Off the radar or off the rails? Shirley Temple̢��‰��s death and the struggle of the child star


With Shirley Temple’s death on 10 February 2014, at the age of 85, the world celebrated a child star who lifted a nation’s spirits through the Depression with her ringlet hair and cheeky grin. Temple began her film career as a mere toddler, and went on to reach dizzying heights of fame in films such as Curly Top and Bright Eyes; in which she sang the hugely recognisable ‘On the big ship, Lollipop.’

She gained worldwide popularity and was the single greatest cinematic draw from 1935-38, during which time she was marketed to the world as the epitome of childish innocence, a shining light who was able to melt the coldest of heart. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt professed that “as long our country has Shirley Temple, we’ll be all right.”

Despite this mammoth fame, Temple was unable to make the transition between child star and fully-fledged adult actress, and after a series of box office flops she retired from the industry in 1950. Following this, she married twice, had three children, ventured into politics, and dedicating her adult life to public service as a diplomat.

She chose to leave the glitz and glamour behind – a common story for child stars who can no longer maintain their appeal in the fickle land of Hollywood. 

Even 60 years after Temple’s retirement from films, her story inspires generations of child stars. Yet despite their talent, they become a brand and inevitably grow out of their child-like or comic youthfulness resulting in Hollywood casting them aside.

It seems that many child and teen stars either go off the radar or off the rails. Mara Wilson, known for her roles in Matilda and Mrs Doubtfire, now works for a non-profit organisation while child stars like Lindsay Lohan and Drew Barrymore find themselves in rehab.

Not to mention the countless TV and film stars who have drifted away from public eye, enjoying ordinary lives and occasionally being recognised as “that kid from that show.” For a star like Miley Cyrus, who is attempting to shake off her sickly-sweet Disney image with shameless attention-grabbing outfits and provocative music videos, it is clear that loosing the spotlight is unthinkable for some.

Child stars who successfully make the transition must work hard and choose demanding roles where they can prove themselves amongst the acting heavyweights. Success stories include Natalie Portman and Elijah Wood who have manoeuvred the tricky stage of adolescence, and come out with a well-deserved place on the A-List.

Despite the success stories, one cannot help but think that a childhood should be a childhood. Children should be crying over grazed knees, not awards they have missed out on. But fame, however short-lived, has left Shirley Temple a household name that is remembered fondly; begging the question of whether it is better to have that moment in the spotlight and lose it, than to never have had it at all.

Bethany McLean


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