Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we recognize Macaulay Culkin’s work as the enfant terrible of Home Alone.
The inspiration for the 1990 film Home Alone came from a very relatable feeling: the anxiety of forgetting something before going on vacation. We all make mental checklists so we don’t worry about whether or not we left the stove on, but writer John Hughes let his imagination wander even further as he packed his suitcase. As he told Time magazine:
“I was going away on vacation… and making a list of everything I didn’t want to forget. I thought, ‘Well, I’d better not forget my kids.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I left my ten-year-old son at home? What would he do?’”
Hughes jotted down this initial idea, and when he came home two weeks later, he started writing what would become the first draft of Home Alone. He finished it in a brisk nine days. Even with this quick turnaround, Hughes — ever the workhorse who wrote, produced, or directed sixteen movies within the span of eight years — still wondered if he was writing too slowly.
If an errant thought had before going on holiday was the spark Hughes needed to start writing Home Alone, he kept the fire burning by visualizing the actor who would play the lead role of Kevin McCallister: Macaulay Culkin. Hughes had just worked with Culkin the previous year on Uncle Buck, where he played John Candy’s precocious nephew Miles.
Candy anchors the darkly comic film, but we’re enchanted by Culkin’s performance because he doesn’t miss a beat with the film’s adult cast. He’s inquisitive and funny, deftly spitting out rapid-fire questions as he holds his own next to an incomparable comedian like Candy. What makes Culkin a unique child actor is that he doesn’t try to steal the spotlight or out-cute his co-stars. He just has a natural ease in front of the camera that garners our attention and screams, “This kid is going to be famous.”
No one could sense that star power more than Hughes. He had been looking to write a film centered on a child, so working with Culkin on Uncle Buck was a bit like kismet. Hughes even inadvertently gave the young actor a Home Alone-esque moment in the film where he grills Amy Madigan’s character from behind his front door, demanding to see her driver’s license before letting her in. As Culkin told Esquire, “That scene where I’m looking through the mail slot? Hughes saw that and he got the idea: Kid defends house! And he wrote Home Alone for me.”
Hughes, with director Chris Columbus, did his Hollywood due diligence and saw hundreds of other kids for Kevin McCallister before ultimately giving the role to Culkin. Looking back at the crop of young child actors we saw in the late 1980s, outside of a veritable unknown, there was no clearer choice than Culkin. He has a vibrant presence that lights up the screen, but more than that he does something so few child actors can ably do: he doesn’t let you see him acting.
Culkin does this by having a great stone face. He doesn’t have to do a lot to convey Kevin’s thoughts and feelings, delivering his lines with cool confidence and sharp directness, simply listening and reacting to his co-stars without resorting to superfluous gestures or expressions that can take you out of a scene. When he does have to make an exaggerated face, it’s through an honest reaction, like the unexpected sting of slapping on aftershave, or the shock of coming face to face with a mysterious stranger like Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom). Culkin understood at a young age a tenant of performance that even veterans can struggle with: acting is reacting.
The naturalism that Culkin gives his inner monologues helps separate Kevin McCallister from other kid characters. He may be bright-eyed and full of energy, but his performance doesn’t feel forced or over the top like the cheesy Culkin clones of the latter Home Alone sequels. He’s practically understated as he muses aloud to himself, devoid of the surly obnoxiousness that typifies other child performances like Michael Oliver in Problem Child (also released in 1990), a character practically designed to get on a parent’s last nerve. Hughes’ story may have Kevin navigate the realities of adulthood, but Culkin never acts like anything other than a normal kid stuck in an extraordinary situation. He is just being himself, and it’s a quality that helped make him a star.
The biggest feat that Hughes and Culkin accomplished was in creating a child character that even adults can relate to. Kids are drawn to Kevin because he gets to enjoy a privilege typically reserved for grown-ups – getting to stay by yourself – while we older viewers are envious of the lazy freedoms he indulges in. What adult doesn’t want to eschew the world for a few days? At some point we’ve all secretly wished our end of the year plans would be canceled so we could take a much-needed staycation, gorging ourselves on pizza, ice cream, and all-day movie marathons.
We can even see ourselves in the way Kevin acts out in the film’s opening scenes. It’s easy to label the tantrum he throws over being ignored ahead of his looming European vacation as childishly bratty behavior, but what he’s doing is outwardly expressing something adults often inwardly feel. Who among us hasn’t gotten more than a little annoyed at being forced to do something we don’t want to do? You’d be upset too if your huge family didn’t order you the one plain pizza topping you asked for! Kevin’s not so much acting like a spoiled child, but behaving like any of us would under similar circumstances. We adults just have more experience masking our own apathy and disappointment.
But we also see in Kevin our own heavyhearted memories of feeling alone, especially around the holidays. After the initial head rush of being left behind wears off, a creeping sense of melancholy sets in as Kevin realizes he’s never been by himself like this before. We watch him cope with his confused loneliness by talking to his parents like they are still there, hoping that his empty house is just a bad dream he’ll wake up from. Adults have a unique understanding that quality me-time can recharge our batteries, but our engines run on the connection we feel between others. We may want alone time, especially during the busy holiday season, but as Culkin’s Kevin shows, it’s rarely what we actually need.
When Home Alone was released in 1990, it topped the box office for a staggering twelve weeks, but it’s remained a perennial holiday favorite because adults and children alike can continue to see themselves in Kevin McCallister. He acts as a blank slate, a character we can project our own experiences on, someone who can accurately capture both the joy and melancholy we’ve all felt before during “the most wonderful time of the year.” Having audiences relate to your character is an achievement for any actor, but the fact that he was able to do it at nine years old is a testament to how truly talented Macaulay Culkin is.