Some movie stars we fall in love with. Others we grow up with. It’s the latter who may be the longest lasting.
The thought is prompted by two movies, one new and one old. The new one is “Let Him Go,” a current theatrical release that stars Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as a retired Montana couple on a mission to rescue their young grandson. The old film is “Smooth Talk,” a 1985 drama getting a restoration rerelease at virtual theaters, including Brookline’s Coolidge Corner; adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates short story, it stars a 17-year-old Laura Dern as a restless California adolescent.
Dern, of course, is now a household name — a recent Oscar winner for “A Marriage Story” and an actress who has anchored both blockbusters (“Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) and audacious works of cinema (her career-long loyalty, richly rewarded, to David Lynch). She’s not exactly A-list; she’s too smart for that, and too attracted to risk. But after 40 years in the movies — Dern’s first credited role was in 1980′s “Foxes” — she can seem as familiar and welcome as an old friend.
For her part, Lane first appeared on film at the age of 13 in 1979′s “A Little Romance,” opposite Laurence Olivier, and subsequently held her own in the Brat Pack boys’ club of Francis Ford Coppola’s S.E. Hinton adaptations, “Rumblefish” and “The Outsiders” (both 1983). She has matured over the decades into one of the most reliable bets in the movies, rarely nominated for awards while turning in wise, nuanced portrayals of women who mirror the dilemmas and dreams of her audiences. “Unfaithful” (2002) was probably her most successful movie; “A Walk on the Moon” (1999) perhaps her most beloved. Both center on infidelity with the nerve, the insights, and the empathy of a classic woman’s picture.
To come across Dern or Lane in a movie is to know you’re in good hands. It’s also to appreciate our memories of all the movies they’ve appeared in and how their onscreen personas have grown and shifted course the way people’s lives do. They share those qualities with a handful of actors who might be thought of as members of our pop-culture family — our movie siblings, if you’re around the same age as they.
Such actors include Jodie Foster, who many of us have followed from childhood tomboy roles, family films, and daring early choices — she was in both “Freaky Friday” and “Taxi Driver” in 1976! — into a mature career of two best actress Oscars and a reputation as one of the most respected, well-liked professionals in the business. Or Christian Bale, who a lot of people saw as the 13-year-old boy cast to the whims of war in 1987′s “Empire of the Sun” and knew right then had the goods. (Everything since has been a confirmation of that promise — and often a doubling down on it.) And who knew that the floppy-haired alien kid on NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” would grow up to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt: actor, director, entrepreneur?
Some we’ve been watching almost since infancy, it seems. Drew Barrymore was 6 when she filmed “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” (1982). Anna Paquin was 9 when she appeared in “The Piano” (1993) and became the second-youngest Oscar winner ever (after Tatum O’Neal). Ron Howard was 5 during the first season of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Their childhoods seemed to parallel our childhoods, and the fascination and drama of their careers lay in seeing who they became as they left childhood behind. Barrymore famously hit the skids early — she was in rehab at 13 — before emerging as a savvy, confident romantic lead. Paquin forged a filmography as fearless as her debut, marked by “Margaret” on film and “True Blood” on TV. Howard famously became ’50s teenager Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” and even more famously one of the film industry’s best-known directors.
For each of these performers, there are dozens of youthful performers who didn’t grow up into stars. Sometimes they tired or burned out of the life; sometimes they just didn’t click onscreen as adults. Shirley Temple remains the test case: an international sensation as a toddler and a likably bland actress as a grown-up. Why is Ron Howard on top of the Hollywood pile and Jerry “Leave It To Beaver” Mathers stuck on the nostalgia circuit? Why did Drew Barrymore come through the fire while Lindsay Lohan didn’t?
It’s too easy to say talent or character are factors when luck and courage and the whims of casting agents can be just as critical. Diane Lane almost played the mermaid in “Splash,” the hooker in “Risky Business,” and the Julia Roberts role in “Pretty Woman,” any of which would have made for a different career than the (very satisfying) one she has had. Interestingly, both Lane and Dern declared independence from their parents and handlers at an early age; they have steered their own ships. Perhaps that’s the difference.
Perhaps that’s why Kurt Russell’s maturation from 1960s Disney whiz kid to the raspy, eye-patched, post-apocalyptic Snake Plissken of “Escape From New York” (1981) was such a trip — in that changeup one saw ambition and self-determination. It’s the same thrill you got when you realized Larry Fishburne, the 15-year-old kid soldier of “Apocalypse Now” (1979), had become Laurence Fishburne, the patriarch of “Boyz N the Hood” (1991) and Morpheus in “The Matrix” (1999). This carries over to pop music as well: Listening to “Little Stevie” Wonder become his own man over five albums in the early 1970s was an unforgettable experience. The same was true of Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s — for a while.
If you have a chance, get a look at that early Laura Dern film “Smooth Talk.” Directed by Joyce Chopra — one of far too many women directors whose subsequent career wasn’t anything like it should have been — the film casts the young Dern as Connie, a high school sophomore in rebellion against her mother (Mary Kay Place) and pushing against the boundaries of her sexuality. When she meets a handsome older stranger (Treat Williams), the movie takes a darker, more ambiguous turn, and the final scenes are unsettling in ways Connie and the audience don’t quite know how to put into words. “Smooth Talk” deserves to be better known for its ideas about young women’s desires and discontents and for Dern’s raw, intuitive performance. Watching the movie now, you can see in chrysalis the bold and gifted actor we celebrate today.