Easily one of the top Disney film actors from the classic period, Hayley Mills has published a memoir, Forever Young.
For me, it was a thrill to meet her back in 2005, when she was in town for a dinner theater production of Two Can Play. She was quite gracious meeting fans at the stage door for a chat.
“Writing about it sixty years on, I wonder whether this book is perhaps my first real chance to understand and take ownership of the strange and remarkable things that happened to me – and to that young girl who went through the looking glass.” – Hayley Mills
When most of us think of Hayley Mills, we naturally associate her with Walt Disney. She made six Disney films, which made her quite famous, and like others, that was my primary interest in the book. She writes about each Disney and non-Disney film during her early years. This is not a tell-all book, it is the story of a woman understanding her past, both remarkable opportunities and personal challenges.
At 12 years old, she acted in her first film, Tiger Bay, a drama, along side her father, John Mills. When she saw herself on screen, she laughed at herself, and was embarrassed at her good reviews, especially when one reviewer said she acted her father right off the screen. Her proud father only encouraged her acting. She got the fame that he did not, although he was well-known and a distinguished actor, she was teen magazine famous.
When Hayley returned to her boarding school and wasn’t even offered a role in a student play. Then, out of the blue, Walt Disney asked to meet with her and her parents at his hotel in London. She remembers the meeting as having no talk of films, apparently he just want to meet and get an idea of her. Later, he offered her an exclusive seven-year, seven-film contract. Her parents tried to negotiate the terms, but Disney wouldn’t deal. He had another actress lined up for Pollyanna, if she did not sign.
There is quite a story about the Disney deal involving English law, a film production that was on hold and costing Disney money, and father John Mills, who would be hired to star in the upcoming Swiss Family Robinson, as part of the arrangement, and her trust account, which sadly all went for taxes.
Her trip to Hollywood to begin filming Pollyanna, included a guided visit to Disneyland by Walt Disney himself. In those days, the Disney Studio was a dream factory and very much had the feel of a mom and pop business run by kindly old Walt. That was the perception, but Walt Disney was a skilled negotiator and supervised everything on this films as well as the amusement park.
After filming Pollyanna in America, she joined her family on the set of Swiss Family Robinson, and then headed back to England and boarding school, where life fell back into normal. Even when Pollyanna was released, life at first did not change much for her. Disney films were only moderately popular in England, and being at a boarding school was far from the publicity machine of Hollywood.
Following Pollyanna, Hayley was offered some interesting roles. The contract she ended up signing with Disney was “nonexclusive”, giving her the opportunity to accept other roles, but it gave Disney the right to refuse permission on roles that would harm her career, or more likely, Disney film box office. Films she was not allowed to be in were Exodus, The Children’s Hour, and Lolita. Hayley Mills as Lolita? That’s an interesting thought. Even though she was now entering puberty, her sweet Disney image had a long way to go.
Hayley was bestowed a special Oscar, selectively given to juveniles, in recognition of her work in Pollyanna. She was not present to accept it, and she began to feel it was a mistake, instead of being believing it had been earned. The Mills family included distinguished actor John Mills and young theater actor, sister Juliet Mills, neither having the matinee popularity of Hayley.
The Parent Trap was her second Disney film, and in it she played twin sisters. This was the film had made her famous, although she lived a very secluded life, mostly at her boarding school, and visits to her father’s remote film locations.
Eventually, she did get to act in a non-Disney film, one based on a book by her mother. The film, Whistle Down the Wind, was a well-received British film made by actors Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough. Her mother’s writing career was secondary to her family, something which Hayley writes about as the cause of underlying unhappiness in the household.
Next up was In Search of the Castaways, based on the Jules Verne story. It was a huge production, filmed in England as a convenience to the Mills family, although the family departed to the location of John Mills’ next film. Hayley writes that the relationship with Walt Disney began to splinter based on this, and Hayley’s mother injecting herself into film choices for Hayley and criticism of Disney for poorly managing of Hayley’s career. Decades later, Hayley read the various correspondence between her parents and the Disney Studio in their archives.
Sent to a finishing school in Switzerland, Hayley says she struggled with self-doubt, shyness, weight issues and fear over her health. When school ended, she returning home to immediately prepare for her next Disney film, Summer Magic. Her mother had already decided this was film was going to be a waste of her daughter’s talent.
The Moon-Spinners followed, it was Disney thriller, filmed on the island of Crete. Two teens are mixed up in intrigue. Hayley gets to play a character more her age and more rounded. Her performance was praised although the film was only a minor hit.
She made another film based on a story written by her mother, and directed by her father. Sky West and Crooked was warmly received, but made little money. It seemed more of a family project for her mother than a career move.
The last Hayley Mills film for Disney was a classic, That Darn Cat. A comic crime caper with a great cast. I could never figure out if Hayley is playing a teenager or young adult. She was on the bubble of outgrowing the roles she had played during her entire career, but she was becoming a woman, as an actor and in real life. Walt Disney was believed to have been wanting to re-sign Hayley to another contract or at least wanting to make additional films together. This never came to pass.
Without the Disney safety net, she would be embarking on a new career direction. At the same time, she moved out of her parents’ home for her own apartment. This also coincided with a role in the Boulting brothers’ film, The Family Way, as a young bride, certainly a different kind of role for her. She would begin a relationship with one of the Boultings.
Roy Boulting was 30 years older, had been married three times and fathered seven children.
Hayley Mills’ life and career shifted gears. She would stay married to Boulting for a brief time, understanding the relationship was not to last. She also found the films roles now offered her were not very rewarding or challenging. The theater attracted her interest and she knew she would have to become a better actor if this was her desire.
Most of the book focuses on her first 20 years, which is what many fans, me included, are interested in reading. The young Hayley Mills onscreen and off are very different people. We never knew the eating disorder, the shyness or the problem in her family household. The fantasy created by Walt Disney is what we wanted and it formed our impression of her.
I looked forward to reading this book and found it quite absorbing. With the exception of her dinner theater performance, I was unfamiliar with her adult work. When I met her, it was hard to wrap my head around the person in front of me being the teenager from the films. People do grow up, and grow old. However, memories do not.