Hannah Montana, meet Hayley Mills.
Once upon a time, before Disney World, Mills was Disney’s biggest attraction. After “Pollyanna” (1960) won her stardom and a special Oscar, the young Mills appeared in five Disney films in four years: “The Parent Trap,” “In Search of the Castaways,” “Summer Magic,” “The Moon-Spinners” and “That Darn Cat!”
But no one stays 12 forever (or 13, 14 or 15). Disney nixed the no-longer-juvenile actress’ casting in “Lolita,” but when her contract expired, Mills made “The Trouble With Angels,” and then, more notoriously, “The Family Way,” a light British sex comedy in which she bared her bottom and buried her career. At 20, she married 53-year-old director Roy Boulting, and Pollyanna was officially pronounced dead.
There are certainly lessons in the Mills story for 16-year-old Miley Cyrus, whose “Hannah Montana The Movie” opens Friday and will test the commercial resilience of Cyrus’ TV character - the student by day-rock star by night who propels the hugely successful Disney Channel sitcom.
In addition to the Disney connection, there is the inescapable issue of aging - everybody does it, unfortunately, but when you’re a child star, your fans would prefer you not. And when fan loyalty is based on a character, rather than the performer behind it, trying to ditch the persona and maintain the fan base is a little like crossing the Rubicon atop a leaky Mickey Mouse beach ball.
But following a screening last week of “Hannah,” an informal poll of one 9-year-old came to the conclusion that “I loved it” and this was a tough audience: Once addicted to “Hannah,” this particular neo-skeptic had been cool to the idea of even attending. But after all the jokes, and the identity switches, and the light romance and the pumped-up Hannah music, she was ready to move to Tennessee’s Crowley Corners (the family seat of the fictional Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana clan, and an element of the show’s subtext that you’re a real American only if you have a twang and a rusty pickup truck).
“Hollywood is littered with the careers of the people who tried to grow up into adult fame,” said J.D. Heyman, assistant managing editor at People magazine, which put out a special Miley issue last year (“Her New Look, New Songs, New Pics!”) as a prelude to the release of Cyrus’ album “Breakout” (an unfortunate title for an adolescent audience). “It’s not easy to manage it, but she’s done a good job. I think it would be a different thing if she were starring in some risque teen comedy rather than a Hannah Montana movie. She has the boyfriend who’s 21 years old, but he seems to be a devout Christian and very much accepted by her family, so it’s not like she’s trying to shatter her wholesome image.”
The image took a knock when pictures taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair hit the Web last year. Far from salacious, but certainly suggestive, the photo shoot seemed aimed at accelerating Cyrus’ public maturation. But as Heyman noted, “There was some tempest among parents and some fans - but then again, her fans don’t read Vanity Fair.”
And in the full orchestration of Cyrus’ career, those pictures have been the only hiccup. “You can call it a hiccup,” said Miley’s real-life father and TV co-star, Billy Ray (“Achy-Breaky Heart”) Cyrus. “I thought it was stupid. I looked at it and thought, ‘Boy, I guess some of those shows out there are really hungry for ratings if they have to make a story out of this.’”
His daughter’s signature tune, the one that opens the movie, is “The Best of Both Worlds” and in “Hannah Montana The Movie,” we get both of everything: There are two villains, two maternal figures for Miley to model herself after (bad Vanessa Williams, good Margo Martindale) and two time-tested plot lines.
One involves the bigheaded star who needs a dose of rural America/real people to get her priorities in order (see subtext, above) and the other involves the saving of a local institution through a fundraising extravaganza: In “Pollyanna,” coincidentally, it was a carnival. In “Hannah” it’s a concert by Hannah - and Miley.
The split personality of the story line reflects, rather boldly, the dichotomy at work in the career of Miley Cyrus: In the TV show and movie, it’s the pop star vs. homegirl. In real life, it’s Miley vs. Miley.
Things are changing for Miley Cyrus. For Dad, they haven’t changed.
“It’s the same now for us as it’s always been,” he said. “It starts with the fact that we love what we do. We love making music and we knew from the start ‘Hannah Montana’ was the perfect vehicle for us because it encompasses all the things we love creatively. She and I both love acting, we love making music, and on this show we get to do both. And as a daddy, I get to see my little girl pursuing her dream.”
Especially if she’s no Pollyanna.
CHILD STARS WHO SURVIVED
Miley Cyrus, 16, has posed for some mildly suggestive photos in Vanity Fair, but she’s thus far a minor offender in the annals of child stars gone bad. The casualties of early celebrity are too numerous to list here, and if one included television, a phone-book-size Newsday would be required to recount them. But not every kid actor ends up robbing gas stations. Below, a few notable cases:
JACKIE COOGAN: A sensation when he starred with Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” (1921), little Jackie had a big career in silent films, but his mother and stepfather squandered most of his earnings. Coogan sued them in 1935, but got back only a fraction of what he had made. The upshot was California’s “Coogan Act,” which regulated how children could be used by the film industry. Later in life, Coogan played Uncle Fester on TV’s “The Addams Family.”
TATUM O’NEAL: Still the youngest person to win an Oscar (best supporting actress for “Paper Moon” in 1973), O’Neal was a hot ticket as a kid (“The Bad News Bears,” “Little Darlings”), but once she married John McEnroe, she made only five films in 15 years. Drugs have been a constant worry (she was arrested last year for possession of cocaine) and in her autobiography, “A Paper Life,” she describes a childhood of abuse.
MACAULAY CULKIN: Most prominent of the Culkin Stable of Dramatic Children, Macaulay was impossible to escape as the adorable star of “Home Alone” (1990), which marked the commercial high point of his career. Emancipation from his parents, a very early marriage and several unsuccessful films have marked his later life, but he’s made some interesting choices in the past few years, including “Party Monster,” “Saved!” and “Sex and Breakfast.” He’s also pursued a stage career, to a degree of critical praise.
DREW BARRYMORE: Lisping and adorable in “E.T.” (1982), she went on to one of the more fabled careers in Hollywood misbehavior. All the same, she accomplished the improbable, a successful transition to adult stardom (with, notably, “Poison Ivy” of 1992) and today is a highly successful producer and actress.