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On Aging, Adversity, and Pepsi: Home Alone Turns 30

Good lord, Reeya, you may be thinking. What more could you possibly have to say about Home Alone after your Story Screen article from 2018?

It’s a fair question, but this November marks Home Alone’s 30th anniversary, and dear god, somehow, even more than Back to the Future hitting 35 this summer, Dana Carvey turning 60, Padma Lakshmi turning 50, or realizing that Phil Hartman would have been 72 years old this year, (had his wife not murdered him in cold blood in 1998) Home Alone turning 30, makes me feel SO INCREDIBLY OLD. I’m only 35, and I know I’m not technically old, but when a film that I have watched hundreds of times since I was six years old hits Decade Three… well, it’s a bit of a shakeup, mentally and emotionally.

My yearly tradition of watching Home Alone is coming up soon. I usually wait until a few weeks before Christmas, and in the past two years, life has been such, that I don’t really have the time to go all-out like I used to: with the cheese pizza and the Pepsi. It’s because I’m getting older and my “adulting” obligations are increasing, as they are wont to do when one has purchased a home, entered into a serious relationship, and focused on building a new career after burning out of Corporate America HARD five years ago and going through the health issues and existential crisis that followed.

And so, instead of reiterating what I said two years ago, talking about how Home Alone holds up all these years later - because it is a story about personal growth, about how Kevin comes into his own after being overlooked by his whole family for being little and slightly clueless (the way young children are), not only saving his family home from burglary by the Wet Bandits but also learning how to do laundry, grocery shop for necessities, and generally take care of himself, as well as learning important lessons about facing his fears from Old Man Marley – I find myself wanting to check in on some of the beloved cast members from this movie now that 30 whole years have gone by.

Perhaps it’s easier to start with the older, sadder news: John Heard, who delivers a wonderfully wry performance as Kevin McAllister’s father Peter in Home Alone, passed away in 2017 of a heart attack, after a long career as a character actor in popular films like Big, Beaches, Awakenings, and The Pelican Brief, as well as guest appearances on TV shows like Miami Vice, Law & Order (the Mothership, Criminal Intent, and my beloved SVU), CSI, CSI Miami, Battlestar Galactica, Entourage, Modern Family, and NCIS: Los Angeles. John Candy, who played Gus Pollinski, the leader of a traveling polka band who gives Kevin’s mother Kate (played by Catherine O’Hara) a ride back to Chicago from Scranton, passed away in 1994, after a long comedy career featuring far too many brilliant films to even name, but here are a few: Stripes, Splash, Cool Runnings, Spaceballs, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck, and a couple of dramatic turns in Only the Lonely and (of all films), JFK. Candy was a national treasure (both in his native Canada and here in the States), and is a huge loss, but Heard’s death hit me hard, as he showed up in so many of my favorite films and shows and I can still quote several of his lines in Home Alone by heart.

But then, we also have some happy news: O’Hara, after gaining great acclaim as a part of Christopher Guest’s company of actors in his tremendous films - Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration - the latter of which won her much praise and an award from the National Board of Review, as well as memorable roles in Beetlejuice, Dick Tracy, Heartburn, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (among others), and a hilarious turn as the boss-from-hell Carol Ward on HBO’s Six Feet Under, is at the moment riding high after winning a Primetime Emmy Award for her role as Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek, starring alongside her frequent Christopher Guest-company and fellow SCTV alum, Eugene Levy. O’Hara’s performance as Kate in Home Alone is both wildly funny and extremely heartbreaking as she fights against extremely difficult odds to make it back to Chicago from Paris during Christmas, the busiest travel season of the year. As well as making peace with Kevin, with whom she had a terrible argument the night before the whole family accidentally leaves him behind while rushing to the airport. O’Hara’s scenes with John Candy (another fellow SCTV alum) on the ride back to Chicago are hilarious and weirdly poignant, as she confides in him her fears that she’s a bad parent, and he tries to comfort her by pointing out that he and the others in his polka band are far worse parents than she is, relating more and more bizarre examples of parenting failures (a scene that was reportedly 100% improvised by O'Hara and Candy) in his attempts to help.

