McNichol: Is she a ‘young twerp’ or a hero to youth? Kristy-watchers receiving mixed signals
By Clifford Terry, Chicago Tribune
For years, it seemed that Kristy McNichol was one of those sun-kissed, heaven-ordained juvenile actresses — talented but not mannered, cute but not cloying — who seem to have the world by the ponytail.
She was the quintessential California child — the girl-next-door who could set up a spike at the net — with a touch of Mississippi mud. Becky Thatcher amid the abalone.
In 1977, at the age of 14 — her seventh year in show business — she won the first of two Emmy awards for her performance on the ABC-TV series, “Family,” on which she played Letitia (Buddy) Lawrence, an outspoken tomboy-type who introduced a new Nielsen-household word: “Yucka.” A year later, she was reportedly getting 515,000 an episode. Jane Fonda visited her on the set and pronounced her “brilliant.”
“When she was 15, she made her film debut as Burt Reynolds’ daughter in “The End.” Burt Reynolds said he wished he could adopt Kristy McNichol. Two years later, the All-American Girl image had begun to tire a bit, so she decided to put it in its rightful place. In the opening scene in “Little Darlings,” her first starring role in motion pictures, she kicked a boy in the crotch.
The film got its share of negative reviews, but McNichol came up smelling like the evening air in Beverly Hills. Her subsequent performance in Neil Simon’s “Only When I Laugh,” said one critic, put leading lady Marsha Mason to shame. The movie grossed $12.3 million in just three weeks. McNichol’s price per picture was said to be $1.6 million.
An “organic chemical imbalance”
But things started to change in December 1982, with three weeks of filming left on the romantic comedy, “I Won’t Dance” (since retitled “Just the Way You Are”). MGM announced the $16 million production was being suspended “indefinitely” — it would turn out to be a year — because its 20-year-old star was suffering from an “organic chemical imbalance” that made it impossible for her to continue to work.
More recently, McNichol watchers have been getting other mixed signals. According to which publication you read, she is one of the “current heroes” of American adolescents or one of Hollywood’s “young twerps.”
With the news of the production shutdown, of course, rumors immediately started ricocheting around the canyons and down the freeways. The word was out that Kristy McNichol was on drugs — one more addition to the list of “snow” bunnies.
“It was a pretty stupid thing to say about me,” McNichol responds, as she sips tomato juice in her Chicago hotel suite. “I’m not a drug user, and I’ve even made radio spots against alcoholism. So it was pretty dumb. We all know the names of those magazines and newspapers that print those distortions. That’s what they’re best at: lying.
“Basically, what happened to me was exhaustion. Stress. Pressure from working a long time without taking a year or two off. It all caught up with me. My doctor advised me to rest and not work, and that’s what I did because my health is more important than a movie.”
Asked about reports that she had suffered from bouts of manic depression, she hesitates. “Um… no. No. That wouldn’t be it. There’s really no specific name for what I had.” No medication was required, she adds. Nor was analysis.
“I knew something was wrong, of course. I didn’t feel good. I was depressed, I was tired, I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to work. It all just hit me at the wrong time: right in the middle of a movie.”
Brother Jimmy MacNichol talks
When she returned home to Los Angeles, her older brother, Jimmy — now a regular on ABC’s “General Hospital” — moved into her house. In an article in People magazine, he said that his sister had to leave the production “or she would have been in a mental hospital. She was completely blacking put and losing her memory.”
This summer, he was quoted in Us magazine: “She had some real wild ideas at the time. She thought she was hemorrhaging in her brain, her weight dropped till she was thin as a rail and she cried nonstop.” “It isn’t true,” she says matter-of-factly. “My brother didn’t say that. I wasn’t blacking out. Another exaggeration from one of those stupid magazines. I mean, yeah, he moved in with me, but we were going to do that anyway. Not just because of that. We had a good time together. We went on his boat a lot. Hung out a lot. It really was no big deal.”
In “Just the Way You Are,” directed by Edouard Molinaro (“La Cage aux Folles”) and scheduled to open Nov. 16, she plays a flute player who wears a brace on her leg, devises a scheme to conceal her handicap and heads off for the French Alps, where she falls in love with a handsome photographer (Michael Ontkean).
“Actually, I was ready to go back to work about three months after we shutdown,” she said, “but there was no snow at Megeve (the ski resort where the remaining scenes would be shot), and we had to wait until the next January. So the rest of the year I played. Just played. Something I hadn’t done in a long time. Picking up where we left off was no problem. The snow was the only hang-up.”
