She’s the original live-action Disney princess. She never wore the ballgown or the tiara, but she’s Hollywood royalty. Hayley Mills, at one time the biggest box office draw in the United States, is elegant and refined, but also as down to earth and charming as can be. On a recent visit to Carmel, Mills sat down to chat about her incredible professional journey in Hollwood and England, as well as the thought process behind her new memoir, “Forever Young,” released in 2021. It’s a page turner that escorts the reader through the surreal life of the world’s former teenage sweetheart, and also reads like a “who’s who” of British and American cinema.
Despite repeating phrases such as “most extraordinary” in her delicious British accent, Mills has no airs about her. She calls no attention to herself. She apologizes for her “boring stories,” is easy to talk to, and eager to express gratitude. “Here I am on the most perfect day there’s ever been!” she says shortly after sitting down in the lobby of the Cypress Inn. Pollyanna in attitude, with not one iota of phoniness. “I believe we are what we are born to be. My father (actor Sir John Mills) was one of the most positive people. He lived until he was 97. He never lost his enthusiasm, his humor, his love of the business. He was brilliant at living in the moment. Everything was an opportunity to make special. My sister (actor Juliet Mills) is like that. We are very much alike in that respect. It is part of our nature. Appreciate things. Be grateful. If you are grateful you can’t be bitter. If you are grateful you don’t miss wonderful moments.”
Hayley Mills has had innumerable wonderful moments. She’s the woman who became a surrogate daughter to Walt Disney. Who put sweet and sassy characters like Pollyanna in the eponymous film and twins Sharon and Susan in the original “The Parent Trap” into the permanent collective memory of cinema lovers. Who won the last-ever juvenile Oscar in 1961 and had it stolen—twice. Mills, the chameleon. The quintessential girly-girl, who was, in fact, very much a tomboy growing up, running through the mud, milking cows and riding horseback on her family’s 14th century farm in the English countryside. Her father was a well-known actor by the time she was little. (He won an Oscar for “Ryan’s Daughter.”) Her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, was a writer with a rather eccentric personality who’d given birth to daughter Juliet four years prior to Hayley. “My mother was desperate that her second child be a boy. She wanted a reincarnation of her beloved father. Then I was born. It was a terrible disappointment,” Mills says with a laugh. (Choosing the family name “Hayley” for the baby ended up influencing a generation. Hayley was one of the most popular names for girls in the 1980s and early 90s.)
After a chance viewing of her first film, “Tiger Bay,” by Walt Disney, Mills was summoned to a meeting by the man himself and signed to a multi-film contract. In an era where young starlets were often mistreated, Mills says she was well respected. “There was absolutely no exploitation—no funny business. He (Walt Disney) was a very decent man. I loved him. He loved my mom and dad, and treated me like a daughter.” Mills was catapulted into the American studio system, and to part-time life in Los Angeles. Her mother was a bit cynical, calling their first step onto the sweltering tarmac at LAX “the beginning of hell.” But the young, wide-eyed actress was ecstatic. “Working in Hollywood, in California, it was a holiday. It was fantastic. I was thirteen when I came. I was living in post-war England. Everything was grey. There was no color. There was still rationing. There were no red cars. And there wasn’t much money. No wasting food. Cleaning your plate, all of that. Then you come here—and there’s ice cream sundaes and steaks hanging off the plate. And color, and everything’s shiny.”
Mills’ contract with Walt Disney required that she shoot six films for the studio, and that Disney himself had veto power over any movie she made outside his studio. Mills still ponders the trajectory of her life if she’d been able to appear—at age fourteen—in a movie she desperately wanted: “Lolita.” That had gotten a firm “no” from Uncle Walt.
It was also in her mid-teens that the pitfalls of fame crept into Mills’ social life. She was constantly reminded how “not special” she was by the staff at her boarding school, despite the fact that she was one of the most famous people in the world. “There’s a kind of disconnect between myself and that information, that news. I was very lucky to have been born into a family where my father was a big star. When I’d finish a film, I’d be right back in England and back to my boarding school.” At school, Mills had a couple of friends, but more often than not, the other girls simply stayed away, or drifted off after her long months spent in the U.S. “There’s a misunderstanding that persists: If you’re famous—and rich—you’ll have fewer problems. But, life is never problem free. I recall being disconnected. Isolated. I lost touch with friends who went off and did all the normal things like go to university and get married. There was a loneliness. It’s lonely.” Her jobs allowed an escape from the sadness she felt. “They were wonderful parts. I gravitated to acting…it’s so fun to play somebody else.”
By the time she reached adulthood, Mills knew her incredible life story would make a riveting book. “I’ve always scribbled away. I started seriously in 2004. Then, in 2016 I went on a trip to Hollywood. I was invited to Disney headquarters, and taken to an office where I was given access to the archives. There were letters I’d never seen between Walt and myself, telegrams, memos. I learned so many things I didn’t know. I came home and told the family about it. My son, Crispian said, ‘You’ve got to write it! I will help you.'” That labor of love, “Forever Young,” is 384-pages of can’t-put-it-down reading. The stories range from sweetly mundane to unimaginably wild. In it, behind the scenes stories of all Mills’ films, whether “That Darn Cat” or “The Trouble With Angels.” And then there’s the more personal stuff: Her mother’s alcoholism, her own bulimia, crushing doubt, a date with Beatle George Harrison, her relationship at age 20 with a director in his 50s, whom she eventually married. (Her current life partner is twenty years Mills’ junior.) Then there’s the incredible story of how Britain’s tax laws left Mills virtually broke, swiping more than 90% of her career millions, for which she says there was no happy ending. “It’s ironic. So many child actors lost their money. We don’t think about it too much. I never had it. What you’ve never had, you don’t miss. Besides, too much money gives a disconnect with other people and from reality. It’s a bit like a surfeit of good things.” After all the travails, Mills still comes out smelling like a rose.
The English rose got a big surprise during this trip to California. Mills came to Los Angeles to renew her green card and was called to an impromptu meeting at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There, to her surprise, was the re-awarding of the historic juvenile Oscar that had been stolen from her 35 years ago. “It is extraordinary and I was totally stunned. I nearly died. Burst into tears. I did at one point call the Academy after I’d searched high and low and said, ‘Is there any chance I could get a replacement?’ and they said, ‘No. When you got yours, we broke the mold. We don’t do that anymore.’ So I said, rather facetiously, ‘Well give me a big one, then.’ They said, ‘It doesn’t work like that.’ So I kind of gave up on the whole thing.”
After getting her new statue, she and her partner of more than twenty years, her sister Juliet, and a couple of friends took a drive up the coast to our little hamlet by the sea. Mills, a grandmother of four, looks fantastic. She is slim and stylish in a leopard print sweater and black vest. Her hair is flowing, blue eyes are bright, and her pert nose makes her look much younger than her age of 76. Yes, 76. She is lovely. As are her observations of Carmel. “I was struck anew by the beauty of the place. The charm of the place. I arrived in the evening. The sun was going down and the air was pink. Then I came to this exquisite hotel. It’s been a dream time. And I really mean it when I say, if I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t move here years ago.” We’ll roll out the red carpet for her if she ever does.