Having said all that, I think it’s fair to say that the one cast member of Home Alone that I most want to check in with during the film's milestone 30th year is the one without whom the entire film wouldn’t have been a success: Macaulay Culkin. His small-child cuteness, unpretentious precociousness and charisma are what make the story succeed, and the fact that the film still holds up all of these years later is almost entirely due to his capable skills as a performer.

Which makes it a real shame, on some level, that we haven’t really seen much of him since Home Alone. He did appear in the film’s sequel, Home Alone 2 (which is horrible, and not just because it features a cameo by Donald Trump). He also returned with a heartwarming performance in My Girl, a bizarrely creepy turn in The Good Son (where he plays a murderous sociopathic child – I do not recommend watching this movie, as it is not just disturbing content but also disturbingly terrible writing) and of course, as Richie Rich, an all-around mediocre movie that he clearly sleepwalks through, which is understandable given that by that point, he had had enough of being an actor.

But can we really really blame him? Macaulay Culkin is the third of seven children of Patricia Bentrup and Christopher “Kit” Culkin. Macaulay and his entire family lived in a small railroad apartment in Manhattan before he became a star – 9 people in two bedrooms. Kit was a former stage actor who was determined to milk his children for financial gain in acting to compensate for his failure to become a successful actor himself. He sent Macaulay and his siblings, Shane and Kieran, out for auditions and casting calls constantly, for off-Broadway shows, ballet companies, and films. Macaulay had natural talent for ballet and acting, and he began booking work at the age of four. Prior to Home Alone he had appeared in small roles in a couple of less-than-notable films (such as Rocket Gibraltar and See You in the Morning). He landed a role in the John Hughes film, Uncle Buck (starring Candy). Hughes was so impressed by Macaulay that he wrote the script for Home Alone for him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But the tyranny of Kit Culkin, hung over all of the success Macaulay attained during his childhood film career. Chris Columbus, the director of Home Alone, has commented that one of the biggest lessons he took away from the shoot was realizing that when you cast a child, you were also getting the child’s family as a part of the package – something he kept in mind years later when he was casting the children of the Harry Potter films.

I knew that Kit Culkin was notorious for being a monstrously awful stage dad, and that he worked his kids to the bone – especially Macaulay, once he became famous – but I had no idea the full extent of his abusive nature until I listened to Macaulay on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Macaulay says his father’s attitude was essentially: “do a good job or I will beat you.” Kit was physically and emotionally violent to all of the children and their mother. He said that when he was traveling with his father to movie sets and television appearances, the rest of his family must have been relieved to get a respite from Kit’s rage. When Macaulay hosted Saturday Night Live at 11 years old to promote My Girl, Kit insisted that Macaulay not use cue cards. He told his son that “professionals know their lines,” and insisted the young Culkin memorize every sketch. This in turn made it so that the SNL cast members appearing in sketches with Macaulay couldn’t use cue cards either. Given the often slapdash nature of the writing on SNL – they are often rewriting sketches right up until showtime, and sometimes even during the show if it’s running long and they need to trim time from later sketches – this was an almost impossible thing to ask of the cast, and Kit’s unreasonable demand has gone down in the show’s history as resulting in one of the hardest shows they’ve ever had to do.

Macaulay ended up confiding in Maron that he and his father simply didn’t like each other. He feels that not only was Kit driven financially to push him so hard, but he was also jealous of his son because he was a better and more successful actor and dancer than his father. Macaulay didn’t like Kit because, as he put it bluntly, “He’s not a good person. He is a bad man. He is just straight-up a bad person.” He told Maron that when his parents separated, shortly after he did the film Richie Rich, (a movie where, no joke, you can see in Macaulay’s face how much he hated being on set) it was the best thing that happened to the family, and it gave him an opening to walk away from show business altogether. Even though he never formally emancipated from his parents, he did at that point get a lawyer to remove his parents’ names from the trust in which all of his earnings from his career were funneled into until he was an adult, just to wrest some control in his life for once. He has not spoken to his father in nearly two decades (although he is still on good terms with his mother and his siblings).

