The biggest grossing Christmas film of all time charmed Irish audiences and almost tore a family apart
How did we not know, you wonder. When Home Alone first appeared on screens, 27 years ago next week, and instantly became as much a part of Christmas as It’s A Wonderful Life and Fairytale of New York, we ought really to have suspected there would be some casualties.
The poster itself, a small boy, his mouth open and his face in his hands, evoked The Scream by Edvard Munch.
If the 1980s, with its litany of burnt out child stars, had taught us anything it should have been that one doesn’t get to become a world leader in winsomeness without there being some fairly major collateral damage. And yet somehow, like the plot of the movie itself (which is, after all: two burglars attempt to kill an abandoned child), the potential horror of Home Alone seemed to hide in plain sight.
At the time the consensus was that we were watching our generation’s Shirley Temple rather than a cautionary tale waiting to happen. Audiences all over the world ate up the festive goodness, which radiated from Macaulay Culkin’s scampering and scamp-like central performance.
It was the beginnings of the cineplex in Ireland – The Square in Tallaght had just opened – and the film was a commercial juggernaut that played on the hour in Irish cinemas. It was the biggest movie of the year and the third biggest grossing movie in history here (only ET and the Star Wars films held a candle to it) as well as the most successful comedy of all time.
Culkin became the first child actor to be paid $1m, for his follow-up role in My Girl, as well as the second-youngest celebrity to host Saturday Night Live, at 11 (Drew Barrymore hosted at seven).
To burnish his status as the envy of every boy in the Western world, he became friends with Michael Jackson and starred in the video for Black Or White. He appeared to have the world at his feet, and just as there is now a demand for ever younger, ever more beautiful Kardashians, so there was then a demand for more angelic-yet-brattish Culkins. The large brood of Culkin siblings – Christian, Dakota, Kieran, Rory, Shane, and Quinn – was described by the Los Angeles Times as being “somewhere between the Waltons and the Bradys” – a production line of wholesome child talent in an industry notorious for eating its young.
The 1992 sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York was another box office behemoth, earning more than $359m (with a memorable performance from our own Brenda Fricker – then still riding high on her Oscar triumph for My Left Foot).
Its success gave Macaulay’s manager and father, Kit, tremendous influence in Hollywood because, if you wanted Macaulay, you had to go through this hot-tempered former public relations executive.
In 1993, Premiere magazine rated Kit Culkin the 48th most powerful person in Hollywood, ahead of Michael Douglas and Eddie Murphy, but he quickly began making enemies. Studio bigwigs complained that Culkin Sr often tried to use his power to wrest creative control of Macaulay’s movies and to promote the other siblings. Eventually, as he began to make missteps in the roles he picked for his golden child, the execs turned on him. When Richie Rich – Macaulay’s final movie as a child actor – bombed at the box office in 1994, Kit was declared box office poison.
The family began to unravel. Kit and Macaulay’s mother Patricia began a custody war to rival the bitterness of Woody and Mia and it looked like all of the millions their winsome child had brought the family would be eaten up in legal bills.
For Macauley, puberty and a career fall all seemed to come together. He cut a gaunt, haunted figure.
To understand why one family could so quickly conquer Hollywood and so quickly fall from grace, one has to go back to the start, to 1974, when Kit and Patrica met. She, a 19-year-old country girl from North Dakota, one of a family of 10 kids, was directing traffic at the edge of a building site when he, a struggling actor with a ponytail, happened by in his pickup truck and chatted her up.
In her retelling of it, they left town almost immediately, driving East and living like hippies, until they finally arrived on the island where he had grown up: Manhattan. He was, she recalls, ‘handsome, intelligent – who better to have kids with?’ And there were plenty of kids, about one every two years; five boys and two girls, all raised in a two-bedroom, walk-up apartment by devoted, industrious parents who slept on a sofa and worked shifts so that one of them could always be home. They said they ‘never found the need’ to actually get married, but lived as man and wife.
Kit got a job at a local Catholic church, so the children could get staff rates at the parish school, and Patricia was employed by a telephone-answering service.
Billy Hopkins, a New York casting director who gave the six-year-old Macaulay Culkin his first part. told The Telegraph: “They had no money. I mean, they didn’t even have a credit card. I gave money to my stage manager to take (Macaulay) home at night after rehearsals.”
Kit Culkin’s own life had been shaped by an ambitious stage mother who pushed her children into acting at an early age, with some success. As a teenager he made it to Broadway, playing in the same cast as Laurence Olivier in Becket and John Gielgud in Hamlet, and there is a glimpse of him in the movie version of West Side Story. His career didn’t survive into adulthood and he never got the big billing, (unlike his sister, actress Bonnie Bedelia, star of Bruce Willis’s Die Hard movies), but he never lost his fascination with acting and, in time, he would begin to live out his frustrated dreams through his children.
He had sent his eldest son, Shane, to an audition at Manhattan’s Ensemble Studio Theatre but it was his third-born, Macaulay, just tagging along with his big brother, who captured Billy Hopkins’s attention and was cast in a play called Afterschool Special. His precocious blond presence engaged the critics, too, and after several other stage appearances he moved on to movies, playing Burt Lancaster’s grandson in Rocket Gibraltar, Farah Fawcett’s son in See You in the Morning and John Candy’s nephew in Uncle Buck, directed by John Hughes.
Hughes was so impressed by Culkin’s brilliantly bratty performance that he wrote a screenplay specifically for him: Home Alone.
