Saturday, March 3, 2012

Peter Pan Is A True Lost Boy

Bobby Driscoll
As I worked on my brief Peter Pan retrospective, I found out that in a technical sense, Bobby Driscoll was the first male to play the boy who never grew up when he was the voice in the Disney animated feature of Peter Pan.  He was also the model for the animators, so if one wants to look at it in a certain way, Driscoll was doing an early version of motion-capture.

Today, Bobby Driscoll would have been 75.  Instead, he's been buried and forgotten for 44 years, still in a potter's field, having lived for an all-too brief 31.  If he had been alive, there would have been a chance he would be featured as a "Disney legend", with tales to tell about his time at the Walt Disney Studios.  As it stands, Driscoll now is a vague figure in the annals of filmmaking.  I can't help think that he's not like Peter Pan; in a way, yes, he will never grow up.  However, I think he's more like Peter's shadow, which got away and wanders, lost and detached from reality.

It's unfortunate that Hollywood is filled with tales of young stars who are beloved as children only to end in sad and sorry situations: from Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer to Sal Mineo right on down to River Phoenix and Brad Renfro.  There are a few that manage to go from child to adult on screen and in life with few if any side effects: Shirley Temple (the gold standard of child stars), Margaret O'Brien, and more recently Dakota Fanning, Daniel Ratcliffe (in fact, almost all the Harry Potter young cast), and Kirsten Dunst come to mind.

Somehow, Driscoll's story appears to be sadder than the rest.  He wasn't the first child star to be consumed by the drugs he himself consumed.  However, the end result for him is unique in its tawdriness and sheer sorry circumstances of it all.

It all started out so well: a personal protogĂ© of Walt Disney, he started out as the ideal boy on film.  I can't say for certain how good or bad he was in Song of the South (given how the Disney Company has opted not to release the film in America), but his youthful work in So Dear to My Heart and the drama The Window led to this:

An honorary Juvenile Oscar in 1950. 

It would appear that Driscoll had a good thing going, and seeing how Disney became expert in creating films (and later, television shows) for the young market, he might have gone on to other things.  Certainly such Disney alumni as Annette Funicello to Kurt Russell to Jodie Foster have been able to navigate the choppy waters of adult fame and come out of it as successful individuals and artists.

However, unlike Peter Pan, Driscoll did grow up, and when he did Disney did not appear to think he would grow up into a leading man or even a sympathetic character.  Once the resources of the studio were pulled (along with his contract), Driscoll began a slow march to the grave.

Drugs were the outlet for his frustrations, his fears, and his escape from the taunts of people who had decided he was never going to be accepted as an adult.  It isn't as if he didn't try to get an acting career going again, but he was hampered by two things.  One, he was still seen as a 'child', so the transition did not go over well.  Two, his own vices got the better of him.

It isn't fair to say he didn't have a hand in his own destruction.  Driscoll turned to drugs to supplement his internal situation, and he made that decision.  Taunts can be a hard thing to endure, especially after coming off a world that held you up, catered to you, even gave you a special Oscar. 

It's at this juncture where people can decide what to do.  Some, like Temple, decided to turn their back on Hollywood (with occasional forays) and turn to adult interests (she did eventually become Ambassador Shirley Temple Black and a Kennedy Center Honoree).  She herself said that she needed to work, otherwise one could sit around and look at old scrapbooks.  Temple, however, made the decision NOT to pursue a career in film.  Others, like Foster or Radcliffe, had good support systems that allowed/are allowing a transition to more mature work (Radcliffe's confessions to being drunk or hungover while working on the Potter films notwithstanding). 

For some, the real world is not a good place, and Never Land appears so inviting.  However, if J.M. Barrie's work tells us anything, it's that if we choose the real world, we will have to grow up.  Driscoll made the effort, found it wanting, and turned to other things.

As it stands, while he started to enter another world with promise (that of creating artwork), whatever demons he had within him would not let go (or perhaps he would not let go of said demons).  On March 30, 1967, a few weeks after his 31st birthday, two boys found his body.  He died, alone and forgotten, due to years of abusing his body with drugs.  In that time frame between his birthday and the day he was found, one wonders if anyone was looking for him.  It's highly unlikely anyone watching Peter Pan was thinking about the voice of Peter--as far as they were concerned, the voice belonged to Peter, not Bobby. 

Again, the sorry circumstances surrounding the life and death of Bobby Driscoll continue to haunt us.  The dichotomy of being the eternal youth and being buried in an unmarked grave in potter's field on Hart Island, New York--no visitors, no one to remember the joy he brought and the acclaim he earned is a sad one.  Sad to say stories like Driscoll still continue and perhaps will continue to happen.  I can only hope we in the end remember the joy of his work and not focus too much on the end of his life.  We should remember how things turned out for Bobby Driscoll if only to serve as a warning to us that in the end, we all have to grow up.  It is how we do it that makes all the difference.


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