Mention the words "Macaulay Culkin family"--really a code for the notorious Culkin pere , Kit--and you are likely to get one of two reactions.
Some of those approached, like producer Bob Hurwitz of "The Nutcracker," in which Macaulay starred as the young prince, abruptly slam down the phone. From others, though, an almost Joycean stream-of-consciousness monologue pours forth: evocative, sometimes unprintable adjectives and nouns. A frequent one is "nightmare."
The Culkins--whose combination of Macaulay's celebrity and Kit's notoriety have ensured a high media profile--are back in the news because they are coming apart. Patricia Brentrup and Christopher (Kit) Culkin separated in March after living together for more than 20 years (the two never married) and raising seven children. Since then, the family has been mired in a bitter custody battle. But it is a custody suit with an odd twist. Because Macaulay's parents are also his managers, Brentrup and Culkin are fighting not only over who will raise their children but, in all probability, who will continue to manage Macaulay's career and the careers of his siblings--particularly 12-year-old Kieran, who may or may not be an up-and-coming star.
Of course, many custody battles involve money, usually over who will pay child support. But in this case, it is a matter not of who will pay but of who, potentially, will profit. Brentrup and Culkin, as Macaulay's co-managers, split a 15% commission on their son's earnings (the remainder is put into a trust). The practice is legal but controversial, although some children's-rights advocates defend it. "That sounds pretty fair, because they would have a lot of jobs to do if they're managing his career," says Florida attorney Jerri Blair, who represented Gregory K., the 12-year-old who "divorced" his mother in 1992. But Blair adds that the Culkin affair differs from previous high-profile, big-money custody cases like that of Gloria Vanderbilt "because in most of those, the parents had money too. This is unique because [the child] earned all the money."
Observes Chris Columbus, director of the "Home Alone" films that made Macaulay a star, "The custody battle seems to be two parents fighting over a young guy's earnings. If I were a kid, I'd want my parents to be fighting for custody of me because they love me--not for my money. It's a little bit depressing."
As the Dec. 4 trial date in New York State Supreme Court approaches, the two sides cannot even agree on the relationship--if any--between career and caretaking. Attorney Sanford Lotwin, who is representing Brentrup, insists that "the management issue is not before the court. There have been no discussions of management at all." But Kit Culkin's lawyer, Donald Frank, sees things differently. "I think that's one of the key issues hovering over this case: To what extent does custody of child actors impact on management? It's the core of the case--management is a paramount legal issue here." (Through their attorneys, both Brentrup and Culkin declined to be interviewed for this article. Calls to Macaulay's lawyer, Kenneth Weinrib, were not returned.)
And in this case, management is no euphemism for small change. While Macaulay's artistic imprint on Hollywood can be debated, his economic impact can't: His earnings since 1990 are estimated to be as much as $50 million. Suzi Smith of TGI/Bloom, a talent agency that specializes in child performers, says Macaulay's success has helped bring about the biggest change she's seen in Hollywood over the past decade, which has been "money and greed. Parents hear about Macaulay Culkin and they think they can get that kind of money."
The Culkin case is also a cautionary tale of what can happen to those who, like Kit Culkin, roll the dice in Hollywood but do not necessarily adhere to the industry's unstated rules about what one producer calls "the need to be gracious and generous." And it comes at a particularly bad time for Macaulay, who is no longer the 10-year-old imp of "Home Alone" but has grown into a 15-year-old whose last few films have been box-office disappointments.
Making the leap to adult stardom is difficult for any child actor, but with the baggage Macaulay now lugs the transition could be impossible. It's not just that the bloom is off the proverbial rose; the vine itself may be poisoned. Says a producer associated with a film in which Macaulay starred: "If you deliver, custody battles are OK. But if you stop delivering, then all you have is goodwill. You need either that, or talent. There's little talent here, and zero goodwill."
LOVE AND MONEY ARE INEXTRICABLY BOUND IN THE CULKIN SPLIT-UP. IN June, when the couple had been separated for several months, Patricia Brentrup filed an affidavit in New York State Supreme Court seeking temporary custody of Macaulay and his siblings Dakota, Kieran, Quinn, Christian and Rory. (At 19, Shane, the eldest Culkin kid, is too old to be included in a custody proceeding.) Brentrup's petition accuses Kit of abandonment, "excessive drinking, physical abuse and unfaithful behavior."
According to Lois Liberman, another of Brentrup's lawyers, "These people have been in trouble for a while. There had been other separations [before March]." Adds attorney Lotwin, "We were told that [around Easter] he had another relationship, that she confronted him and that he left."
But the immediate cause for Brentrup's affidavit last summer, filed as an emergency measure, was the film "Amanda," in which Kieran stars. Lotwin says Kit tried to withdraw his parental consent from the film, set to begin shooting in Montana, as "a way [to] assert his authority." According to Brentrup's petition, Kit had tried to "pull the plug" on the project and, therefore, "the careers of the Culkin children could be irretrievably damaged."
