The Echoes Of Teen-Age Film Stars
Written by Charles Champlin
In what now seems another life, I interviewed in London the very young Hayley Mills, who was then the reigning moppet of her generation, with The Parent Trap and other box-office smashes to her credit.
Talking with her, I had an oddly dazing sense of meeting two people at once -- a vivacious and quite normal teen-ager who needed a torrent of words to convey the excitements in her life, and, in alternate breaths, a sophisticated professional who sounded 24 going on 30 and who, I felt, could direct a film or pilot a DC-6 if asked. She was 16.
I sensed that same adult-within-child combination when I first met Jodie Foster in her early Disney incarnations. She was less exuberant than Mills, and also a half-dozen years younger than the Mills I'd met, but you still had the feeling of a cool and measuring grown-up intelligence confronting you.
I thought of those two actresses the other day when I met Mary Stuart Masterson. She is 18 and is the principal romantic interest in the recently released Heaven Help Us, playing a street-wise Brooklyn girl who helps her ailing father run a smoke shop/soda fountain opposite a Catholic high school. She is very good, conveying a sweetly vulnerable girl beneath the tough, mature defenses.
In the film she looks approximately her real age. In Los Angeles she had just finished shooting a film for television that required her to have her hair cut very short so she could wear a bald wig, and she looked somewhere between 12 and 13. So it was startling and not a little beguiling to hear her remark that "I was trying to separate two realities and I was `so` confused." That was when she was acting in The Stepford Wives, when she was 8.
Like Hayley Mills, she is the child of actors. Peter Masterson and Carlin Glynn are New York stage actors primarily, long active with the late Lee Strasberg in the Actors Studio. Their priorities for their children (Masterson has an older sister and a younger brother) included solid educations. Mary went to private schools, finishing at the progressive Dalton School in Manhattan, and has started at New York University, aiming to major in anthropology and interested in ethnographic films as a possible venture.
It was, at that, not your average childhood. Summer camp one year was Stage Door Manor in the Catskills, where her parents were acting and where she acted. She has studied acting with Estelle Parsons, and in 10th grade she understudied Kate Burton in Alice in Wonderland for Eva Le Gallienne.
"Eva Le Gallienne," she says thoughtfully, "is a tough lady."
Masterson has spent two summers in the acting company at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, observing, as she says, "the interaction between the creators and the performers."
"That's where I learned that the writer writes A, whatever A is, then you as the actor try to make it your own, and the writer has to let it go. It's yours then."
A tape she made at Sundance led ultimately to the part in Heaven Help Us. Her mother's agent saw the tape and sent her to audition for Michael Dinner, who was directing the film. She read a couple of times, and the film was actually in production when she was finally cast. She rehearsed on weekends with Dinner and her co-star, Andrew McCarthy.
Subsequently, she has made an ABC-TV film called Love Lives On for director Larry Peerce, based on a true story of a girl who has cancer, is cured but is drug-addicted and gives birth to a drug-addicted baby. Sam Waterston and Christine Lahti play her parents. It airs March 11.
Young performers often seem their own suspense stories: Can they cope with the pressures of success or the lack of it or the decline of it? What is probably true is that having parents who have themselves adjusted well to the swings and roundabouts of the actors' life is as useful a heritage as there is.
"Listen, I was a star-struck little kid. How could I not be?" Masterson asks rhetorically. "When my parents knew I wanted to act, they were cautious about it. They were also open about it. They didn't want to stifle me, but they didn't want me to do anything that would be detrimental to my future. School came first -- good schools. They still do."
"My parents gave me the reality of the business. You need talent. You also need strength and determination, and values. I think they've given me a good set of values."
It seemed to me then that I was hearing echoes of conversations in London in the '60s and Burbank in the '70s, the same optimism, excitement and precocious good sense, the same acknowledgement of wise and supportive parents.
"I feel as if time is expanding exponentially," Mary Stuart Masterson said unexpectedly.
I wish I'd said that.