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Home again: Macaulay Culkin is enjoying the comeback he’s always deserved

As the ‘Home Alone’ franchise returns without its original leading man, Kevin E G Perry salutes the former child star’s recent revival on television and on fashion runways

Wednesday 10 November 2021 14:44 GMT
Comeback kid: Macaulay Culkin walks the Gucci runway in early November
Comeback kid: Macaulay Culkin walks the Gucci runway in early November (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
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Fashion houses wrangling celebrities to take to the catwalk is nothing new, but one star’s appearance at the Gucci Love Parade show in Los Angeles last week sparked instant headlines around the world. It wasn’t Grammy winner St Vincent, indie icon Phoebe Bridgers or leading man Jared Leto that set tongues racing after their respective strolls down Hollywood Boulevard.

Instead, it was the former child star Macaulay Culkin, now 41, who dominated press coverage while decked out in a summery Hawaiian shirt, a floral bomber jacket and orange-tinted shades. His fans were quick to express their delight across social media. “Seeing Macaulay Culkin being happy and healthy always makes me think YES,” one tweeted. “I feel proud for him.”

It’s little surprise that Culkin still sparks curiosity and fascination, given that for many of us he’s been world-famous our entire lives. Home Alone (1990) turned Culkin into a household name at the age of 10, the film’s status as a Christmastime staple meaning he seems unchanged in the cultural memory from the time we first saw him.

The story of a young boy mistakenly left behind by his family when they jet off to Paris, Home Alone and its seasonal ode to cartoonish violence and homemade weapons of minor destruction was an enormous hit, raking in $476.7m (£352m). That was enough to make it the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever made (a record it held until the release of The Hangover Part II in 2011). Culkin saw his fee jump from $110,000 (£81,000) to $4.5m (£3.3m) for 1992’s New York City-set sequel, Home Alone 2, truly a figure worth screaming over.

The first two Home Alone films were so wildly successful that they spawned a further three sequels, all without Culkin’s involvement, and this week Disney+ will attempt to reboot the franchise with a sixth instalment, Home Sweet Home Alone. Clearly, Disney feels there’s still an audience for more stories about children constructing home defences, although not everyone agrees.

Chris Columbus, who directed Culkin in the original two movies, recently questioned the value of rebooting Home Alone. “What’s the point? The movie exists, let’s just live with the movie that existed,” the director told YouTube channel Jake’s Takes. “There’s no point in us remaking The Wizard of Oz, there’s no point in any of us remaking the classic films. Make something original, because we need more original material.”

By the time he won the face-slapping role of forgotten child Kevin, Culkin had already been acting for six years. He made his stage debut at the tender age of four, in a play called Bach Babies at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, and his first appearance in film as one of Burt Lancaster’s beloved grandchildren in the 1988 drama Rocket Gibraltar. Then, in 1989, he appeared in the classic John Candy comedy Uncle Buck, which was written and directed by John Hughes. It was Hughes who realised that Culkin had just the sort of star quality he was looking for in the lead role of the next script he was writing, Home Alone.

After that, Culkin parlayed his newly minted fame into a string of films that showed his range even at a young age, including the lachrymose tween romance My Girl, the Ian McEwan-penned psychological thriller The Good Son, and the comic-book adaptation Richie Rich. In the latter, Culkin lived out every Nineties kid’s fantasy of having a McDonald’s in his own home, and was paid $8m (£5.9m) for his trouble, making him very Richie Rich indeed. Then in 1994, after making a staggering 15 movies in just seven years, the 14-year-old Culkin announced his retirement from acting, and went back to school.

Once Culkin stepped back, it wasn’t long before his siblings picked up the reins. He was the fourth of his parents’ eight children, and two of his younger brothers have both established successful acting careers for themselves. Youngest sibling Rory Culkin starred in Signs and Scream 4 and had a leading role in 2018’s Lords of Chaos, a horror-thriller about the Norwegian death metal scene. Kieran Culkin, who is Macaulay’s junior by two years, is currently riding high thanks to his Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated role in Succession. Last weekend, Kieran hosted Saturday Night Live and made reference to the fact that he had joined his older brother when he hosted the show almost 30 years earlier. It only underscored the brothers’ remarkable longevity in a fickle business.

