When Child Actors Play Grown-Up, How Safe Is It?


Nothing that Haley Joel Osment endures as the android boy David in search of humanity in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" compares in intensity with the horrors suffered by his Cole Sear in "The Sixth Sense." Still, David's encounters with discarded, disintegrating robots and his wanderings through dark woods, mean streets and a drowned amusement park must have had some impact on the mind of the movie-television veteran who turned 13 in April.

When a movie depicts a child in terrifying situations, and does it convincingly, the empathy can be a bit painful. Walt Disney knew this, and such story lines repeat themselves over and over, in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," in "Bambi," in "Dumbo" and in "Pinocchio" (which parallels "A.I."). But those were cartoon characters.

Watching a movie featuring child actors as characters undergoing harrowing experiences always makes one wonder: What effect does this have on the kids?

The most famous case, of course, involves Linda Blair, whose experiences making "The Exorcist" for William Friedkin are widely believed to have caused the problems with drugs in her adolescent years and propelled her into a downward spiral into second-rate films.

On the other hand, some child actors go on to success, even after playing roles that seem unsuitable for young minds. Having made her mark at age 11 in the 1994 "Interview With the Vampire," Kirsten Dunst became a hard-working teen star. Now she comes back with the film "crazy/beautiful," in which she plays a troubled rich girl involved with a smart Latino football star at her posh Los Angeles school. She appears in film after film, some good, some not so good.

Drew Barrymore also worked in some potentially stressful roles as a very young child, especially two Stephen King adaptations, the big-budget "Firestarter" and "Cat's Eye." But after imbibing her first alcoholic drink at 9, smoking marijuana at 11, snorting cocaine at 12 and attempting suicide, she has taken control of her life and has become a successful producer and star of "Charlie's Angels."

Another great success story is Jodie Foster. Her role as the child hooker Iris in Martin Scorsese's blood-drenched "Taxi Driver" caused much wagging of tongues, as she was not yet 13. Almost as controversial was her role as a young murderer in "The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane" a year later. She went on to graduate from Yale and to carve out a career as an Oscar-winning actress, director and producer.

There are many stories about the damaging effects Hollywood can have on young stars. But it seems clear that roles in horrific movies do not always drive kid actors to drugs, drink or early deaths. River Phoenix never made a horror movie (though his character in "The Mosquito Coast" certainly suffered). And Judy Garland sang and danced away her childhood as the American girl-next-door.

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