Besides being a runaway success the film brought out the worst in Kit. At home, according to a revealing interview with Macaulay on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Kit was allegedly a domestic martinet, terrorising his children with punishing threats and humiliation. Macaulay told Maron that he felt his father was “jealous” of him, because “everything he tried to do in his life I excelled at before I was 10 years old”. Whenever he and his father left to make a movie, Macaulay found himself “locked in a (hotel) room with a man who didn’t like me”, but at least it spared the rest of his family months of their father’s cruelty.
Macaulay described how he walked away from acting after a series of box office failures. He told his parents: “I’m done, guys – hope you all made your money because there is no more coming from me.”
A few years later, already looking gaunt and hollow-eyed, he would plead guilty to misdemeanour drug charges, but he has since angrily dismissed the rumour that he was ever doing $6,000 worth of heroin a month.
Still, there could be no doubting he grew up fast, getting married at 17 to the actress Rachel Mine: they separated two years later. Then came an eight-year relationship with the actress Mila Kunis. Throughout those years one of the only real constants in his life was his long friendship with Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris (“she is beloved of me”, he once said).
Michael Jackson claimed in the infamous Martin Bashir documentary that ‘many’ children, including Macaulay, had slept in his bed, but, as an adult, Macaulay has dismissed the idea that anything untoward went on.
Despite Macaulay’s disillusionment with the pressures of fame and Kit’s overbearing personality, the Culkin brand was not entirely toxic in the years that followed the parents’ split and Macaulay’s withdrawal from the limelight. Rory Culkin, who is 10 years younger than the now 38-year-old Macaulay, appeared as the young Richie in Richie Rich and lived out his childhood watching people ask his mother to get him to do “that thing with the face in his hands”. (Macaulay’s pose from the Home Alone posters.)
He was six when his parents split, and, he later told The Guardian, he could barely remember his father. In 2000, he appeared in the brilliant, Oscar-nominated You Can Count On Me, a Paramount drama produced by Martin Scorsese and starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. In 2010, Rory Culkin appeared in Joel Schumacher’s Twelve, a drama starring 50 Cent and Ellen Barkin.
Kieran Culkin (36) played Macaulay’s brother in both of the first two Home Alone films. He recalled seeing Macaulay surrounded by fans and paparazzi as a child, and says it made him wary of fame.
Kieran, too, had a fraught relationship with his father. “He’s not a good dude, but he wasn’t really a big part of my life after the age of 15,” he told Vanity Fair recently.
“Sometime in the 1990s, he went away and disappeared for two, three weeks, and the babysitter remarked to my mom, ‘You know what’s funny is their father’s been gone for three weeks, and not one of them has said, Hey, where’s dad?’ Nobody cared, actually. My mom was the parent, so when he wasn’t there it was nicer and better.”
Of his large family he added: “”I have six siblings and we’re all seven different versions of nuts so definitely I draw on that.”
Kieran recently won warm reviews for his performance in the TV series Succession, which centres on the dysfunctional owners of a global media empire who are fighting for control of the company amid uncertainty about the health of the family’s patriarch.
The other Culkin siblings were less prominent in the movie world. Dakota worked behind the camera rather than in front of it, serving in the art department in a number of movie releases. Tragically, she died in a car accident in 2008, aged 30.
Christian Culkin (now 31) appeared next to his brother Kieran in a 1994 comedy called My Summer Story, his only screen appearance to date.
A television series called Wish Kid featured Quinn Culkin (now 34) in 1991, and she was also in the dreadful horror movie The Good Son (1993) alongside Macaulay, as his screen sister in that film.
Shane Culkin (42) is the least prolific of the Culkin clan with a television drama of Our Town in 1989 his only screen effort to date.
Reportedly none of the siblings have much of a relationship with their father.
Kit Culkin lives in a kind of exile, according to a Daily Mail article from 2016. Now 74, he was laid low by a stroke four years ago that left him with difficulties speaking. He lives alone in a small house in Oregon. His long-time girlfriend, Jeanette Krylowski, died last year. He’s been sighted on rare occasions, sporting a long beard.
The Daily Mail reporter asked if he hears from his most famous son. Kit replied, “I don’t consider him a son any more.”
For Macaulay, peace about his childhood didn’t come until he wrote about his father in his memoir, Junior, published by Miramax Books in 2006 when he was just 25 years old. Harrowing open letters to his father stand out among a few fond, early memories of Kit. “Dear Father… It didn’t have to be like this,” he writes in one letter. “We could have stayed poor… You showed me what it was like to be afraid… You hurt people a lot, you know. I am not just talking about your family and the other important people around you; you hurt our name. I should know. Did you know I had to apologise on your behalf way too many times? You made a lot of people cry. You made my mother cry.”
If there is one bright note in the ending to the Culkin saga it’s that Macaulay now seems able to laugh about the movie that made him a star. He’s joked about various girlfriends roping him into watching it at Christmas and recently took part in a parody of what happened to little Kevin, the cherubic protagonist of the Home Alone franchise. In the debut episode of a web series in which a cab ride goes horribly wrong every time, a passenger is picked up by an agitated, dishevelled 35-year-old Kevin (played by Culkin, himself). A far cry from the “the cutest f*****g eight-year-old in the universe, by far” (as Kevin describes his former self), the sinister man behind the wheel immediately starts worrying his passenger. But it’s not until the passenger switches seats with his driver that the truth begins to pour out. “I still have nightmares about this bald weirdo dude chasing me around talking like Yosemite Sam,” a shaking Kevin confesses of his memory of the Home Alone Christmas Night.
“They don’t even curse. And it was a story about burglars terrorising a kid. How is that Christmassy?!”