‘Growing Up On-Screen’: From Jodie Foster to Judy Garland, TCM Examines the Legacy of Child Stars

Mara Wilson hopes the tribute will re-examine the narrative that all child stars are troubled.
Elizabeth Taylor
"National Velvet"
Courtesy Everett Collection

From the works of Baby Peggy to Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Stockwell, child stars have been a staple of film from the medium’s inception. Now, inspired by Alex Winter’s HBO Max documentary “Showbiz Kids,” Turner Classic Movies is looking back at the lives of various child actors in their March theme “Growing Up On-Screen.” Throughout the month they’re showing features starring Jodie Foster, Judy Garland, and Kurt Russell hosted by child stars you’ve grown up with over the years.

Actors Todd Bridges and Mara Wilson are just two of the child stars brought in to discuss the films as part of this series, lending their own personal experiences as well as deconstructing the lives of the actors being highlighted. The series was a chance for Wilson, raised with a mother who showed her classic films regularly, to indulge her own cinephile background. “I am a big fan of film,” she told IndieWire. “[As a child] there was always some old movie on in the background like ‘Sullivan’s Travels,’ or ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ or ‘Showboat.'”

Wilson’s night of programming looks at actress Elizabeth Taylor and, before embarking on the project, Wilson realized she hadn’t seen much of Taylor’s earlier features. “I already knew who Elizabeth Taylor was as an icon of the ’90s,” she said. Wilson started researching Taylor and initially didn’t believe her and the classic film actress shared any commonalities. “I left Hollywood when I was a very awkward teenager,” Wilson said. “But she [Taylor] was made to keep going. We [both] felt a lot of outside pressure that we escaped into our friends, and heads, the things that we felt we could trust.” Both Wilson and Taylor also engaged in humanitarian work.

Bridges said looking at the features of Dean Stockwell saw him evaluating his own time in the industry and the safeguards in place to make sure he stayed a child as much as possible. “The teachers had to control how much time we spent on the set. We had to keep our average at B+ to be able to work,” he said. That being said, he understands much of his experience remains unique, being a child actor of color. “I won’t even mention the roads we had to take that were different than everyone else’s,” he said. “It was tough for a person of color in general, and also in the business.”

For Wilson, the TCM theme was a great moment to connect alongside other child stars like Foster, Bridges, and actor turned director Alex Winter. “Sometimes I feel like all the other child actors should be allowed to talk about other child actors because it’s such a unique experience that not a lot of people know,” she said. If anything, Wilson hopes the tribute will re-examine the narrative that all child stars are troubled.

Dean Stockwell, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly
“Anchors Aweigh”Courtesy Everett Collection

“Things have changed a lot but I do still think in the ’70s and ’80s…a lot of the stuff Todd [Bridges] went through is not so different from what Judy Garland went through,” she said. By focusing on the work of these stars, many who went on to live successful lives, Wilson hopes that the association of child stardom with trouble will dissipate.

In talking about Taylor, specifically, it’s impossible to divorce child stardom from the ways young girls are sexualized and exploited, something Wilson recently reflected on in an op-ed for The New York Times. With the rise of sites like TikTok, where going viral can happen quickly, Wilson explained there’s an added fear involved in how much agency these children have. “What I worry about are these kids who get famous on TikTok when they’re 12 and their parents don’t know what they’re doing, and their parents can’t understand it,” she said.

“Growing up on screen is probably the toughest thing to do because you can’t make any mistakes,” said Bridges, who went through a growth spurt and having his voice change while he was working on “Diff’rent Strokes.” But alongside that is a loneliness that Wilson said is often hard to contextualize. “If you get to a certain level there’s probably not a lot of people you can talk to. My sister and I were watching the Taylor Swift documentary [“Miss Americana”] and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s not really anybody that she can talk to [who] will understand what she was going through. She’s obviously a very sensitive person and that’s got to be hard.”

“Growing Up On Screen” airs every Tuesday on TCM.

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