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Trouble in the House THAT Mac Built : A Custody Battle for Macaulay Culkin by His Parent-Managers Offers a Glimpse Into What Can Happen in Hollywood When a Son Is Also a Star.

November 05, 1995|Susie Linfield | Susie Linfield, a writer and editor, is a visiting professor at New York University's Department of Journalism

Mention the words "Macaulay Culkin family"--really a code for the notorious Culkin pere , Kit--and you are likely to get one of two reactions.

Some of those approached, like producer Bob Hurwitz of "The Nutcracker," in which Macaulay starred as the young prince, abruptly slam down the phone. From others, though, an almost Joycean stream-of-consciousness monologue pours forth: evocative, sometimes unprintable adjectives and nouns. A frequent one is "nightmare."

The Culkins--whose combination of Macaulay's celebrity and Kit's notoriety have ensured a high media profile--are back in the news because they are coming apart. Patricia Brentrup and Christopher (Kit) Culkin separated in March after living together for more than 20 years (the two never married) and raising seven children. Since then, the family has been mired in a bitter custody battle. But it is a custody suit with an odd twist. Because Macaulay's parents are also his managers, Brentrup and Culkin are fighting not only over who will raise their children but, in all probability, who will continue to manage Macaulay's career and the careers of his siblings--particularly 12-year-old Kieran, who may or may not be an up-and-coming star.

Of course, many custody battles involve money, usually over who will pay child support. But in this case, it is a matter not of who will pay but of who, potentially, will profit. Brentrup and Culkin, as Macaulay's co-managers, split a 15% commission on their son's earnings (the remainder is put into a trust). The practice is legal but controversial, although some children's-rights advocates defend it. "That sounds pretty fair, because they would have a lot of jobs to do if they're managing his career," says Florida attorney Jerri Blair, who represented Gregory K., the 12-year-old who "divorced" his mother in 1992. But Blair adds that the Culkin affair differs from previous high-profile, big-money custody cases like that of Gloria Vanderbilt "because in most of those, the parents had money too. This is unique because [the child] earned all the money."

Observes Chris Columbus, director of the "Home Alone" films that made Macaulay a star, "The custody battle seems to be two parents fighting over a young guy's earnings. If I were a kid, I'd want my parents to be fighting for custody of me because they love me--not for my money. It's a little bit depressing."

As the Dec. 4 trial date in New York State Supreme Court approaches, the two sides cannot even agree on the relationship--if any--between career and caretaking. Attorney Sanford Lotwin, who is representing Brentrup, insists that "the management issue is not before the court. There have been no discussions of management at all." But Kit Culkin's lawyer, Donald Frank, sees things differently. "I think that's one of the key issues hovering over this case: To what extent does custody of child actors impact on management? It's the core of the case--management is a paramount legal issue here." (Through their attorneys, both Brentrup and Culkin declined to be interviewed for this article. Calls to Macaulay's lawyer, Kenneth Weinrib, were not returned.)

And in this case, management is no euphemism for small change. While Macaulay's artistic imprint on Hollywood can be debated, his economic impact can't: His earnings since 1990 are estimated to be as much as $50 million. Suzi Smith of TGI/Bloom, a talent agency that specializes in child performers, says Macaulay's success has helped bring about the biggest change she's seen in Hollywood over the past decade, which has been "money and greed. Parents hear about Macaulay Culkin and they think they can get that kind of money."

The Culkin case is also a cautionary tale of what can happen to those who, like Kit Culkin, roll the dice in Hollywood but do not necessarily adhere to the industry's unstated rules about what one producer calls "the need to be gracious and generous." And it comes at a particularly bad time for Macaulay, who is no longer the 10-year-old imp of "Home Alone" but has grown into a 15-year-old whose last few films have been box-office disappointments.

Making the leap to adult stardom is difficult for any child actor, but with the baggage Macaulay now lugs the transition could be impossible. It's not just that the bloom is off the proverbial rose; the vine itself may be poisoned. Says a producer associated with a film in which Macaulay starred: "If you deliver, custody battles are OK. But if you stop delivering, then all you have is goodwill. You need either that, or talent. There's little talent here, and zero goodwill."

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