In 2008, a young friend from the Czech Republic spent six months in the United States, in part to help me research a book on Roman Polanski and the mores of Hollywood in general.  At first she was highly impressed by what she found there; she thought she had encountered a higher civilization.  No one in the film industry appeared to be poor or hungry; no one walked when he could drive; everyone lived in a home, it seemed to her, of Babylonian luxury.  No actor’s career, however evanescent, failed to elicit enough fame and adulation to last him a lifetime.

“Even our President doesn’t live as well as Tom Cruise,” she said.

Six months later, her views had altered considerably.  She had noticed a strange, indefinable malaise among many of the actors and actresses we met.  Although fortunate by the standards of the Czech working man, they lacked what she called a “moral center.”  They were materially affluent, and yet apparently unsatisfied and insecure, as if they somehow felt guilty about their unheard-of rewards.  It did not take her long to make a connection between this state of affairs and the seemingly unlimited career opportunities and scope for self-expression that, initially, she had thought so impressive.  “People here grow up too fast,” she observed after studying the definitive Hollywood trajectory of Samantha Gailey, the 13-year-old aspiring actress whom Polanski raped in 1977.  This isn’t, perhaps, the place to rehearse an exhaustive list of the facts of that sorry case, but it is only fitting to say that, making whatever provision possible, a 43-year-old man who opts to have sex with a young teenage girl is, at the very least, complicit in his own downfall.  At the same time, Polanski has argued convincingly that his original plan merely to “take salacious photographs” of Gailey was “pretty conventional” by the standards of the industry in which both parties found themselves.  Not long after casting Jodie Foster as a preteen prostitute in Taxi Driver (1976), Paramount Studios were then busy touting their “searingly graphic” period drama Pretty Baby (1978), celebrating the relationship between a girl played by 12-year-old Brooke Shields and a middle-aged photographer who insinuates himself into her home, which happens to be a brothel.  In broadly similar vein, the 11-year-old actress Eva Ionesco, whom Polanski had cast in his film The Tenant (1976), had just graced the center pages of Playboy.  The pictures in question were taken by the child’s mother.  Meanwhile, another glossy publication named Vogue Beauté had gone on sale around the world with the 14-year-old Doushka Petit splashed inside in a series of erotic poses, and had quickly become the most popular issue in the magazine’s history.  Objectionable as some or all of these projects were, they lend weight to Polanski’s claim that the strictly artistic part of his assignation with Gailey was “nothing new,” and “what everyone was up to” in those morally libertine days.

The whole Polanski affair stands as a morality tale of what happens when traditional parental authority breaks down and children are allowed, if not actively encouraged, to flaunt their sexuality.  A few weeks before abusing Gailey, the director had met the child’s mother at a Los Angeles club, where she had complimented him on his aftershave, among other personal attributes, and in general signaled how positively she would react to any romantic overtures he might care to make.  After taking his first set of nude photographs of Samantha (though before going on to humiliate and sodomize her), Polanski had been invited into the girl’s home, where he sat down between Mrs. Gailey, who was divorced from her daughter’s natural and adoptive fathers, and her current live-in partner.  After convivially passing around a reefer, the latter revealed that he was on the editorial board of a periodical called Marijuana Monthly.  The whole family—Mrs. Gailey, her boyfriend, and her two teenaged girls—then produced several issues of Hustler, which they passed to Polanski for his professional assessment of the “great photographs” of genitalia within.  The director expressed noncommittal interest in both these publications.  In time, Samantha excused herself and reappeared flourishing a copy of Playboy with this “cool picture” of a girl in a wetsuit on the cover which she wished to emulate.  Polanski dutifully admired the layout and then left the home, promising to return for a follow-up photo session when time allowed.  If there were any reservations about their meeting again, they seem to have been more on his part than the Gaileys’.

It would be a stretch to claim either that Samantha Gailey brought her misfortunes on herself, or that Polanski has deserved to elude American justice for 34 years, notwithstanding his support from the New York Times and other sources.  Even so, his young victim wasn’t quite the naif sometimes portrayed.  In her grand-jury testimony, Samantha Gailey noted that she had had sex twice in the year before she met Polanski, that she had been drunk before, and that “yeah, once I was under the influence of Quaaludes when I was real little.”  Such a child isn’t, of course, predestined to be raped by a middle-aged European film director, but one can perhaps see the red flags ahead.  When a sexually precocious girl grows up in Hollywood with a star-struck mother and no father figure to speak of, and with an artistic frame of reference that begins with Hustler and ends with a cover spread in Playboy, self-destruction is the rule and prolonged personal contentment the exception.  Although Samantha Gailey’s adolescent dreamworld was shattered by events beyond her control, the auguries had been there for years beforehand.