And although Lotwin insists that "this is not a fight about money, or about sharing commissions," it is striking just how much of Brentrup's affidavit concerns Macaulay's agents and lawyers. In a typical passage, her petition warned that "the agents from William Morris have informed me in no uncertain terms that if the respondent [Kit Culkin] deliberately botches up this deal, no one in Hollywood will want to work with our children again," a prospect the complaint terms "an unwarranted tragedy."
In response, State Supreme Court Judge David Saxe granted Brentrup temporary custody of the children but, within one week, reversed himself when Kit filed opposing papers in which he characterized Brentrup as "inept" regarding business decisions and accused her of concocting "outright lies."
Kit's attorney, Donald Frank, denies the charges of physical abuse and unfaithfulness, and claims Kit left the Culkins' home last spring only because "he didn't want a media firestorm, and she threatened to call the police if he didn't leave." He adds: "My sense is that the stereotypical image of Kit is mostly hyperbole. He's gotten a bad rap because in Hollywood there's a great deal of 'playing the game,' and he's not one to do so." Frank further argues that Kit is a committed father--"I defy anyone to show one instance of where Kit Culkin hasn't done great things for his kids, personally and professionally"-- who has shared equally in his children's upbringing and been "the prime force" in Macaulay's career. And while Frank says that Culkin is seeking co-management and joint custody with Brentrup (she is asking for sole custody), he insists that "the key issue is: does an award of custody equal management of a career? I don't think so."
But the parent-manager arrangement inevitably raises questions of propriety. Says Raoul Lionel Felder, a New York divorce lawyer and no stranger to large fees, whose clients have included Robin Givens and Mrs. Anthony Quinn: "It's bothersome that any parent would take 15%--the thought is kind of offensive." Frank counters, "My feeling is that the parent of a child star is never in a winning position: If they're too nice, they're gonna get screwed. If they're too tough, they're [using their child as] a meal ticket."
To represent Macaulay and his siblings, the court appointed Mara Thorpe, a former Manhattan family court judge who represented Moses and Dylan Farrow in the Mia-Woody war. (Macaulay and his siblings are currently living with their mother on New York's Upper WestSide. Kit has taken an apartment in the same building "so he can be in proximityto the children," according to Frank.) One prominent New York divorce lawyer praises Thorpe's appointment and says her only consideration will be the children's best interests. But another lawyer laughingly suggests, "Mike Ovitz should have been the court-appointed guardian."
MACAULAY CULKIN HAS MADE TK FILMS SINCE HIS FIRST MOVIE, 1988's "Rocket Gibraltar." Last year alone he starred in "The Pagemaster," "Getting Even With Dad" and "Richie Rich." But it was 1990's "Home Alone" that made him a golden boy. The movie, which cost about $18 million, grossed $285 million domestically and about $500 million worldwide. Since then, Macaulay's box-office appeal has dwindled while his fee has increased dramatically. For "Home Alone" he was paid about $100,000. For "Richie Rich" and "Dad," which grossed $38 million and $18.8 million, according to Entertainment Data Inc., he reportedly received $8 million per film.
Despite the family's notoriety, only two of Macaulay's films have caused significant controversy. Kit's escalating demands on 1993's "The Nutcracker" culminated in a last-minute ultimatum that Kevin Kline's voice-over narration be removed. Producer Arnon Milchan refused, saying that he could only "take so much harassment, so much extortion, so much blackmail. Enough!"
But it was the bad saga of "The Good Son" that sealed Kit's rep as the Stage Father From Hell. Three weeks before the film was to start shooting, Kit stipulated that if Macaulay was not given the serious part of the "bad seed," he would not appear in the "Home Alone" sequel. Joe Roth, then head of 20th Century Fox, which produced both films, and a man with a reputation as a filmmaker's producer, relented, resulting in the dismissal of the already-cast child actor Jesse Bradford, the departure of director Michael Lehmann and several other key personnel and a one-year production postponement.
Even now, the ill will generated by "The Good Son" is hard to overestimate. "I went to Kit Culkin's house, pleading with him for two hours," Lehmann recalls. "We'd hired 60 people; they'd be out of work at Christmastime. I had at least eight or nine months of my creative life invested. I felt it was cruel and out of place [for Kit] to call his son a powerful movie star and take advantage of it." If "The Good Son" was supposed to demonstrate Macaulay's range as an actor, it may have misfired. Says a Hollywood source knowledgeable about the making of the film, "The Good Son" was designed by "Kit to prove that Macaulay could act. And it did exactly the opposite. In that sense, it was a lousy career move. He tried to prove his son is Laurence Olivier; instead he proved he's Ricky Schroeder."
But others laud Kit's handling of Macaulay's career and his tough tactics. This school of thought posits Kit as a tough, proletarian sort of guy (he drove a cab and Patricia worked as a telephone answering-service operator before Mac hit it big) who is fiercely dedicated to his kids and unwilling to abase himself before Hollywood's slick and privileged sharks.
Says Brian Grazer, who produced the 1991 "My Girl" that starred Macaulay: "Iactually understand the dad's point of view. Everyone in Hollywood says he's an [expletive]. But his son was literally one of the biggest stars in the world. This father was deluged by so much--it's an impossible situation." Brentrup's attorney Lotwin allows: "On the positive side, he's gotten terrific money packages." And New York divorce lawyer Eleanor Alter, who represented Mia Farrow in her custody case with Woody Allen, says, "If other people hate him it may be because he's doing a good job for the kid--especially in that business."
