The life of a child actor isn’t always a glamorous one. Sure, you bask in the glory before you’re tall enough to ride a roller coaster and have more money than every child in your hometown combined but then what? The fate of what happens to you after you hit puberty is a different story. Some stars lose what made them marketable in the first place due to the drastic change in their voice and appearance, some have their money squandered away and wind up broke, some just fade from the limelight, and some even leave the business altogether. Things don’t always have to end in tragedy. Some of these talents make the successful transition into adulthood and are able enjoy their wealth and live comfortably away from La La Land, opting only to take part in projects that truly interests them. That last point best describes one of the biggest child stars ever, Macaulay Culkin.
In the early 1990s, no kid was bigger than Macaulay Culkin. His big blue eyes, blonde hair, and devilish smile made him irresistible to young America. Hailing from New York, he comes from an entire family of child actors. You’ve seen his younger brother, Kieran as the titular Igby from the 2002 cult film, Igby Goes Down and as Scott Pilgrim’s best friend, Wallace, in Scott Pilgrim v.s. The World. You’ve also caught his other little sibling, Rory, playing Mel Gibson’s young son in Signs and starring in the 2004 indie drama, Mean Creek. His aunt is actress Bonnie Bedelia who you might recognize as John McClane’s wife, Holly, from the action classic, Die Hard and its sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
In 1988, Culkin appeared in his first major film role starring opposite the late John Candy in the John Hughes flick, Uncle Buck. His adorable fast-talking, quick-on-his-feet shtick put the world on notice that Hollywood might have something special here. Possessing a keen eye for talent, John Hughes was one of the first to take notice, later casting him in his breakout role in the form of young Kevin in the hugely successful Christmas favorite, Home Alone in 1990. Culkin was only 8-years-old when he portrayed the youngest creed of the McCallister family who is mistakenly left behind at their home in Illinois during the Christmas season while the rest of his family flies to Paris. He takes care of himself all while avoiding a strange, lonely old man and dodging a pair of burglars. The movie was filmed with only an $18 million budget but impressively wound up grossing more than $400 million worldwide. It went on to become the highest grossing film of the year and solidified Culkin as a megastar. In addition to the massive financial success, one scene spawned one of the most famous cinematic pop culture moments of the decade. During the scene where Kevin applies aftershave to his face for the first time, he let’s out a famous shriek that has been parodied numerous times and was for a while, his most recognizable line.
His next big film was starring in 1991’s My Girl with fellow child star, Anna Chlumsky along with Dan Aykroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis. This cute coming-of-age story pits Veda (Chlumsky) coming to terms with the loss of her mother and her father’s new love. Her old man runs a funeral business which causes her to obsess about death. All her anxieties are then put to the test when a little boy, Thomas, played by Culkin, enters her life. I watched this often growing up and to this day, the funeral scene with Veda and Thomas is one of the more heart-wrenching moments ever put on the big screen. Just watching Thomas’ lifeless body lying in the casket still gives me the willies to this day. It also instilled a lifelong fear of flying insects in me.
Around this time, Culkin started a highly publicized friendship with Michael Jackson. He subsequently appeared in the music video for Jackson’s 1991 hit, Black or White. This was one of the first examples of Jackson’s seemingly unhealthy relationship with minors that was noticed by the public. In 2005, Macaulay was called to testify in Jackson’s sexual abuse trial and defended him saying the relationship was innocent and that the charges were fabricated.
A 1992 holiday sequel followed, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. This time, Kevin is separated from his family at the airport and accidentally flies to the Big Apple where the baddies from the first film return to exact revenge. This film would prove to be wickedly successful as well, grossing over $350 million on a $20 million budget. It was the second highest grossing film of ‘92. What kid didn’t want to be crafty like Kevin, smartly rigging their home and saving the day? I loved these movies as a kid! The Home Alone franchise is actually still thriving today thanks to the first two smash hits. Three more sequels have been made since the second one, none of which Culkin dared to go anywhere near. For what it’s worth, the third entry does feature Scarlett Johansson is one of her early roles.
Attempting to diversify himself, Culkin soon tried to shed his adorable image by starring in the 1993 suspense picture, The Good Son. Opposite a young Elijah Wood, Culkin plays Henry, a sociopath child causing harm to anyone and anything while maintaining a facade of innocence to his family. When his cousin, Mark, played by Wood, notices this, he’s threatened by Henry to keep quiet. Though Culkin himself churned out a great performance as a cold-hearted sicko, this film is largely forgotten among Macaulay’s more child-friendly works. Despite that, audiences payed to see what Culkin can do in an R rated feature and thus The Good Son was a box office success.
In 1994, Culkin reverted back to his roots with the cunning edge animated/live action feature, The Pagemaster. He portrayed a geeky bookworm who is soon whisked onto the animated pages of classic works and must make it back home. This exciting feature had two directors, each helming the two different styles of film making. The live action portion was directed by Joe Johnson who would go on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger while the animated parts were directed by Maurice Hunt who later gave us Fantasia 2000.
The last film that Macaulay would give us as a minor was Richie Rich. Also released in 1994, this was based on the Harvey Comics character and 80s cartoon of the same name. Our titular hero, a wealthy, isolated child who must save his fortune and his family from scammers, would be Culkin’s last on-screen role for almost a decade. While it was an acceptable children’s film, like the Pagemaster, it would fail to turn up a profit at the box office. It was clear at this point that Macaulay Culkin’s stock may have run out.
Just like that, Culkin would seemingly retire from acting after 1994 proved to be a horrible year for his career. In addition to The Pagemaster and Richie Rich, Getting Even With Dad which co-starred Ted Danson, was also a bomb. By the time he “called it quits,” he was receiving $8 million paydays for each movie. He gathered his money and managed to stay out of the media for a number of years. He received some attention in 1998 when he, at the age of 17, married actress Rachel Miner. They split up just a few years later. For my fellow wrestling geeks, his obsession with WWE was cited by Miner as one of the key factors in the destruction of their marriage (he would later cameo on an episode of Monday Night Raw in 2009). I guess women just can’t compete with the likes of Steve Austin and the Undertaker. His longtime relationship with Mila Kunis, which lasted eight years, was also profiled but Culkin rarely made public appearances with her and their union was mostly kept under wraps. In 2004, his name was back in the news as he was arrested for marijuana possession.
Since 1994, Culkin has sporadically popped up in certain movies and television programs. In 2003, him and longtime collaborator, Seth Green, starred in the weird independent flick, Party Monster. The duo assumed the roles of a couple of New York club dwellers who ruled the party scene of the 1980s before the law catches up with them. The character of Michael Alig, who Culkin portrayed, was actually a real-life former New York club promoter who was charged for murder in the late 1990s. Musician, Marilyn Manson, also appears in the film wearing a get-up not dissimilar to his stage attire. This was Culkin’s first on-screen role as an adult and even though it was an ambitious project, reviews weren’t very kind to it.
One year later, he gained positive acclaim for his role as a paraplegic in the religious satire, Saved!. In 2009, he had a recurring role in the NBC series, Kings, which was cancelled after one season. He then made a surprise appearance at the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony in 2010 paying tribute to the recently deceased John Hughes in a touching segment also featuring Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick, and Jon Cryer among others whose careers were launched by Hughes.
Recently, he’s once again worked with Seth Green on his Cartoon Network stop-motion series, Robot Chicken as well as making a few cameo appearances on The Jim Gaffigan Show playing a fictionalized version of himself.
Macaulay Culkin seems to like keeping to himself and pursuing projects outside of acting. He’s a pretty good comedic personality so I hope we see more of him whether it’s the big or small screen.