When Home Alone came out in 1990, it quickly became the most successful comedy ever made, and the third-most-successful movie after E.T. and Star Wars. But there were no robots or moonscapes or flying bicycles. Home Alone's special effect was Macaulay Culkin. Almost overnight, Culkin says, neighborhood kids he had played with were transformed into awestruck snoops, and everywhere he went there were cameras. "It was one of those paranoias like, There are people in the bushes! There are people in the bushes! But there really are people in the bushes. It was that kind of thing.
"Hats don't really help," he says. "They say if you cover your forehead, you cover 80 percent of what people associate with you, but it doesn't work. When I was 9 years old, I got recognized wearing a ski mask. Maybe it's the lips. I couldn't hide from the world at all."
Culkin started staying inside the apartment as much as possible and watching a lot of television when he wasn't working. "I remember I was doing Home Alone 2 and I was getting changed in my trailer on the street. Next thing I know, there was a group of upwards of about 200 people shaking my trailer. It scared the shit out of me," he says. "You get scared of everything out there because they're all trying to get in here," he says, motioning toward himself. As he jerks his arms in the air, the few people in the restaurant who haven't yet noticed him turn and stare. "I'm a self-diagnosed agoraphobic," he says.
Kit Culkin had quit his job to manage his son's career (Kit and Patricia split the standard 15 percent management fee), and the two were on the road or on location for most of the year. "I just remember the exact point when I was growing a little more tired -- during The Good Son. I had already done one or two things that year, and I just said to Kit, 'Listen, I'm really getting tired and I'm not at school as much as I'd like to be; I really need some time off.' He said, 'Yeah, sure,' and the next thing I knew I was on the next set doing the next thing, and it just kind of clicked in my brain: Okay. There's basically nothing I can do to make this stop."
As Culkin tells it, his father was constantly trying to teach him a lesson. "I was making God-knows-how-much money, and Kit was making me sleep on the couch, just because he could," Culkin says. "Just to let you know who's in charge and just to let you know if he doesn't want you to sleep in a bed, you're not going to sleep in a bed."
"Michael Jackson's still a kid. I'm still a kid. We're both going to be 8 years old forever in some place because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were. That's the beautiful and cursed part of our lives."
Sometimes, Culkin says, his father would hit him or one of his siblings or his mother: "It was something that was always there, you know -- it kind of always contributed to some of the unhappiness.
"He beat our spirits down," he says, and pauses for a minute. Like most people, Culkin becomes confused when he tries to describe his relationship with his father. "You really just had to be there to see what kind of a man he was."
One day when Culkin was 9, he got a call from Michael Jackson inviting him to Neverland. He went with his parents and his younger brother Kieran -- Kierie, he calls him -- in a helicopter Jackson sent for them. "He had every kind of soda in the world there, every kind of candy. A two-floor arcade, a carnival, and a movie theater." Culkin, who kept ferrets, rabbits, cats, and dogs at home, was particularly impressed by Jackson's private zoo. "He had giraffes, elephants, tigers, orangutans, chimps, ostriches, llamas. We were driving around in golf carts, and the thing that cracked him up was he got us talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and instead of 'Donatello,' I'd say 'Don'; instead of 'Leonardo,' I'd say 'Leo.' Like I knew them way back, me and Michelangelo -- Mikey -- are tight."
A bond formed quickly. "We had very similar experiences in childhood," he says. "It's not like I can just bump into people on the street and say, Oh! You too! It doesn't happen that often. Michael's still a kid. I'm still a kid. We're both going to be about 8 years old forever in some place because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were. That's kind of the beautiful and the cursed part of our lives."
When Jackson was accused of child molestation in 1993, Culkin says, he "would have liked to have said something in his defense -- I still wish I had -- but my father kept me out of it." Culkin calls Jackson "one of my very best friends in the world" and is the godfather of Jackson's son, Prince Michael, and his daughter, Paris. "Michael and I had an understanding about my father," Culkin says. "He knew what that was all about. He'd lived it."
And at the time, Jackson's estate was the largest starfucker-free zone Culkin had ever been in. "You know there's not going to be a photographer in the bushes. You can walk around and no one will stare at you and you can be normal," says Culkin. "Neverland is still the only place on earth where I feel absolutely, 100 percent comfortable."
Kit Culkin's status as hollywood's most hated stage mom has been well documented over the years. "I just remember him yelling his head off on the telephone to God-knows-who, every day," says Culkin. "He was a screamer, he was an intimidator."
Ultimately, he did secure $8 million a picture for his son's work, putting Macaulay on the same earning curve as adult stars like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. "On some level, his intentions were good," says Culkin. "He was trying to get the most for his family."
But there were other motives as well. "I knew Kit very, very, very well," says Ken Weinrib, Macaulay Culkin's lawyer. "I made every deal he ever had, and a lot of the difficulties were not about money; that's the reason it would get so difficult and toxic. Because it wasn't about money. It was about power."
By 1993, Kit must have been able to feel his power ebbing. Macaulay had turned sullen, which was reflected in his work. Kit and Patricia were at war almost all the time -- both have since admitted they were involved with other people. And it was Kit who took the first step toward dissolving the family.
There is a famous scene in Home Alone in which Catherine O'Hara realizes that she has forgotten something. Her horror mounts as she figures out that the something isn't the alarm or the bathroom light; it is -- "Kevin!" -- her son. The mood at the Culkin house was very different when it dawned on them that they were missing Kit. "We didn't even realize for a while that he wasn't there," says Culkin, grinning. "We kind of looked around the house and all of a sudden we're sitting there watching TV -- laughing -- and we're like, 'Wait a second, where's Kit?' We were feeling really good. All that stress in our shoulders was gone. We were like, 'What's going on? What's making this good?' "