny Lewis.
Frye’s film looks back at that era with an incredible fondness, and it’s a love letter to her youth as well as to the people who left an impact on her life. Some of those figures (like David Arquette, Getty, Green and Gosselaar) appear in the film as talking heads. Others, such as the late Jonathan Brandis, are notably absent — but not in spirit. “It’s incredibly painful for me that there was so much under the surface that I didn’t really see at the time,” Frye says of Brandis, who was not just a professional peer — he was a high school classmate.
Like Winter, Frye did not intend for Kid 90 to be about herself — she reveals that it was originally intended to be a film about digital privacy in the social media era. But as the project evolved, and as Frye’s peers opened up about themselves on camera, the pressure for her to speak more about her own experiences became greater. “Belisa Balaban at Hulu asked, ‘What is the glue that holds this together?’ ” Frye recalls. That glue was ultimately the director herself. “I’m in so many ways rainbows and unicorns, looking at the positive. And as these skeletons started to come out of the closet, it ended up becoming really apparent that I had to speak my truth, as terrifying as it was.”
That meant revealing the shock and pain following Brandis’ death by suicide in 2003. It also meant looking back at the way she was depicted in the media after Punky Brewster, when her physical development became a punchline and she underwent breast reduction surgery. “The feeling of being objectified in the business that I loved, and the desire to express myself not being taken seriously, was something that was hard for me,” Frye says.
For director Samantha Stark, who helmed The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, examining the media frenzy around Spears — and the conservatorship that prevents her from making her own personal and business decisions — was not drawn out of personal experience in the same way as Winter’s and Frye’s documentaries. But that doesn’t mean Stark didn’t have a connection to the pop star.
“I’m the same age as Britney, and the memories I had of her are ones that I think a lot of her general public had: Britney in a schoolgirl uniform and Britney shaving her head,” Stark says. Framing Britney Spears looks at what happened between her debut and her erratic public behavior following the breakup of her marriage — with a focus on the media treatment she faced as a teen.
“I think a lot of us now are going back and remembering the kinds of media that informed our identities as teenagers and realizing how misogynistic it was,” Stark explains. “I remember seeing the tabloid images of Britney shaving her head and how they made her out to be someone that was so crazy, you can make fun of her and you could dismiss her.”
Celebrities, especially pop stars, are typical subjects of obsessive adoration and of disdain and jealousy. Just as Showbiz Kids and Kid 90 treat their famous subjects, Framing Britney Spears makes the case that Spears is a human being first, a public figure second. But Stark also didn’t want her film to focus entirely on the concept of celebrity; rather, it’s a searing comment on the sexist lens of the media and how that trickles down throughout our culture.
“Treating Britney like a bimbo who’s crazy or doesn’t have agency makes it OK to treat me like that — it makes it OK for my peers to learn they can treat me like that,” Stark says. “It just spirals. I really wanted to make the film not just about celebrity. What happened to her happened to so many young people.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day