Much of her appeal has been based upon her cuddle-me, big-eyed, non-threatening, size 3 looks. When Jodie Foster was playing pubescent hookers and Brooke Shields was squeezing into her Calvin Kleins, Kristy McNichol was saying things like, “I’m just a cute wimpette. My lips are lopsided and my hair sticks up like a chicken.” If she had any choice in the matter, she says now, sitting there in her sweatshirt and jeans, she would look like Jacqueline Bisset.
Like the characters she plays on screen, she smiles easily and frequently. Her answers are cordial, but frequently perfunctory and sometimes downright scanty, especially when tiptoeing is going on around the periphery of her private life. (No steady boyfriend, thank you, and no serious thoughts about marriage and family at the moment. As to an offhand question about her relationship with her mother: “Why should the world know these things?”)
A child star
Her career choice was made when she was 7, after her mother — a former secretary for the William Morris Agency who had divorced her carpenter husband when Kristy was 3 — took her and Jimmy to movie sets to watch her work as an extra.
Her first work was in commercials, which led to small parts on “Love American Style” and “The Bionic Woman,” and bigger ones on “Apple’s Way” and “Starsky and Hutch.” Then came the big break, when she was 13, in “Family,” which ran for five years.
In her first big-screen assignment, “Little Darlings” (1980), she played the street-smart toughie who hooks up in a summer-camp bet with the rich kid (Tatum O’Neal) as to which one loses her virginity first.
She followed with “Only When I Laugh,” as the daughter of an alcoholic trying to make a comeback as both an actress and mother, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” as the hustling younger sister — “16 goin’ on 47” — of a boozing, wenching country music singer-writer (Randy Quaid).
Her next role was that of the daughter of a modern major general in “The Pirate Movie,” a loose adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance” studded with new songs and tips of the hat to Frankie Avalon, Inspector Clouseau and Indiana Jones. (Gilbert and Sullivan undoubtedly stopped twirling in their graves long enough to note that it was both a critical and commercial disaster.)
Then there was “White Dog,” which still has not been released in this country because of its storyline. Directed by cult-figure Sam Fuller and based on a book by Romaine Gary, it stars McNichol as an actress who takes in a German shepherd, only to discover that it has been trained to kill blacks. “It got incredible reviews in Europe and broke box-office records,” she said. “It hasn’t been shown here because people say it’s racist, which is really stupid. It’s an anti-racist film.”
Friends have been quoted as saying that the problems with “Pirate” and “Dog” destroyed her confidence and helped bring on her illness. She herself has said that she didn’t ever want to “have a flop or be a flop.”
“Those people don’t know anything. It’s stupid. I have always said that if a movie does well, I’m very happy, and if it doesn’t do well, my life isn’t going to be ruined.”
An image conflict
As for her current image-conflict, she appears in the November issue of Parents magazine on a list of 21 “famous or important” people most consistently admired over the last four years by 13- and 14-year-olds. (Among the others: Michael Jackson, Judy Blume, Eddie Murphy, Walter Cronkite, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Charles Schulz, Sandra Day O’Connor and John Belushi.)
But last month Us magazine picked her — along with such nominees as Matt Dillon, Daryl Hannah, Sean Penn and Jennifer Beals — as one of “today’s little snots” — a “new breed of performer” characterized by “an overweening arrogance.”
“Few performers,” asserts the caption writer, “have given more gray hair than tough, temperamental Kristy McNichol. Demands for limos, tickets to clubs and favors for her friends have left producers, photographers, editors and publicists on both coasts stunned. The verdict: a case of too much, too soon. She dealt with her early fame in the typical kid’s way — by acting spoiled.”
She flashes a tight smile. “I don’t have any comment. It’s just a bunch of bull, that’s all. I’m not like that. I know I’m not, and people that work with me know that. Most of them. And my friends know that, so I don’t really care.”
Shortly after the shutdown of her movie, there was the inevitable talk that she wouldn’t be hired again. But following the wrap of “Just the Way You Are,” she began shooting “Dream Lover,” a thriller directed by Alan Pakula, scheduled for 1985 release. “As soon as we started that, everything changed. It was, like, oh, she’s fine, everything’s normal again. And it was. But there was never a time I felt I wouldn’t work. Never.
“The all-American girl image has gotten a little sickening. But I think it’s slowly disappearing. I don’t want to be labeled, whether as a bad girl or a goody-goody-two shoes.
I just want to be well respected as an actress. I want to have a good time and have nice holidays, and if a good movie comes up, I’ll do it. One a year. And, hopefully, win an Academy Award. I mean, I made four movies in two years.” Kristy McNichol smiles again, then switches to a schoolgirl singsong. “I’ve learned my lesson.”