(Please note: This article contains references to violence and the passing of a child. Reader discretion is advised.)
I visited Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills this past weekend.
Among many others, I saw Judith Barsi’s grave.
And it got me thinking. Had she lived, she could have been one of the greatest “it” girls of the 90s.
Everyone focuses– understandably so– on the unspeakable, almost exquisite tragedy of Judith’s young life.
I’m not going into heavy detail because if you know who she is, then you likely already know what happened. But it’s “Little Match Girl” level sad. As such she’s frozen in everyone’s mind as a child actress who had a decent career in the 80s before she was murdered by her jealous, raging drunk of a father.
But no one ever talks about what that might have been leading up to: what might have come after, if her mother had been able to successfully extricate them from the marriage.
It’s easy to forget that if she was still alive she’d be the same age as Zoe Saldana, Rachel McAdams, Michelle Rodriguez, Katie Holmes and Katherine Heigl.
I believe if she had lived, Judith Barsi would’ve been a Michelle Williams/Brittany Murphy/Kirsten Dunst-esque A-list starlet. Equally renowned for her talent and earthy beauty.
It’s comparable to how people say River Phoenix would’ve become a DiCaprio-level A-lister, had he not OD’d on the sidewalk outside The Viper Room in 1993.
Surviving the horrific abuse she suffered in the 80s would’ve made Judith a perfect teen icon in the age of…
- “let me clip your dirty wings” and…
- “As if…” and…
- “Eat my shorts” and…
- “I feel your pain” and…
- “I sense there’s something in the wind.”
It doesn’t seem like it, but she missed this era by only three years or so.
It was a time when it started to be normal for people in the public eye to talk about their trauma, and how it could be used for creative fuel, about how the darkest abuse often lurks beneath sunny, idyllic exteriors. Her story would’ve been tabloid gold – whether she chose to speak publicly about it or not.
Judith Barsi was an 80s child star mostly known for adorable animated roles who was abused to the point that she began self-mutilating. She would’ve fit right in. The 90s would’ve loved her.
I could see her playing any of the roles in Clueless. I could see her playing Tracy Flick in Election. I could see her playing Nancy Downs in The Craft.
Imagine her doing the, “He’s sorry?! OH, HE’S SORRY!?” scene.
She could’ve been in the American Pie ensemble, starred in Dawson’s Creek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (she would’ve made an interesting Faith), kissed Tobey Maguire upside-down in Spider-man, guest VJ’d on TRL, lent her voice to The Simpsons, starred in a Marilyn Manson or Britney Spears video, ran screaming from Ghostface or The Fisherman, been directed by Tarantino and PTA and Fincher, traded sarcastic jabs with Christina Ricci and Jason Lee.
We’d be mentioning her name alongside Witherspoon and Winslet and Barrymore.
She didn’t have many demanding live action roles in her life, as most of them just required her to be a cute little girl.
Whether tragic or comedic, I don’t know.
The adults around her did all the heavy lifting (though there were some heart-wrenching exceptions), but you can spot the real unsung depth of her talent in her two most famous roles: Ducky in The Land Before Time and Anne Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven.
I looked up scenes on YouTube for this article. It speaks to the quality of these performances that my Millennial brain automatically remembered every line despite not having seen either of these movies in years to decades.
Both movies are undeniably, and in some cases it’s fair to say, irredeemably flawed.
But neither of Judith’s performances ever feel inauthentic or forced or dragged down by the overdone emotionally-wrought bullshit that surrounds her. It’s strange, because she somehow manages to transcend the cheesiness and sentimentality by leaning right into it.
Her earnestness– dare I say her realness– is so pure:
that you just go along with it.
Watch her in these clips. She never displayed this kind of raw spirit in her live action roles, mostly because they didn’t really ask it of her. But her performances are strikingly seamless and creatively versatile. Listen to the way she hisses, “You sound just like Mr. Carface” and note that the animators based Anne Marie’s movements and facial expressions on videos of Judith recording her lines.
She’s not just holding her own with Burt Reynolds, she’s on his level.
And she’s something like 8 years old here.
Listen to the way her voice breaks on “You’re a bad dog!” or the little falsetto chirp she puts on “Come OUT!” and try to imagine someone of lesser ability attempting to pull off those lines and have it work.
Notice how different the more grounded and world-weary Anne Marie is from Ducky, whose soda-fizz personality and cutesy vocal tics could’ve been (and honestly sort of are) grating as hell. A dinosaur who’s supposed to be around 4 years old, whose catchphrase is “Yep yep yep!” should’ve been a f—ing unwatchable disaster.
But Judith, who was used to playing roles way younger than herself: sells it.
I personally believe her best technical performance was Anne Marie, but to most people, including 6 year old me, she was Ducky.
It’s why her death became so famous in the first place– everyone who watched The Land Before Time as a kid wanted to know what had happened to Ducky’s voice actress. And started Googling it, just as the Internet was heating up in the early 2000s. This is the reason she and her mother finally got grave markers in 2004 – sixteen years after they died.
Don Bluth went on record saying he was planning on using Judith in everything he did after All Dogs Go to Heaven because of how easy she was to direct.
She almost certainly would’ve played Tanya in Fievel Goes West and later Anastasia.
It’s not hard to see how all this could’ve served as a juicy backstory for one of the most talked about starlets of the 90s– discovered at 5 at an ice rink, endured a wretchedly abusive home life while grinding it out in commercials and unglamorous bit performances before finding a niche in voice acting which led to much bigger things.
But other than what Bluth said, I’ve never heard about what future opportunities were brewing or what career moves Judith and her mother were looking to make in the months before they were murdered. All you ever hear is how they were slowly and cautiously trying to break themselves away from the man who eventually ended their lives.
You can never truly know with these sorts of things.
It’s just as likely that Judith would’ve quit show business altogether had she successfully moved into that apartment with her mother in Panorama City.
But I sincerely believe there was too much soul there for the movie industry to ignore, especially with Judith’s star already on a steady rise.
As it stands, it seems we were robbed of what could’ve been one of the greatest talents of the era, and that unfortunately is what Judith is most remembered for nowadays.
Views on videos about her death far outnumber the views on videos that feature her acting. It’s too bad she was taken just before the culture evolved to a place where she could’ve truly spread her wings and thrived.
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