Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Thinking of Kristy - and madness

This all started when I clicked on Google News and noticed (in the Entertainment section) that the impressive Jodie Foster was working on a new film. That took me back to my first view of Jodie Foster as a child -- when she played the spunky Addie in the short-lived television series _Paper Moon_, a role which, at the time, I was rather puzzled about ("is Jodie Foster a girl or a boy?" I remember asking my mother during the first episode that I saw, since she was always bundled up in boy's clothes until finally, in one episode, she wore a dress as part of a con). I did a quick Google to find out how things had gone for her over the years. Seems she's even more impressive than I remembered -- graduating from elite prep school and elite college, her own movie production company (for a while), kick-butt kick boxer, and otherwise being someone who's both talented and making good use of that talent.

Then I wondered what had happened to other girl child actors of that era, such as Tatum O'Neal, Brooke Shields (admittedly, she wasn't much of an actor), and Kristy McNichol.

Well, Tatum O'Neal has a tell-all book out where she talks about just how messed up life really was for her back then and just how bad an actor she really was as a kid (turns out that her bravura performance in the movie version of _Paper Moon_, that won her an Oscar for supporting actress at the lofty age of 10 years old, should properly have belonged to the director of that movie, who managed to coax, nudge, and coach her through sometimes dozens of takes until she finally got her lines right -- sat 9 years old, she could not read well enough to memorize her lines by herself). Seems that even during her teen years, while supposedly under the guardianship of her father Ryan, she was doing enough drugs to keep the Columbian drug lords in business all by herself, and only recently has dried out enough to even think about trying to revive her movie career. Given that her tell-all book appears to have pissed off most of Hollywood, it's unlikely.

Brooke Shields is, well, Brooke. Like most models-turned-actress, she'll never go down in history as one of the world's great actresses. But given her limited talents (she is not one of those who took to acting as a natural, she's been taking acting lessons almost continuously since childhood with mixed results), she's done quite well for herself. Her sitcom _Suddenly Susan_ was fluff, but it was entertaining fluff for the most part. Since it left the air in 2000, she's kept busy doing similar fluff, and another comedy movie with her in a top role is about to come out.

Kristy McNichol... oh my. My memory of Kristy was from the soapy series Family from the 1970's. I must admit that, as a kid about the same age as Kristy, I had a bit of a crush on Kristy. She had that whole courageous tough-but-fragile dark-eyed sad kid thing going big time. Her characters such as her role as Carly in The Pinballs were snarky before snarky was a word, and as a typical confused kid of the 70's (a decade marked by disasters from the final confused disaster of Vietnam to the multiple oil shocks of 1973 and 1978, the Iran hostage crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, etc), well, I could empathize. Having a crush on Jody was not possible (let's face it, Jody Foster is the kind of person you admire from a distance, not someone you want to get close to... you get the feeling that she might *hurt* you if you get too close). Brooke had not yet starred in anything but commercials, where she was astonishingly beautiful but not a name yet. But Kristy... as a kid I hated Family, which was too much like a soap opera for my tastes, but occasionally watched it just to see Kristy's character "Buddy" in action (a role for which Kristy won two Emmies for Best Supporting Actress). "Buddy" was the kind of kid that you just wanted to hug and say "You're a great kid and everything's going to turn out just fine."

So anyhow, I did some googling on Kristy. And all I have to say is, what a shame. What a damned shame.

Child actors are notoriously difficult to direct. McCaulley Culkin threw temper tantrums on the set of Home Alone. Tatum O'Neal couldn't read well enough to memorize her lines on the set of Paper Moon, and was apparently quite confused about the whole notion of "acting". Similar stories are rife in the industry. None of those stories are ever told about Kristy McNichol. Her former cast members all remark on how professional she was as a child actor. She came on the set, the director handed her a copy of the script five minutes before shooting, she read it once, then she got out there and *nailed* it, first take. She had talent, they all agree. The quality of her scripts was sometimes dubious, but she'd usually find some way to make even the most ludicrous of lines work.

But she was also slowly going mad.

First a digression: Bipolar disorder. This is classified by the psych domeheads as a "mood disorder". It is characterized by wild mood swings, from manic to depressive, that interfere with a person's ability to function. Everybody has mood swings. But the brain chemistry of people with bipolar disorder is such that these mood swings are more severe than with normal people. People with mild bipolar disorder just seem a bit more moody than "normal" people. But for people with severe bipolar disorder, when they're in their "depressed" state, they're near catatonic. When they're in their "manic" state, they are so hyper it is as if they're on crack cocaine. In fact, the chemistry inside the brain when they are "high" is such that it is close to what cocaine produces. In severe cases, where they are so hyper that they cannot even sleep, they will even have sleep-deprivation hallucinations after a few days.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder. For mild cases, people can manage without drugs by simply avoiding stressful situations that would cause one to become depressed or excited. Developing coping skills also helps, such as knowing how to take care of yourself so that nothing in your daily life is particularly stressful, and having a perspective towards life where nothing really matters that much, you go out and do your best and what happens happens. For more severe cases, you have to do all that, but it also takes medication to damp out the mood swings, usually lithium, which is a poisonous metal that interferes with brain function. Too much lithium, and it turns you into a zombie by interfering with the high-order function of the brain (and a little over that and it will kill you by destroying your liver). Too little lithium, and it doesn't interfere enough with the mood controlling areas of the brain to damp out the swings enough to make you functional. Thus people on lithium therapy need very careful monitoring of their blood levels of lithium to keep it within the therapeutic range. A change in activity level which would change that blood level abruptly is to be avoided, because either the level will fall below therapeutic range, or if the dosage is adjusted for the new activity level and then you change activity level back to the original, lithium could accumulate in your body at levels that could kill you. (Note: There are a couple of other medications used for bipolar disorder other than lithium, but they have similar properties).