At around the same time as these events, a preternaturally bright and self-confident ten-year-old girl named Tatum O’Neal was costarring in a film called Paper Moon.  The child took the role of a cloaca-tongued con artist being tutored by a Depression-era grifter, who was played by her father, Ryan.  Here, again, was that toxic brew of precocious sexuality, laissez-faire parenting, and an overweening ambition to “be somebody,” whatever the cost.  Miss O’Neal’s experience did, however, diverge from Samantha Gailey’s in one important respect: While the latter “barely knew” her father, the former knew hers perhaps all too well.

Tatum O’Neal’s parents had divorced in 1967, when she was three, and her mother, a minor actress, seems to have served primarily as the child’s theatrical agent.  Success came in the popular smash of Paper Moon, for which she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, but longer-term personal and professional fulfillment proved elusive.  Tatum went on to costar with her father in Nickelodeon, a box-office bomb, before eventually settling on a diminishing number of guest appearances on television.  She was to remark that she had suffered “constant physical and emotional abuse” from her father during her adolescence—which he denies—much of which she attributed to his drug use.  In time, Miss O’Neal herself succumbed both to heroin addiction and a succession of ill-starred relationships, among them a brief marriage to the petulant tennis star John McEnroe; neither of the bride’s parents attended the wedding ceremony.  There was, however, to be a family reunion when Ryan O’Neal’s longtime partner, Farrah Fawcett, died in June 2009.  The couple’s 24-year-old son, Redmond, released for the day from his detention for narcotics possession, read the lesson.  Meanwhile, Ryan told Vanity Fair, “I had just put the casket in the hearse and I was watching it drive away when a beautiful blonde woman comes up and embraces me . . . I said to her, ‘You have a drink on you?  You have a car?’  She said, ‘Daddy, it’s me—Tatum!’”  “I’m a hopeless father,” Ryan O’Neal was later to concede.  “I don’t think I was supposed to have children.  Just look around at my work—they’re either in jail or they should be.”  Speaking of Tatum, whom he characterizes as “a bitch,” he added, “I was in touch with [her] for years, and I was a wreck.  I’m not in touch now, and I’ve never been happier.”

Looking to find a balance, meanwhile, between the young performer whose uncanny intelligence and high-spirited energy took critics by surprise in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the train wreck whose childhood was marked by drug and alcohol abuse, we should note that the upbringing of actress Drew Barrymore also fell short of the traditional two-parent ideal.  Born in 1975 in Hollywood, she was the child of an aspiring singer and model and a member of the Barrymore acting clan, the latter of whom would be periodically incarcerated for drug use, public drunkenness, and spousal abuse.  The child’s parents divorced before she was even born, ushering in a peripatetic early childhood and a predictably troubled adolescence.  Drew was a regular on the Studio 54 dance floor at age seven, drinking alcohol by the time she was ten, smoking marijuana at eleven, and snorting cocaine at twelve.  She was in rehab at 13.  In her later teens she appears to have developed a fetish for appearing nude in public, a proclivity that was to lead to an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in which she climbed onto Letterman’s desk and bared her breasts to him.  Two short-lived marriages at around this time perhaps lend credence to the view that Miss Barrymore, for all her acclaim, remained an emotionally starved child who turned to drugs and sex to escape the loneliness and chaos.  A mark of her early dissatisfaction with her life had come as early as 1989, shortly after her 14th birthday, when she successfully filed for emancipation from her nightlife-loving mother.  While the tone of Miss Barrymore’s press coverage today is bracingly upbeat, dealing with themes like survival and self-recovery, it is also fair to say that she stands as an example of what can happen to a physically precocious young actress thrust into a series of lewd roles and ignorant of the guardrails defining the limits of normal behavior.

