Forever My Girl

 

Anna Chlumsky, Teen Angel

 

by Veronica Chambers

from Premiere March 1994

 

It's that Lolita thing. The way girl starts change into a woman, both

quickly and softly, like a piece of pottery being thrown at top spin. Anna

Chlumsky was just ten years old when her first movie, "My Girl" was shot.

Now she is thirteen - an age that might be less awkward for her than it's

been for the makers of "My Girl 2", who at the outset of filming hadn't seen

Anna in two (hormonically significant) years. As producer Brian Grazer

delicately puts it, "She's starting to have breasts and stuff you know what

I mean?"

 

Director Howard Zieff, who back in 1990 chose an unknown Anna over hundreds

of other little girls, is positively wistful on the subject. "She's much

more womanly now", he says "And she behaves like a woman: much more adult,

much more intelligent. In some ways I hated to see the child dissappear,

'cause she had a great appeal as a child. It's so startling to see this

woman's figure up on this little girl."

 

Today she strolls through the Art Institute of Chicago with her mother, Anna

Chlumsky looks like any other suburban girl. Dressed in an extra large

blue-and-coral sweater and jeans, she does seem substantially changed from

the little girl she played in "My Girl" - taller, less pixieish. She's

pretty but in that odd way that differentiates actresses from models, an

adolescent Juliette Lewis opposed to the junior high school Cindy Crawford.

At the age when psychologists say most girls start to cave in to societal

definitions of feminity and are less likely to voice their own opinions, she

seems confident and comfortable expressing her point of view.

 

"This is my favorite painting", she says pointing to "In the Circus

Fernando: The Ringmaster". Why? "I just like Toulouse-Lautrec. I've seen

this one since I was in second grade and have liked it ever since." She

passes by a Monet and suggest her guest visit Giverny in France: "You have

to go in the summer. June is the best." Then she stares at the museum's

prize piece, Seurat's "A Sunday on la Grande Jatte - 1884". She seems

puzzled. "Don't you remember this painting being much bigger?" she asks her

mom.

 

Her mother laughs sweetly, like the mom in any feel-good movie. "But of

course, Anna," she says. "You were much smaller then.

 

Nancy Chlumsky remembers that when she brought her ten-year-old Anna to

Orlando, Florida, for the filming of the first "My Girl", she purchased two

season passes to nearby Sea World. "I thought, This is great - we can see

whales anytime we want to." They went just twice. I had no idea how busy

(she) would be," says Nancy.

 

Anna became the darling of the set, and while stage mothers are often movie

pariahs, both Zieff and Grazer speak highly of Nancy. "Ron (Howard) is the

most unique case of a person who grew up onstage and is still a normanl,

cool person," says Grazer. "It's so rare; I've been involved in some really

sad situations. It won't happen to Anna 'cause her mom doesn't live the same

way. her mom's kind of spiritual, a little hippie, you know? She's cool."

 

Cool, perhaps, but Nancy says she spent much of "My Girl worrying whether

she had done the right to her daughter. At night, she says, "I just prayed

and prayed that we did the right thing. I didn't want her to be unhappy. I

just wanted her to be happy. She doesn't have to be a movie star."

 

In fact Anna might have been playing the lead but she wasn't really the

movie's star. That honor belonged to Macaulay Culkin, who had hit

megastardom the year before with "Home Alone". Culkin was actually casted

two weeks before "Home Alone" opened, hired by Grazer for a supporting role

in "My Girl" and paid what at the time seemed an astronomical sum: $1

million. "Everybody in the whole town critisized me," he recalls. "'What a

stupid thing, Grazer.'" When "Home Alone went through the roof and "My Girl"

did $60 million, Grazer says with satisfaction, "It all worked out."

 

What didn't work out was that the script for "My Girl" killed of the movie's

golden child. It took the filmmakers a year to come up with a plausible

sequel to the life and times of young Vada Sultenfuss (Chlumsky). The new

story line sends Vada off to California to stay with her Uncle Phil (Richard

Masur) in order to learn more about her mother, who died in childbirth.

Hoping to recapture the chemistry Anna had with Mac, the script also has a

love interest for young Vada and, yes, another kiss. Anna was hoping that

her pal Matt Doherty ("The Mighty Ducks") would get the role but Columbia

Pictures had another idea: "Last Action Hero"'s Austin O'Brien.

 

"The studio felt... the studio suggested Austin to me,because they felt

"Last Action Hero" was gonna be a big hit.," says Zieff. "They thought he

would be a major star coming out of there." But Zieff insists, "When I met

him, I liked him very much."

 

All the same, the success of "My Girl 2" now rests squarely on the appeal of

Anna, who has passed on nearly all projects since the first movie and is

starting to comprehend the new ways people are thinking of her. On the first

movie, she says, "since Mac and I were younger, a lot of people thought,

Well, they're kids. I'm not really good with kids, and just left us alone.

On the second one, since I was older, more people would talk to me."

 

But at a time when concern is rising over the potentially exploitative

relationships between child actors and their parents, Anna and Nancy

Chlumsky offer a salubrious example of what such a relationship would be

like. For a while she enjoys performing, Anna thrives her life in Chicago

and expresses particular contempt for any sort of special treatment, like

the prospect of attending a performing arts school or a professional

children's school. "That's a bunch of stupid stuff," she says dismissively.

