Temple: Hollywood child star’s amazing survival

L’enfant terrible: Child stars seem destined for chaotic lives, but Temple bucked the trend.

The curly-haired movie tot Shirley Temple died this week at 85. Famous as a child, she later became a respected politician. Why do today’s young actors lack her ability to thrive?

‘As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be alright,’ declared President Roosevelt in 1935. At the time, America was reeling from one of the worst depressions in history. But as the president acknowledged, for just 15 cents someone could visit the movies and be cheered by the sight of a small girl with dimpled-cheeks and golden curls – ‘America’s Little Darling.’

Temple died on Monday at 85, and tributes have poured in for the star who began her career aged just three. She was the youngest person to win an Oscar, at age six. Her incredible popularity was credited with saving Twentieth Century Fox from bankruptcy, and in 1938, she was the seventh-highest earner in the US.

But Temple retired from films when she was 21 and, unfazed, she decided to do something rare and remarkable – she reinvented herself as a politician. She ran as Republican candidate for Congress in 1967, and although she lost, President Nixon later appointed her as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. She went on to serve as ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

It does not look as though today’s child stars will leave behind such a rich legacy of public service and achievement. Instead, the lives of Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber all share the same depressingly familiar pattern of self-destruction and serial misdemeanours; their fame and riches are tarnished by scandal and addiction. Michael Jackson, the pre-eminent child star of a previous generation, remained a creative success but his personal life ended in a tragic, isolated death.

Did Temple’s strong family keep her from imploding? Her mother Gertrude was a firm and constant presence on film sets and Temple once said: ‘I was absolutely bathed in love.’ She also grew up in a more innocent era, and was marketed as the epitome of wholesome entertainment. Or perhaps Temple was unusually intelligent, level-headed and determined not to fall from grace.

Bite the star dust

Today’s child stars lead lives that are anything but ordinary, say some. Girls like Miley Cyrus are propelled from promoting phoney sugar-sweet childhood innocence into a rotten, highly-sexualised adult world. With the explosion of social media, an intrusive paparazzi and our obsession with celebrity culture, is it any wonder they crumble when pressure becomes too intense?

But Temple’s life proves that it is possible to be a respected and admired public personality, others argue. Despite starting out as a cutesy on-screen sensation, she chose a second successful career. Child stars are given a wonderful opportunity that others can only dream of – they should not squander it.

You Decide

  1. Are child stars fortunate, or should we pity them?
  2. Do you think it would have been easier to be a child star or a teenage success in the 1930s than today?

Activities

  1. Discuss in groups who your favourite child or teenage stars are. Do you think less of them for their bad behaviour, or does it not bother you?
  2. Class debate: This House would ban all performers under the age of 16.

Some People Say...

“Any star can be devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle.’ Shirley Temple”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can you possibly compare a star of the 1930s to Bieber or Lohan?
Temple was, for a period, the highest paid actor of her day – the equivalent of Angelina Jolie or Sandra Bullock. Her life was just as irregular as that of child stars now and she didn’t have a ‘normal’ upbringing. She even stopped believing in Father Christmas when she was taken to meet him at the age of six, because he asked her for an autograph.
It’s hardly the worst job in the world...
Perhaps not, but the very fact that Temple is held up as an exception to the rule shows how easy it is for child stars to get swept into a life of reckless abandon and excess. Imagine having the paparazzi constantly outside your door and your every action scrutinised – would it really be so great?

Word Watch

President Roosevelt
The 32nd president of the United States, known as FDR, assumed the presidency during the depths of the Great Depression, and is widely credited with helping the American people gain faith in themselves by initiating a sweeping programme of recovery. In his inaugural address, he said: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
Depressions
The Great Depression was triggered by a fall in stock prices on October 29th, 1929, a day known as Black Tuesday in the United States. It had a devastating impact on the world’s economy, and world trade slumped by 50%. By March 1932, there were 13 million unemployed Americans, and almost every bank had closed.
Tributes
Whoopi Goldberg tweeted that Temple was ‘one of a kind.’ George Clooney said: ‘I'm sure it wasn't easy being a child star, although she went on to become an ambassador, so she re-invented herself along the way.’
Incredible popularity
Shirley Temple had a drink named after her and mothers would dress their children and curl their hair to look like her. On her eighth birthday (she was actually nine, but producers were desperate to keep her young) she received 135,000 presents from around the world, including a baby kangaroo from Australia. When Graham Greene wrote a scathing review of one of her performances, he was sued for defamation.
Twentieth Century Fox
Founded in 1935, it is one of the six major American film studios. Recent commercially successful productions include the Star Wars, X-Men and Alien series.