In February of 2020, before the whole world went into COVID-19 lockdown, Esquire Magazine did a profile about Macaulay (who now goes by “Mack”). Mack has appeared in a handful of films since his childhood career, (most notably Saved and Party Monster) but he has mostly stayed away from acting, apart from the occasional stage show or European TV commercial. He is nearly 40 years old, and considers himself essentially retired. He loves to write and paint, and he tries to enjoy his life and the freedom he has to pursue oddball projects like Pizza Underground (a pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band that he toured with for a couple of years) and his latest pursuit, a podcast called “Bunny Ears.” Mack lives with his girlfriend Brenda Song, another former child actor who unlike him, has continued to work into her adulthood.

They met last year on the set of Changeland, a film directed by Mack’s friend Seth Green, (with whom he co-starred in Party Monster) and they have now purchased a house together, own two cats, and are trying to have a baby. It’s the first real taste of a happy domestic home life that Mack has ever had, and while it loverwhelms him at times, he is happy to be where he is. He doesn’t regret his childhood, nor does he regret putting up with his father for as long as he did. He told Maron on “WTF,” that although they are estranged, he wouldn’t be the person he is today without having gone through those experiences with Kit. And I can’t help thinking that maybe if his life trajectory had been different, he wouldn’t have met Song. Which would be a shame, because it seems the two are very much in love.

I am happy to see that Mack has come to a sense of peace after what seems like an absolutely brutal childhood. But now that I know the extent of Kit Culkin’s abuse, I worry that when it comes time for me to do my annual Christmas viewing of Home Alone, the experience will be tainted by knowing that it was the extreme success of that film – the highest grossing live-action comedy film ever made – that drove Kit to exploit and harm his talented child.

Or maybe not. As I said earlier, Home Alone still holds up, year after year, not just because of its stacked supporting cast, not just because of John Williams’ beautiful soundtrack, but because of Mack’s sheer star power. He carries 85% of the film all by himself. Think about that: so much of Home Alone features Kevin McAllister in solo scenes, punctuated by brief interactions with Old Man Marley, and of course, the climactic showdown with the Wet Bandits. There is no denying the force that was Macaulay Culkin in his prime. I would like to believe it is possible to marvel at his skill without getting too bogged down in the knowledge of how awful his childhood was. I guess I’ll find out in a couple of weeks when I load it up and revisit the movie I associate the most with my childhood in the Chicago suburbs, not far from the McAllister home.

Song, Mack’s girlfriend, is quoted in the Esquire piece as hoping that he returns to acting full-time:

I truly believe that he is the actor he is now because of all the things he had to go through... He has gone through so much tragedy; he’s had so many ups, so many downs; he’s seen the ugly side of this industry; he’s also seen the amazing side of this industry. So he can pinpoint exactly what he doesn’t want and what he doesn’t like about it. But yeah, I hope, I hope, I hope.

I also kinda hope. But if he doesn’t want to, that’s okay too. As I become more and more comfortable with aging – despite my periodic fits of angst when I realize that one of the biggest emotional touchstones of my childhood is THREE DECADES OLD – I am beginning to realize the joys of being able to truly call the shots in my own life: to settle down in a home of my own with a supportive partner and to not push myself so hard to excel at working jobs that make me hate my life. I get where Mack is coming from, in a roundabout way. And I mostly just want him to be okay. I think he deserves it after gifting us with one of the most iconic (and in my opinion, the greatest) Christmas films of all time.

Raise a glass of Pepsi, everyone, in honor of Home Alone turning 30, and please enjoy this cartoon by Jen Lewis that cracks me up every time I look at it:


Reeya Banerjee

Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.




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