"That's for people who think they're big hotshot professional people. I just

want to be a regular kid - and movies are for money."

 

"What kind of music do you like?" Anna asks her guest as they drive the

Chlumsky Mitsubishi. Hiphop, she is told. Anna, sitting in the front seat

reaches the radio dial and deftly finds the local rap station. Her mother

smiles, then grimaces. "I think I can stand about five minutes of this

before I go crazy." The guest concours, and Anna moves the knob to her

favorite oldies station.

 

Anna has show biz in her genes: Her father was a saxophone player who now

owns a restaurant in Wisconsin; he and Nancy Chlumsky were divorced when

Anna was two, but she still plays his clarinet in the school band. Her

great-grandfather owned a trained bear that appeared in Three Stooges

movies. Her grandmother's prom dress was a costume for "Frankenstein". Now

41, Nancy has worked as a Chicago stage actress, "but I'm not in the same

cathegory as Anna . I'm more a day player."

 

Despite Nancy's acting background, it was one of her day jobs that began

Anna's career. A coworker at Eastern Airlines had children who did local

modeling and suggested that Nancy list Anna with agency when she was three

months old. Anna modeled periodically for the next six or seven years,

appearing in department store ads and the zenith of Chicago modeling jobs,

the Sears catalog.

 

Then at age eight, Anna decided it was time for career change. "I quit

(modeling) because I didn't like it anymore. I was getting so tired of it."

Having accompanied her mother on the auditions, Anna begged for a chance to

act. They tried a local production of "Annie" and they both got in. One play

later the audition for "My Girl" came up, and Anna won the role after Zieff

flew to Chicago to meet her.

 

Once cast, Nancy told the filmmakers that "she wasn't a prima donna and they

shouldn't spoil her." They didn't but it wasn't for lack of trying: "It was

weird to have everyone waiting on you," says Anna. "It's, like, 'Anna wants

milk!' 'Anna wants milk!' 'Anna wants milk!'"

 

By all accounts, Anna's gut instict is as good as it gets. Zieff tells the

story of how, on the first "My Girl", Anna had to cry all day for the

consecutive days: "She hadto come running to her schoolteacher's house and

tell him she loves him. She'd just come from a funeral and she had run out

of tears. And she said, 'Okay, give me a minute, Howard.' This was the last

shooting day of the movie, and she walked around and looked at all the crew

members' face. Then she started to cry."

 

"It's really hard to end a movie", says Anna. I made really, really good

friends with the soundmen on the first one. It was really hard to leave."

 

"We went to the wrap party and Anna cried hr eyes out," Nancy recalls. "She

was just devastated. But she kept in touch with people and little by little,

she was able to deal with it."

 

While the toughest scene for Anna in the first "My Girl" was Mac's funeral,

the second movie also has it's teary moments. "Vada sees movies of her

mother before she dies," says Nancy. "And of course she's supposed to be sad

and happy - a mix of feelings. Before that scene my dad had come to visit us

and he'd brought movies of my mother, Anna's grandmother. My mother has had

Alzheimer's ever since Anna can remember - but (in) these black-and-white

movies that my dad shot some 30 or 40 years ago, my mom was really

beautiful. We didn't have sound, but there she was, having fun with my dad

at a masquerade party. We were all so moved watching it - Anna, my dad and

I. Anna was able to use that for the sequel of the movie.

 

Although they received "lots and lots of scripts" after "My Girl", Nancy

Chlumsky keeps a form in rule: "One project a year and maybe a summer

project, if there is such a thing." She says they passed "Beethoven" and the

upcoming "Lassie"; one producer was so interested in developing a sitcom

around Anna that he offered to shoot it in Chicago. Nancy said no to that

too, because it would have kept Anna out of the school.

 

"We took baths most of the last year," Nancy says "because the shower was

broken." Why didn't she simply get it fixed? "Couldn't afford it," she says.

Anna may be a child star but she lives within her mother's means. The

Chlumskys live in a sweet, modest house in a lower-middle-class suburb of

Chicago, and Anna attends a small private school in a small Illinois town.

 

"When 'My Girl' come out, I wanted to talk to her about a private screening

we were having at the school," says her principal. "She came in looking very

ominous: 'Did I do something wrong?' I said no, and we talked. But as she

left, she put her hands over her face and burst into tears, saying, 'Oh! He

hit me!' Then she gave me this big smirk. That's Anna.

 

Anna's made only one movie besides the two "My Girl" projects, a feature

with Sissy Spacek called "Trading Mom". But she has some very definite ideas

of whom she'd like to work with next: "Robert Sean Leonard," she says

blushing. "Elijah Wood. He's good in everything."

 

On the subject of romance, Anna says, "I have a boyfriend but I'm not dating

yet. It's like the preteen thing of 'Do you wanna be my girlfrien' 'Yeah'"

 

Nancy still seems uneasy about the choises she's making regarding her

daughter's career. Is it right for children to be pressed into making such

high-profile movies? "Kit Culkin (Macaulay's father) put it real well to me

a long time ago: 'Everybody says this isn't normal for a child.

 

But somebody put that baseball bat in that child's hand.' He was talking

about these little boys in Little League, playing five days a week and

Saturdays too."

 

All the same Nancy refuses to move to L.A., and Anna agrees. "I really don't

like L.A. at all, "Anna says. "It's, like, you can have it. I just want to

stay home and be a regular kid."

 

END

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