Book Review:  Forever Young: A Memoir by Hayley Mills

Although I was significantly younger than either of them, my two biggest film star crushes when I was a child were Judy Garland and Hayley Mills. Judy Garland, of course, I knew as the vulnerable but determined young woman wandering through a fantasy land and longing to get back to her home in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz; this movie appeared as a special on TV almost every year when I was young. Hayley Mills was Disney’s most famous child star, first appearing in Pollyanna, and then in a string of other films. When my siblings and I were young, our parents would only let us go to films that were made by Disney; they figured that if the wholesome Disney Studios made them, they must be safe. So we had a lot of exposure to Hayley Mills, who also appeared in the original version of The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners, and That Darn Cat, all for Disney. An interesting side note: after prolonged persuasion, our parents finally broke down and decided to allow the older kids to see the new James Bond film Thunderball. However, when my father drove us downtown, we found out that the box office line of people waiting to get into Thunderball was wrapped around an entire city block; we ended up having to make a substitute, so we went to see Hayley Mills in That Darn Cat instead.

In this memoir, Mills looks back on her early filmmaking years, especially when she was under contract to Disney, from the perspective of a woman now in her seventies. She writes in a sweet and lucid style, casual but detailed. When she was an adolescent and through her teen years, she was famous throughout the world; she even won a special Academy Award for her performance in Pollyanna. I was talking with one of my adult sons, though, and telling him about this memoir, and he admitted that he had never heard of Hayley Mills, and the only one of her movies he’d heard of was The Parent Trap – only he had not seen the original but the remake with Lindsay Lohan.

Hayley Mills is the daughter of the famous British actor John Mills, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Ryan’s Daughter. Hayley had no ambitions to be an actor, and her first appearance in films came about by accident. She was playing in the garden with her younger brother one day while her father was having a discussion with a producer/director about the need to cast an exceptional male child actor for an upcoming film. Watching Hayley, the producer decided on the spot to change the boy into a girl in the script and cast Hayley instead. This was an independent British film called Tiger Bay. When Walt Disney saw it, he became determined to cast Hayley in his new production of Pollyanna. He offered Hayley a studio contract for multiple pictures which her parents initially turned down. They only agreed to let Hayley sign on when Disney also guaranteed John Mills the leading role in Swiss Family Robinson.

The book emphasizes the difficulties that child stars undergo. Although Hayley readily took to acting and usually enjoyed it, she was subject to fits of insecurity and despondency. As she grew older, she also became self-conscious about her weight and for a time she was bulimic, binge eating and then throwing up. When she was twenty years old, she married a producer/director who was thirty-two years older than she was; the marriage only lasted a few years before divorce. Another tragedy that befell her around the same time was the loss of the trust fund that had been set up to hold her earnings until she turned twenty-one. After a years-long court battle, the British Treasury took almost everything, taxing the entire trust fund at over ninety percent and then adding on extra legal fees.

To accompany the reading of this book, I watched a couple of Hayley’s old movies on Disney Plus. The Moon-Spinners is a thriller about a jewel theft set in Crete; it’s the first Disney film in which Hayley has a romantic interest. However, it’s rather bland and unexciting by today’s standards. The original version of The Parent Trap, though, is well-acted, well-paced, and funny, even by modern standards. It made me wonder why they bothered with a remake.

This memoir may appeal mostly to Baby Boomers who remember Hayley Mills, but for people of all ages it provides a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood, the Disney Studios, and filmmaking in general in the 1950s and 1960s.

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