Lessons in Courage
LIKE MOST IMAGINATIVE 8-YEAR-olds, Mara Wilson loves to tell stories. On a recent afternoon, the young actress, who had a feature role in 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire and starred in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, was driving through the L.A. suburbs with her mother, Suzie, on the way to a tea party at a restaurant. As Mara sat primly, dolled up in a ribboned hat and a flower-print dress, Suzie asked her to tell a story “about a little girl whose mother dies and how she gets along afterwards.”
It was a subject Mara had thought about. “The little girl’s daddy takes her to school,” she replied, without hesitation. “When she has a problem, she talks to her grandma, and when she misses her mommy, she has a scrapbook of pictures to look at.”
As Mara finished, Suzie, 42, looked away briefly as her eyes welled with tears. There was a reason she had asked for that story: Suzie herself is battling breast cancer. This past year, she has undergone treatments including a radical mastectomy and intensive chemotherapy. Yet through it all she has remained a full-time mother and an on-the-set nurturer. With Suzie’s help, Mara completed five months of shooting Matilda, a comic fable directed by Danny DeVito and due out this summer.
Just over a year ago, life seemed sweet for the Wilsons. In October 1994, the producers of Miracle on 34th Street sent Mara on a long, worldwide promotional tour with her father, Mike, 42, a broadcast engineer for KTLA-TV News in L.A., Suzie, and the rest of the family. With Danny, now 16, John, 15, Joel, 13, and Anna, 3, they left their home in Burbank, Calif., and traveled with Mara to Seattle, New York City, London, Madrid and Tokyo.
The extended trip demonstrated the confidence Hollywood had come to have in the child. Her brother Danny had been the first actor in the family, appearing in 1989’s Turner & Hooch and Police Academy 6. Seeing him on the screen, Mara announced at age 5 that she “wanted to do what Danny does.” She quickly got commercials for Oscar Mayer and Texaco; then, in 1993, she was chosen over hundreds of other girls for Doubtfire and impressed producers by reading her own script. A year later, she nabbed the lead in Miracle. Her performance won kudos from publications like the Los Angeles Times, which called Mara a “precocious cherub [with] an affecting melancholy side.”
Soon after the Wilsons returned from Japan in early 1995, Mara was tapped for the lead in Matilda, the story of a child who uses telekinetic powers to stand up to her villainous parents, played by DeVito and his wife, Rhea Perlman. But the Wilsons’ celebration was brief. In February, Suzie was showering when she noticed a heavy mass in her right breast. After a mammogram and a biopsy on March 10, Suzie says she saw the gravity of the diagnosis on her doctor’s face: “I’ve never had anyone look at me like I was dead before.”
The news was grim. The lump in her breast was not only malignant, it had infected her lymph system, and possibly spread farther. Her doctors planned an aggressive, four-stage treatment: chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy, then further chemo and radiation. Suzie and Mike, who met at Northwestern University and married the summer after his graduation in 1976, steeled themselves.
That night, they gathered the children together in the living room and broke the bad news. “It’ll be a horrible year,” Mike told the kids, “but we have to go on.” And then Suzie says, “He truly believed we could fight through this, and I said that I had every intention of surviving, but that I might die.” That same night, Suzie found Mara in bed weeping. “I told her that what she loved about me was my soul, and that the cancer wouldn’t change that.”
But she wasn’t ceding an inch to the disease. Visiting her physician the following Monday, Suzie says, “I told him I didn’t want to hear about mortality rates. I just wanted to know if anyone had survived this type of cancer. He said yes, and that was all I needed.”
The tumor in her breast all but disappeared after the initial round of chemotherapy in April. Suzie was feeling strong. And when Mike was able to switch from working nights to days at KTLA so he could be home to make dinner, do laundry and otherwise tend to the other kids, it made it easier for Suzie to help Mara on the Matilda shoot, set in and around L.A.
There, she and Mara found immediate comfort and support. A hairdresser made Suzie a wig to cover her baldness from the first round of chemo, though Suzie felt uncomfortable wearing it. When Suzie sensed Mara was cranky and needed a change of scenery, the makeup artists and costumers would play with the girl. In late June, when Suzie left on a Friday for her mastectomy, which her doctors advised as a safeguard, Mara spent the night before at Perlman and DeVito’s house with their three kids. Amazingly, Suzie returned to the set that Monday, with her right arm in a sling. She brought with her, Matilda staffers say, what Mara needed most—a sense of normality. “Mara drew such strength from her mother,” says Jenny McGonigal, a family friend. “She’d see Suzie, despite being sick, do anything she wanted.”
Suzie hired McGonigal to mind Mara last September, when she underwent the most difficult phase of her treatment: stem-cell therapy—a technique in which healthy, blood-making cells are harvested from the patient’s bone marrow, then put back in place after she has received near-toxic doses of chemotherapy. The procedure was intended to destroy cancer that had spread through Suzie’s lymph ducts. But it also wipes out the immune system, and Suzie was forced to stay in a hospital isolation room for three weeks. During this time, crew members say, Perlman doted on Mara. (Perlman and DeVito declined to be interviewed for this story.) Yet “there was something sad in Mara” while Suzie was away, says her Matilda costar Embeth Davidtz (Schindler’s List). “She never cried, but you could tell she was walking a finer line with her emotions.”
By all accounts, Mara alluded to her mother’s cancer only once. Several Matilda staffers recall a dinner at which Mara overheard a crew member mention a friend who was “dying of cancer.” Mara sat up straight. “Not everyone dies of cancer!” she announced with defiance, as the table went quiet.
For months the Wilsons nourished that same hope and tried to get on with their lives. The four-bedroom fixer-upper they bought in 1994 has a half-dozen unfinished renovation projects. The kitchen, painted electric blue by previous tenants, needs a makeover; one bathroom could use a new tile floor, and the other lacks a sink. But now, Suzie’s illness is the sole focus of the family. Last week, Suzie rushed back to California from New York City when she was having trouble breathing while with Mara on a promotional tour. Diagnosed with jaundice and other complications of the liver, she has been in the hospital since.
As for Mara, since Matilda wrapped last October, friends say she seems mature beyond her years. Last month, when Davidtz stopped by the Wilson home for a visit, Mara drew her aside to tell the actress she was having trouble sleeping because of her mother’s condition. Davidtz told her not to give up hope, and Mara nodded. “It was like talking to an adult,” Davidtz says. “She was saying, ‘I have this grief in front of me, and I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.’ That was hard to watch, because she’s so brave.”
Like her mother. In recent weeks, Suzie says she has reflected on things, and finds herself at peace. “I think the most important thing is to love and be loved,” she says. “From that point of view, no matter what happens, I’ve had a wonderful life.”
JANET CROMLEY in Burbank