Hayley Mills is one of those personalities who for some of us, has always been there. It’s difficult to triangulate the first time I discovered her work. Pollyanna and The Parent Trap entered my consciousness at a very young age and even though I was born more than twenty years after these movies initially hit theaters, I feel like I grew up with her. Hayley Mills personified the teenager I wanted to become. In her new book, Forever Young: A Memoir, Mills finally takes some time to look back on her life. Her story is at times so fascinating, dramatic and even turbulent, but throughout everything, she tells her story with such a grounded clarity that I wish I’d read this book as a teenager.
Hayley Mills is of course, best known to most audiences thanks to her prolific work with Walt Disney during the first half of the 1960s in movies like The Parent Trap, Pollyanna and That Darn Cat. In her much anticipated memoir, she talks about not only her experience with the Disney organization, but her youth spent deeply engrained in and around the entertainment industry in the United Kingdom, thanks to her legendary father John Mills.
There is always one major question in stories like these: what form will the “trials and tribulations” of child stardom take. Throughout this book, Mills is incredibly candid in describing her struggles with weight, self-image and self-esteem. While most are more than familiar with the substance abuse issues with which so many child stars struggle, the psychological issues she describes often take a back seat. Though, this doesn’t change the fact that these are growing pains to which many people can relate.
As a young woman, Mills’ description of her own struggles struck a real chord with me. These aren’t generational issues. These aren’t child star problems. These are common, relatable and inherent struggles many experience while growing up. However, it is still very rare that we talk about these issues and as such, many suffer in silence. Nothing Mills writes about (except perhaps being so close to Sir. Richard Attenborough that he’s known as ‘Dickie’) is uncommon. She just had to face these struggles in the public eye.
Mills paints a vivd portrait of growing up in the industry during a particularly vibrant period. While the narrative is tinged a bit with some of the haziness that comes with age (and being so young during much of the story), Mills writes openly about the punch drunk nature of stardom during this time. One minute she’s hanging out with Andy Williams and Richard Chamberlain, later with The Beatles and Judy Garland… heck, even Kevin McCarthy is mentioned! This isn’t even touching her childhood spent with “Larry” Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison and “Dickie” Attenborough. I certainly found myself wanting more details (this fascinating collection of characters is too delightful to ignore); however, as mentioned, there’s a sense that Mills ‘adolescence and her struggles with her self-image (in an industry which relies on being secure in oneself) made it difficult to really get to know anyone. People rotated into her sphere only to leave her alone just as quickly.
Mills is likewise blunt and clearheaded about her relationship and marriage to producer and filmmaker Roy Boulting (who was more than thirty years her senior). The relationship struggled under the weight of pre-conceived notions and public outcry, particularly coming in the late 1960s when Mills was still best known as a Disney darling. In fact, while I didn’t know many details before I started this book, I still knew of her relationship with a “much older man” which seemed to overshadow some of her later work.
It’s refreshing (and important) to read Mills put her own words behind this relationship. She takes the power back from the media and expands on her life during this time. It quickly becomes clear that the flawed (but popular) readings of Boulting as Humbert Humbert to Mills’ Lolita, or even Mills as a gold-digger with daddy issues targeting Boulting to further her career are deeply flawed and the inherent “grey” in the relationship comes to the forefront. We see Mills as a young woman desperate for any kind of emotional involvement falling for a man with his own problems who seems “fragile” and “needing fixing”. She writes poignantly about the struggles in the marriage, as well as the pain of staying together far longer than is healthy out of fear of breaking up. These are personal and deep-seated emotions which I know I can understand all too well, and others certainly will as well.
At the same time, her discussion of her family life is shrouded in complexity as well. As mentioned, her father was the legendary actor Sir. John Mills and her mother was writer Mary Hayley Bell. There’s never a hostile word written about either one. In fact, Mills clearly brings a tremendous amount of love for her famous father. A sparkling, affectionate portrayal of the screen legend leaps off the page. However, hindsight brings a complicated sense of her parents humanity and the frailty which is often difficult to see as a child. Mills writes about the all-encompassing nature of her father’s career (Sir John ranks alongside Sir Laurence Olivier as one of the titans of British acting). Her revelations that “we fit into my parent’s life, not the other way around” is coldly telling as is her addition that John Mills didn’t win an Oscar until 1971 after her parents didn’t tell her (nor photograph her) with the juvenile Oscar she was awarded in 1961. With the perspective of age, Mills avoids showing any hostility towards them, and instead focuses on their struggle. It’s a difficult lesson when we learn our parents don’t have all the answers. These titans of their respective fields suddenly become merely two parents struggling with the explosion of their own daughter’s stardom in the face of their own challenging careers.
Hayley Mills’ autobiography, Forever Young: A Memoir is an interesting and poignant read, definitely worth a look for not only fans of her career, but students of this era in history. She paints such a clear eyed picture of stardom, the film industry and being a young woman during an incredibly colorful era. In these pages she takes back the power and tells her own story with warts and all. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Forever Young: A Memoir is available to read now, wherever you get your books.
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!