The curse of the child prodigy is living long enough to become your own ghost.
So it was with Michael Jackson in the quarter-century slide that followed his epoch-defining, still-brilliant “Thriller.” Of course, hits came after that, along with the extenuating circumstances of his child-abuse trial that no doubt caused his creative silence in recent years. But such circumstances often dog ex-prodigies in lives that most of us can barely imagine.
Consider what’s normal for too many prodigies: relentlessly pushy, impossible-to-please parents, worshipful public acclaim, and handlers who encourage whatever makes the kid feel good. It’s amazing that more aren’t like Tatum O’Neal, who won an Oscar at age 10 but has been in and out of drug rehab much of her life. Yet things could still turn around for her, which shows how loosely survival must be defined here.
The idea that the post-“Thriller” Jackson was a child prodigy in decline has been around for years; he is right in line with composers from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 18th century to Erich Wolfgang Korngold in the 20th. Both were brilliant child talents who transformed their worlds, Mozart on the opera stage and Korngold with lush 1930s and ‘40s scores to films like “Captain Blood.” But Mozart’s public abandoned him amid economic recession and Korngold became so outdated that he was laughed out of post-World War II music circles.
Career visibility can be a booby prize, and few earthlings are the subject of more intense focus than child prodigies. Relatively speaking, musicians such as soprano Beverly Sills and pianist Yevgeny Kissin have had it easy: That visibility is in a realm specialized enough to afford some semblance of private life. Consider the scorecards for generations of film and pop-music stars: Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Ron Howard, Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields, Diane Lane, Christina Ricci, Britney Spears. Some have enjoyed stable ground, some not.
The survivors have an inner durability from the beginning. Temple wasn’t just charming but efficient, accomplishing the most complicated musical numbers in a single “take.” Sills didn’t just sing intricate coloratura, but knew that making it pay included living in second-rate hotels and cooking on a hot plate. Intelligence (as opposed to instinct) works: Foster and Shields temporarily quit their celebrity to attend Yale and Princeton, respectively.
They’re like most survivors, who take an extended intermission that opens up options beyond their early lives. After getting a college education, Temple briefly returned to movies and had a TV show, but ultimately spent her adult life as a diplomat. Sills married and moved to Cleveland before returning as the star of the New York City Opera and then went on to run it. Diane Lane arrived as a star opposite Laurence Olivier in “A Little Romance” at 13 and came back as a character actor who seems able to do most anything.
Intermissions aren’t always a matter of choice. What children do with openhearted instinctiveness sometimes has to be relearned more analytically in adulthood. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin performed long, emotionally complex works as a teenager in recordings that are still considered classics. Then came a crisis during which he wondered if he could play at all; he came back better than ever — but just for a while. And when he died at age 82 in 1999, he was beloved more as a humanitarian; for decades, he’d given haphazard, even disastrous performances that he somehow thought were transcendent. He talked about “gazing in my usual state of being half absent in my own world and half in the present. I have usually been able to ‘retire’ in this way.”
There’s also artistic survival vs. personal survival. One case history: Durbin and Garland got their start in the same 1936 movie, “Every Sunday”; both had amazing adult voices and ways of using them that seemed far beyond their chronological ages (15 and 14). Though Durbin saved Depression-era Universal Pictures from bankruptcy, she opted not to hang on. Success diminished and, after 1950, she left Hollywood to have a family. Now 87, she lives in France.
Garland was dead at 47 after a history of brilliant ups, embarrassing downs and lots of drugs. Sound like somebody more recently deceased?
But how is survival measured here? Legend has it that during one of her ups, Garland tracked down Durbin by phone, burbled on and on about her latest successes, only to have Durbin reply, “Are you still in that ... industry?” Durbin got out alive. But Garland had an artistic flowering after 1950 that continues to enthrall audiences.
Was Garland’s choice strictly about artistry? Ex-prodigies understandably can be at odds with reality, one symptom being their financial lives. Garland had chronic money problems, even at the height of her MGM movie fame. Unlike Durbin, she had to keep working and find new ways to fascinate her public. The famine-to-feast world of showbiz salaries always promises a quick fix (not that such wealth necessarily materializes).
The survivors who flourish are those whose talent and personalities are varied enough that they can craft an entirely new life, both personally and artistically, that ensures they won’t become their own ghosts. Howard, for example, has created such a rich and varied output as a filmmaker that you barely remember that he was once Little Opie. Foster’s adult life as a director and actress goes well beyond her early brilliance in “Taxi Driver.”
The survival rate may be higher than it appears. But casting a long shadow over all of them is Mozart, the greatest prodigy of all, who appeared to be in creative decline when he died at age 35.
The mythology suggests that his impossible, post-prodigy personality alienated him from the power brokers of his era. Recent scholarship, however, suggests he was just going through a bad patch, had to take second-rate stage projects with impossible deadlines, and, thanks to 18th-century medicine, simply got sick and died.
Had he survived his final illness, might he have created an archetype of young talents who are expected to survive and thrive? Or does the world rebel against the idea that the supremely gifted can also be happy?
// Notes from the Road
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