In other words, even medication is not a panacea for bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder can function quite well and be productive members of society -- as long as they're not in highly stressful professions that will make it hard to control their lithium levels and moods. Professions like, say, hairdresser or technical writer, where every new day is pretty much like the last one, would be ideal for someone with bipolar disorder. Acting, on the other hand...

And here was Kristy McNichol, not knowing that there was something way wrong in her brain, bravely soldiering on, using professionalism as her shield. The triggers were there, if anybody had known to look. Her relationship to her mother (an aspiring actress who was apparently jealous of her success) where her mother was mildly emotionally abusive such that Kristy very much wanted to please her mother (there goes that coping skill "keeping things in perspective"). The poor level of education that she received (unlike Jody Foster and Brooke Shields, she never received a world-class high school and college education), which in turn reduced her ability to cope with grown-up stuff. The isolation of being a child actor for basically 12 months per year between commercials, specials, and her acting on Family, where she never really learned how to deal with her age-level peers (oops, there goes another bunch of coping skills). Then add in the fact that she never had much nurturing, indeed, as the "responsible" child in a disfunctional family she was the one who "mothered" her mother and older brother who apparently were both rather irresponsible screw-ups. She would have been a screwed up kid even without bipolar disorder thrown into the mix. Add that to the chemical (mal)-functioning of her brain, and she was a ticking time bomb.

As long as she was still a child actor with everything managed and structured for her she could keep her moods stabilized enough to function. But she was already exhibiting warning signs. Her interviews with teen magazines where she expressed admiration of Donny Osmond because "he was part of a strong stable family" and where she expressed admiration for "law and order" were cries for a stability she didn't have in her emotional and family life. Then she reached eighteen, and was basically tossed out into the world, and was utterly unprepared and unable to cope.

All she knew was acting. She tried to cope by basically accepting any script that came along just to keep herself busy and not having to think about anything, as a result making a series of bombs, the most successful of which was Little Darlings (where she co-starred with Tatum O'Neal) where she again played the tough-but-fragile dark-eyed sad kid and managed with pure talent to pull out an adequate movie from a ludicrous concept and mediocre script. In the meantime, her personal life was a mess. In her manic stages (where people thought she was high on cocaine) she spent extravagantly and ran up enormous debts. But when it was time to perform, she marched out on the set, slipped into her role, and nailed it. In her depressive stages, she basically soldiered through by squaring her shoulders, taking a deep breath, marching out to war with her briefcase, performing like the talented professional that she was, then marching back to her room where she bawled her eyes out with sadness.

Eventually it came to a head when making another bomb (this time in Switzerland) while in her depressive mode. Far from home, far from any emotional support, she soldiered through so well that her fellow cast members didn't realize anything was wrong at all. But she wasn't eating, she wasn't sleeping well, she was crying all the time when not in the presence of other cast members, she was an utter mess, and she knew it and didn't know how long she could keep going on. At home over the Christmas break, she confided this to her older brother, who, alarmed, got her an appointment with a psychiatrist. That was when she found out that the mood control section of her brain wasn't doing its job.

With the help of the psychiatrist and her older brother (who for a change was doing the nurturing) she managed to put herself back together, learned the coping skills she needed to cope with ordinary life, got her relationship with her mother straightened out, got her finances back in order, finished the movie she'd had to abort, and learned a new skill (hairdressing) in case she was never capable of going back to acting again. At this point her disorder was such that it could be controlled without medication. Eventually she got a role in a sitcom called "Empty Nest", and by carefully structuring her life managed to keep on with that series for four years. When she reached age 30, though, her condition worsened such that she needed medication. Reluctantly she concluded that her life as an actor was incompatible with the medication that she needed in order to damp down the mood swings to an acceptable level, and withdrew from the show and, largely, from Hollywood.

The fact that Kristy survives at all, and apparently functional and without ever having a drug or alcohol habit, is the miracle. She will never again star in a television series or movie despite the fact that she has more acting talent in her little pinky than Brooke Shields has in her entire body. But sometimes survival is the best you can do. The fact that she has managed more than survival -- that, apparently, she is still capable of taking bit roles and teach drama in a private high school in Hollywood -- shows just how courageous a lady she is. She loved acting. Still does, obviously, since she teaches it. The fact that she just physically could not act as a career anymore could have destroyed her, she could have descended into the same mess of drugs and alcohol that consumed so many other of her peers, eventually becoming one of those "actress died of overdose" stories. She didn't let it happen. Like the courageous sad-eyed tough-but-vulnerable kids she played so many years ago, she manages to keep on living as best she can. Kristy was, indeed, worthy of my twelve year old self's adoration -- and still is. Godspeed and good luck, Kristy McNichol.

- Badtux the Reminiscing Penguin

Posted by: BadTux / 1/30/2005 01:02:00 PM  


This article moved me... It was very well said. Kristy McNichol, is a credit to her generation. Her God given talent precedes her. She made her mark on Hollywood. In my opinion she is a better person for all she endured. She has taken her acting abilities and chose to enrich and inspire the talents of new comers. What greater gift could she possibly give back to the entertainment world?

Denny Bennett - Bay Shore,NY
# posted by Denny : 3/1/07 5:57 PM  

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