Forever Young: A Memoir
Hayley Mills is truly a figure from the past. Pollyanna indeed. Hard to imagine our horribly split culture today embracing an upbeat happy white girl like the role Hayley played in that children’s classic.
But, as they say, it was a different time (the early ’60s) when Hayley became a child star almost by accident. A director friend of her father’s (the British actor John Mills) was looking for a young boy to play the lead in a film called Tiger Bay. He spotted Hayley on the Mills family farm and switched the role, tailoring it for a girl, specifically Hayley.
A star was born.
And a scout for the great Walt Disney noticed. Soon, Walt was knocking on the Mills family door, and it wasn’t long before Walt had Hayley signed to a long-term deal with him handpicking her film roles.
Hayley’s insights into Disney and the interaction between Disney and Hayley and the Mills family are worth the price of admission. Old Walt may have been a benevolent figure (and she paints him as an incredibly, joyful kind man who personally showed her around Disneyland, taking her on all the rides), but he ruled his business with an iron fist. No one had to tell Walt to embrace his own brand. He was eons ahead of everyone in that regard. Disney was Disney and it stood for family fun. It’s easy to scoff at that now, but Walt invented that!
Disney was zealous. He believed in storyboarding a film with no deviations. None. If a director wanted to change even one shot, he had to wait for Walt to sign off, no matter the difference in time zones. There is one story where an actor suggested a change and the director refused without Walt’s approval. Everyone on the film waited for half a day until Walt woke up and signed off.
One can only imagine (actually, we don’t have to imagine because it’s in the book) Walt’s reaction to Hayley being offered the role of Lolita. No surprise, he vetoed that idea quicker than you can Humbert Humbert. Hayley still regrets that she missed out on the role of a lifetime but is aware that she became “Pollyanna” forever while Sue Lyon, who took the role (and was also 15 years old at the time), forever became “Lolita.” It changed both women’s lives.
Hayley is nothing if not British, and she was steeped in that culture no matter how much Americans feel she’s their star. The bold-faced names of British films were her father’s buddies (Rex Harrison anyone?), and she saw them with their hair down, drinking too much and carousing. Hayley also spent a lot of time doing films with or perhaps for her father and his cronies. Sometimes, as in Whistle Down the Wind, written by her mother, it worked out great. Many other times, it did not, and one gets the sense that John Mills was using his daughter to raise funds for his own projects.
There are some great stories in this memoir like the one where director Otto Preminger offered her a role in Exodus. Her parents would not let her take the role, even after Preminger offered to throw in an original Renoir!
Then there was the time she met actor Sal Mineo. “I really like him,” she writes. “He was sweet and genuine but also seemed very young and vulnerable. All over the walls of his house were paintings of different parts of his naked body, which I found rather disturbing.”
This is a straight-ahead memoir with the Swinging London Town on full display. Hayley had a date with George Harrison set up by her mother. (George was a total gentleman) and hung outwith Sir Paul and his then girlfriend Jane Asher. She got to experience firsthand the terror of Beatlemania at George’s side as he was nearly torn apart by a throng of girls. She notes that Jane Asher got in the way of a throng of girls and Paul McCartney, and showed up at a party disheveled and very upset.
Hayley rubbed elbows with a lot of stars. She was standing in the wings next to John Lennon during a comeback performance by Judy Garland who had just gotten out of the hospital for attempting to kill herself. Lennon, famous for his quips, went too far this time. As Judy walked onstage, Lennon’s distinctive voice cut through, “Show us your wrists, Judy.”
These days, it’s hardly surprising to discover that Hayley, who struggled with her weight, reveals she had bulimia. It’s just not shocking anymore to read these accounts. It’s almost par for the course. Sadly. Although there were many glamorous moments, Hayley’s young life was not easy. Teachers resented her fame and treated her harshly, classmates largely didn’t know her because she was off on film sets so often, and her school kicked her out during her final year because she was too much of a distraction.
But the biggest villain Hayley had to face down was the British tax system. If anyone thinks we’re being overtaxed today, they should have lived in England during the ’60s. At one point, Hayley’s father’s estate was taxed at 98%! It’s a foreshadowing of Hayley’s own problems with the taxman (and now we understand George Harrison’s song a little better). When she turned 21 years old, she showed up expectantly at her very proper English accountant’s office to collect the film money that was placed in a trust. She’s waited for this moment of freedom for a long time, but the ineffectual accountant tells her flatly that the taxman wanted 91% of Hayley’s earnings. After a decade of lawsuits, she lost and was left with very little.
It's hard to remember now but there was a time when many Baby Boomer girls and boys had a crush on Hayley for films like The Parent Trap and That Darned Cat. If you’re one of them, you’ll likely love reading this behind-the-scenes account of what our Hayley was really up to during her formative years.