Readers may feel that I have scoured only the morally dissolute 1970’s for such rich examples.  But no.  There are scores of other case studies similarly showing the pitfalls of too much fame achieved at too early an age.  Who could forget Lindsay Lohan, the infant terrible of the child-beauty-pageant world of the mid-1990’s, who went on to star in such Hollywood fare as Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, while releasing a string of unlistenable pop songs?  Lohan’s parents married just before she was born, separated when she was three, later reunited, and separated again when she was sixteen.  By all accounts, the child’s upbringing seems to have been dysfunctional even by Hollywood standards.  In the late 1980’s, Lohan’s father Michael was sentenced to four years in prison in a stock-fraud case.  He returned to jail in 1998 after violating his probation by leaving New York to visit Lindsay on a California movie set.  Mr. Lohan has also been incarcerated for violating a court order obtained by his wife to prevent him from seeing their children, for drunk driving, and for assaulting his former brother-in-law at a First Communion party, among other charges.  Lindsay’s mother Dina has been portrayed as a “party mom” who fulfilled her own frustrated show-business ambitions through her daughter.  “I feel like a second parent in the sense that I helped raise my family,” Lohan commented in 2008.  “And I was put between my mother and father a lot.  I put myself between them to try and keep the peace.”  In a somehow familiar-seeming progression, the self-described “young brat” would go on to have a rehab-prone adult career, being twice incarcerated for parole violations in 2010.  In Miss Lohan’s recent film Machete, she plays a spoiled young woman who takes drugs, disdains underwear, and later dons a nun’s habit for unorthodox purposes; not, perhaps, a role that demanded the method approach on her part.

One could continue.  Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin, the late River Phoenix, the late Corey Haim, the Jackson siblings, Winona Ryder, and most of the cast of television’s Diff’rent Strokes—all cases of youthful adulation run riot, without anything resembling a stable family unit among them.  And for sheer excess there’s the crash-and-burn career of Danny Bonaduce, the wisecracking, redheaded ten-year-old actor who found fame as the middle son of The Partridge Family.  Unsurprisingly, he, too, experienced what he now calls “role-model issues” as an adolescent.  Both Bonaduce and his mother have spoken of his father’s pattern of domestic abuse, relieved only by his frequent departures from the family home.  “Danny always said his father ran the house like his own Stalag Luft III,” a source familiar with the family told me.  “Living with him was like being a POW, only most POWs don’t get the crap kicked out of them every day for no good reason, and they also eat better.”  Following the cancellation of The Partridge Family, Bonaduce eventually took up residence in a car parked in the alley behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.  Over the years a steady diet of drink and hard drugs, occasionally arousing the interest of the law, rounded off what became a caricature performance of a fallen star.  Once or twice, in a process that was at once guileless as well as bizarre, Bonaduce would interact with his fellow street dwellers in a particularly violent fashion.  One such encounter led to his arrest for an altercation with a transvestite prostitute.  Abandoning Los Angeles, Bonaduce married and divorced his first wife, got arrested a couple more times, moved around from Arizona to Kansas to Philadelphia, often leaving no forwarding address, the tabloid press generally in hot pursuit.  A second marriage produced two children—Countess Isabella Michaela and Count Dante Jean Michel Valentino—but otherwise failed to arrest what Bonaduce portrays as his “kamikaze” lifestyle.  Recent television appearances have seen him rip off one of his eyebrows on-screen, and then go on to gulp down a bottle of vodka before driving off onto a busy highway.  Making every allowance one can, this is not a poster boy for the merits of early public success experienced from the confines of a broken home.

Can children exposed to this sort of moral vacuum go on to lead healthy, productive, and relatively normal lives?  The answer, at least where show business is concerned, seems to be yes and no.  The media often cite Jodie Foster as someone who survived a particularly harrowing early childhood, which included being abandoned by her father and professionally managed by her mother.  At three, Foster was bringing home a paycheck as a “Coppertone girl.”  At 12 she was playing a prostitute on movie screens nationwide.  At 18, seeking some sort of anonymity as a college freshman, she saw her name splattered across the front pages as the obsession of a would-be presidential assassin.  And while Miss Foster has certainly gone on to defy expectation so far as her career is concerned (Nell notwithstanding), her embrace of liberalism, atheism, and other, more intimate “lifestyle choices” suggests that she, too, may carry the scars of her Hollywood youth.

A generation earlier, of course, there was Elizabeth Taylor, who became a star at the age of 12 in National Velvet.  Taylor’s flinty glamour was later softened by a string of battles—with drug and drink addiction, hip surgeries, a brain tumor, obesity, and men—which turned her instead into our favorite survivor.  One can readily acknowledge that she was both a fine actress and a model of endurance in an industry that tends to jettison its leading ladies in early middle age.  It might be going too far, but not, however, going entirely in the wrong direction, to say that her personal life has been a disaster.

The message seems to be that stories that begin with child stardom and precociousness end with drugs, arrests, failed comebacks, and plaintive appearances on The View.  Should the child in question happen to be female, and the victim of an abusive and/or absent father, the subsequent chaos is all the greater.  The soul’s greatest danger is self-congratulation, so don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington—or at least think twice before you do so.