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In 1995, the Culkins’ parents Kit and Patricia separated. In the ensuing battle for control of Macaulay’s fortune, it was widely reported that the young actor “divorced” his parents. In fact, he later clarified, he simply took both their names off his trust fund simultaneously. In a 2020 interview, Culkin reflected on the fact that his parents had already been taking 15 per cent of his earnings up to that point. “Look, I mean, it sucks,” he told Esquire. “But it coulda been worse, you know? I wasn’t working in a coal mine. I wasn’t a child soldier.  My father was not sexually abusing me. Certain f***ed up things happened, but f***ed up things happen to kids all the time and they don’t come out the other end. I’ve got something to show for it, man. I mean, look at me: I got money, I got fame, I got a beautiful girlfriend and a beautiful house and beautiful animals.”

Macaulay Culkin played eight-year-old Kevin, who is left behind in his Chicago home when his family go on holiday to Paris in ‘Home Alone’ (Rex)

Given the well-established child star to middle-aged burnout pipeline, it was arguably a wise move for Culkin to steer away from the limelight and try to live as normal a life as possible, rather than immediately attempting to build a sustained career on his successes as a child. For a time, it seemed like Culkin was perfectly happy enjoying the spoils of his child labour, along with the adolescence that his fame had initially deprived him of.

He returned to film acting in 2003 with a sharp, funny performance as the real-life party promoter and murderer Michael Alig in cult favourite Party Monster, and found a home for himself in New York’s underground arts scene. Over the next decade he made DIY films with the indie musician Adam Green, and in 2013 he formed The Pizza Underground, a pizza-themed parody of The Velvet Underground. The band ultimately proved to be a half-baked joke stretched thin. One night in Nottingham in 2014, Culkin stormed off stage after his kazoo solo was interrupted by boos and thrown beers.

It was during this period that paparazzi pictures of Culkin looking gaunt began circulating online, which led various tabloids to begin speculating on his “downward spiral” and presumed struggles with addiction. In recent interviews, Culkin has been open about the fact that he was using drugs recreationally at the time, but that he never got to a point where he needed rehab. He came to the decision to stop using them in his own time. “I never went so far down that road where I needed outside help,” he told Esquire. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t had drugs in my life at some point or another. I had some illuminating experiences – but also it’s f***ing stupid, too, you know?” He went on to describe recreational drugs as “like old friends. But sometimes you outgrow your friends.”

Throughout it all, Culkin has proved to be a savvy manipulator of his own celebrity. In some ways, he’s had to be. Despite years of avoiding the spotlight, he continued to be pursued by photographers, perhaps seeking a shot they could contrast with the cherubic image that made him famous. In 2016, he told The Guardian he had no idea why people were still fascinated by him. “I was thinking about this the other day – I’d crossed the wrong street, picked up a tail, suddenly there’s a crush of 20 paparazzi. Then people with camera phones get involved. I don’t think I’m worthy of that,” he said. “It’s been like that my whole adult life. You take on a prey-like attitude, always scanning the horizon.”

Seemingly to combat it all, he found ways to have fun with fame. After fellow former child star Ryan Gosling was photographed in a Macaulay Culkin T-shirt, Culkin set off a deluge of memes by having the picture turned into his own T-shirt (Gosling responded in kind). In 2018, Culkin ran an online poll to decide his new middle name, which resulted in him legally changing it to “Macaulay Macaulay Culkin Culkin”. He is playfully aware that many of his fans still believe he hasn’t aged a day since 1994. In August 2020, on his birthday, he tweeted: “Hey guys, wanna feel old? I’m 40. You’re welcome.” It quickly became one of the Top 10 most-liked tweets of all time.

Macaulay Culkin in ‘American Horror Story' (FX/Hulu)

A year later, Culkin marked his 41st birthday with an announcement that offered more than a mere shock of nostalgia. After referencing his birthday, he added on Twitter: “Also, there seems to be a super handsome, middle-aged dude on this season of American Horror Story. If I were you I’d totally check him out.” Culkin’s performance as the drug-addicted sex worker Mickey in American Horror Story: Red Tide, which hit screens in August, is a revelation. Smart, funny and crudely flirtatious, the role has brought Culkin some of the best reviews of his career, and proved without doubt that the one-time most successful child actor in the world could – if he chooses to – have a fine career as an adult.

The child star’s fall from grace has become a well-worn trope of modern celebrity, so there’s something pleasing about seeing Culkin buck that trend. He’s long since earned the right to do whatever he wants, but on the strength of this most recent performance it isn’t hard to argue that what the world needs next isn’t yet another Home Alone spin-off, just more Macaulay Culkin.

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