Anatomy Of A Stage Parent
What is a stage parent? More importantly, what separates a parent who simply wants the best for their offspring and who want them to achieve what they couldn't, and the ones who want to live vicariously and keep the lifestyle and wealth that their child earns? I'm not a psychologist but I think I have an idea of what strays from normal ambition to perverse domination and exploitation. Child star and later adult character actor Jackie Coogan (1914-1984), filed suit against his mother and stepfather in 1935 for his money that he earned in his childhood acting career and he was awarded only a relatively small sum. Soon thereafter, the Coogan Act was formed - trust funds set up for child actors to protect their earnings.
These examples from the classic Hollywood era are interesting looks into the dynamic between the star child and the stage parent.
It's impossible to talk about stage parents without mentioning Natalie Wood (1938-1981), and her mother, Maria Gurdin. Before the child was even born her mother had apparently been told by a gypsy that her second daughter would be world-famous, and Natalie certainly fit well into Maria's plans. Natalie was her mother's darling, the golden girl - and the youngster would learn that there were both advantages and downsides to that position. Maria had desperately sought the spotlight herself - and it was through Natalie that she was finally able to achieve some semblance of that dream. While as a young girl, Natalie had the perks of being a child star, she missed out on the normalcy of childhood, something that she would come to regret later, causing her to ensure that her own children would have the kind of important and natural experiences of growing up that she had missed out on. When her father's drinking became so out of control that he was unable to hold down jobs for any length of time, Natalie became the family breadwinner, and Maria kept her under tight control. And in something that was very common in these types of households, the other parent and the rest of the children were often pushed into the background. Natalie rebelled, but inevitably, the strong bond she felt toward Maria and her obligation and loyalty for her family was never far from her mind. Many believe that it was Maria who instilled in Natalie her fear of water, in addition to several other phobias.
However, as is often the case with parent-child relationships, Natalie was emotionally dependent upon her mother, and despite strains and tensions over the years, never cut her completely out of her life. She did enjoy acting but at times became worn out from the pressure and publicity. In her late twenties, she took some time off for herself to relax and explore other interests. Being a wife and mother overjoyed her, but she still loved acting and wanted to return to work, if at first only on a part-time basis. It can be argued that Maria pushed her into acting but Natalie had a natural gift that Maria may have tried to take credit for, but was her daughter's and only her daughter's alone. Natalie's death shattered Maria, who had lived for and through her daughter so much that she seemed to have a hard time separating her own identity from Natalie's. In a rather poignant and sad twist of fate, Maria Gurdin suffered from dementia and Alzheimer's disease in her last years, and perhaps her mind found refuge in the past, reliving those memories of her star child.
It's also fascinating, in retrospect, to see how Natalie (and some of the other actresses that will also be written about in this post), a few times played roles in her career that had parallels with her own life and parental relationships. Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Splendor In The Grass (1961), This Property Is Condemned (1966) and especially Gypsy (1962) in which she played the title role in burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee's fictionalized and dramatized life story, may explain why Natalie felt such affinity for these characters. She identified with their struggles, their joys, sorrows, pain and triumphs. And her performances always ring true. It may have hit too close to home but she was proud of her work and what it meant to her.
Sandra Dee (1944-2005) never managed to escape her mother, Mary Douvan, and even after her mom's death she remained a prisoner of her mother's manipulation and cushioning. Sandy was the focus of Mary's life, and would remain so until her mother's death in 1988. But Mary ultimately did her child more harm than good. Not only did she live vicariously through her daughter's movie career, but she prevented her from learning how to make decisions for herself or face the realities behind the walls of the house or the studio. Even Sandra's marriage to Bobby Darin was not able to liberate her from her mother's domination. But Mary also was guilty of what we now see as one the ultimate acts of parental betrayal - she allowed and turned a blind eye to her second husband's sexual abuse of her daughter. This man, Eugene Douvan, died just before Sandra's acting career took her to Hollywood.
Sandra's feelings about her stepfather were ambivalent - on the one hand he subjected her to horrendous abuse, but at the same time he gave her boundaries and allowed her to fit in with kids her own age. Mary wanted the perfect little princess who would never grow up, and the only way for Mary to survive the harsh reality of situations was to pretend that it wasn't happening, no matter what it might cost her daughter. Sandra, as a result of this emotional trauma, developed eating disorders and later alcoholism, which, even the fluffiest of magazine pieces and publicity at the time, is hinted at and glossed over. Sandra's son Dodd Darin, his book biography Dream Lovers: The Magnificently Shattered Lives Of Bobby Darin And Sandra Dee, also notices some disturbing things in the fan magazines - Eugene quoted as saying, "I married you just to get Sandy", and another desperately sad and telling theme - Sandra had no real friends outside of the studio. Mary may have been so lonely that she latched onto her daughter as a way of feeling loved and needed, which may explain why she tried to cater to Sandy's every whim. Unfortunately, Mary did not seem to comprehend that she was not helping her daughter, she was making her into an emotional cripple. Sandra said herself that Mary was the best girlfriend in the world, and the worst mother. Dodd stated he found it nearly impossible to imagine his mother and grandmother apart from one another. Mary also was in denial about Sandy's problems and to Dodd's knowledge, never took responsibility for her role in the situation. But I do believe that Mary loved her daughter, but her behavior strayed far from a healthy norm. Sandra, to the day she passed, struggled to learn the simple things the rest of us take for granted - shopping, cooking, writing checks, taking care of mundane daily tasks. It cannot be denied that Mary's influence played a large role in what happened to Sandra.
Sandra, too, appeared in a few films that emphasized the complexes and tensions of mother-daughter relationships. The Restless Years (1957), A Summer Place and Imitation Of Life (both 1959) not only showed that Sandra could play drama as well as comedy, but one gets the feeling that the emotion she displayed was very real. Although in Imitation Of Life, her character's problem is the opposite of Sandra's real life situation, you can feel the anger, resentment, pain and longing when she confronts her mother. The tears do not feel staged or rehearsed, and her words ring true. Whatever Sandra was feeling when she acted those scenes, she conveyed it to the audience in subtle facial expressions and then with compelling words that still have an impact over fifty years later.
Men were attracted to the beautiful young woman, and while her screen persona conveyed her as a sexy siren, they were surprised to learn how quiet and shy she was in real life. Rita was at odds with her screen image, as her most often quoted statement suggests - "Men fell in love with Gilda, but woke up with me." It has been said that many of the great sex symbols were abused in childhood, and that later in life they seek security and love in relationships with men, and they tend to attract men who have less that noble intentions. Rita, according to her daughter Princess Yasmin Khan, was not close with her father later on. She resented that he put so much pressure on her when she was a child and placing a burden on her that no child should have to carry. When she died in 1987, after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, it's comforting to think that this all too human but gentle woman finally found the peace that she deserved.
I will finish this off by saying I don't claim to know all the details, and while there's nothing wrong with having ambitions for your children, there needs to be a healthy balance in there. Your child's safety, interests and needs have to come first. They need to feel loved, protected, nurtured and especially, allowed to be a child. All of these girls were deprived of that in some fashion, and all of them suffered as a result and it severely affected their sense of self-worth, their emotional security and their future relationships. Children are a gift, and being a parent is a privilege, not a right. Parental love is a critical element in a person's life, and it needs to be given and shown without any strings attached and without conditions.