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF THE image of Macaulay and the Culkins as a "typical" family. Producer Grazer recalls, "I went to their house in New York--I was surprised at how normal everyone was. (New York magazine once approvingly noted that the Culkin apartment was "typical of any family with seven children.") Still, there are those who view the family as slightly more "The Simpsons" than "Ozzie and Harriet." Father Gary Seibert of New York's St. Joseph's School, which some of the Culkin kids attended, recalls: "I think once Mac started hitting it big, they all became a little wacky.
This image of normalcy, which the custody battle has stained, goes to the heart of Macaulay's relationship with his audience. Adult stars--Sharon Stone, say, or Demi Moore--may purposely cultivate an image of glamour, of extraordinariness. But a child star usually makes it precisely by being as much like other kids as possible, by making himself into a familiar, safe object of identification and transference. And there is probably no character who represented the uber -kid more than Macaulay Culkin's Kevin McAllister in "Home Alone."
Which is part of his problem now. Macaulay's screen presence has had none ofthe sober grace exhibited by other modern child stars (think River Phoenix in "Stand By Me," or Elijah Wood and Jodie Foster in just about anything). But if he lacks gravitas, yet can no longer play a cute, ordinary kid--what can Macaulay Culkin be?
Grazer, for one, thinks Macaulay might make it to adult stardom. "He has a really good sense of the camera; he's a really good actor. I would cast him again." Says director Lehmann, "I think he has a lot of charm on screen. He's a genuine talent. There's a reason why he's a big star: People connect with him." Chris Columbus says he believes Macaulay could "definitely" make the transition "if he wants to. He's a good enough actor--he could do a more serious social picture about teens."
Others suspect there might not be quite enough there there. A Hollywood executive who has locked horns with Kit says gleefully of Macaulay's career: "Over! He has no talent, and no box-office appeal at this moment." Macaulay, says an agent who represents another child actor, "did one thing that was cute for a while. Winona Ryder, River Phoenix, Leonard di Caprio--they're actors ." Adds the director of the children's division of a Los Angeles talent agency: "Children have such a different appeal than adults. [Macaulay] had innocence andattitude. In a child, that's adorable, but in a teen, it's [just] attitude." And then there's the trouble with dad. "Everything came at the same time: the bad publicity with his father and the transition [to adolescence]," she says. "They're definitely not beneficial at the same time."
The teen actor who is most frequently mentioned in the same breath as Macaulay is his "Good Son" co-star, Elijah Wood. The comparison is rarely beneficial to Mac. "I never thought of Macaulay as brilliant, not in the league of Leonardo or Elijah" says Suzi Smith of TGI/Bloom. Producers, she says, "would almost rather look for another kid than take all those problems. He's almost a last resort now. They're going with other kids."
Which may be just fine with Macaulay. "I don't know what [Macaulay] wants to do with the rest of his life," says Mary Lynn Supino, a family friend for the past six years, "but he'd probably like to have a normal life. I don't think the money is real to him--it's Monopoly money, it's all on paper. I think he'd like to be liked for who he is. But he has an intensity and sincerity that's remarkable. I have a lot of admiration for him, as I do for all the kids. It's a good family. That's why this is so sad."
As for the Culkin family fortunes, they may now hinge on Kieran and his siblings. "Patty told me that she was going to auditions with the little ones," says Brentrup attorney Lois Liberman. Indeed, while Macaulay has no film projects currently scheduled, Kieran's new film, "Father of the Bride 2," is scheduled to be released TK. But Hollywood may not be eagerly waiting for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of little Culkins. As one producer who has worked with the family puts it: "Just knowing you have to work with Kit is enough reason not to hire Kieran if you can get somebody else." Even Stan Lotwin says: "If I were a producer or a director and I have a choice of two children, I'll opt for the one whose parents aren't monsters."
IRENE BRAFSTEIN HAS TUTORED young actors in Los Angeles since 1979. She taught Jodie Foster on the sets of "Carny" and "Foxes," Winona Ryder on "Beetlejuice," and an 8-year-old Kieran Culkin on "Father of the Bride."
Brafstein, who is now a grandmother, sees the issues of career and family as intertwined, although in her view there is an inverse relationship between family pressure and later professional success.
"The ones who made it big weren't pressured by their families," Brafstein says. "Jodie Foster was a perfect example: Jodie's mother wanted her to be a professor. Noni [Winona Ryder] was a 15-year-old with hundred-dollar bills flying out her blue jeans, but her parents didn't care, and they didn't take any."
And the Culkins? "The Culkins were nothing like that," Brafstein says. "There was definite pressure in the Culkin household ... the job was the almighty thing.
"It's so easy to get your head twisted off backward with this," Brafstein adds. "I've seen 5-year-olds where the mother has a beeper and is always checking in with the agent. But this [acting] is an extra added bonus to life--this isn't life."