Since the Wizard of Oz first reached the screen in 1939, the trip down the yellow-brick road has been a memorable flight of fancy. But two years ago, when Walt Disney Pictures announced its quest for a Dorothy to star in Return to Oz, 1,500 little girls stepped into their ruby slippers to try to make the trip a reality. After an exhaustive 10-month search in eight cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, the pivotal role fell to an unknown nine-year-old from Vancouver named Fairuza Balk.
Said director Walter Murch: “Fairuza had a look that resonated with Judy Garland’s. Out of the blue she could snap into what her character would be feeling at any moment.” For Balk, whose voice and manner are indeed reminiscent of the late Garland’s, the role of Dorothy Gale seemed tailor-made. Added Balk: “We are the same person. We are both brave and like to take chances.”
By making her film debut in a role indelibly marked by Garland, Balk, now 11, faces inevitable comparisons. But Balk’s Dorothy is seven years younger than Garland’s character, and the new Oz is neither a musical nor a remake. With her braids tied with blue bows and wearing a flowered dress, Balk said she is not competing with Garland. She added, “She did what she thought was best, and so did I.” Featured in most frames of Return to Oz, she spent more than seven months in front of the cameras in London, with a tutor on hand for afternoon studies.
Said Murch: “She had an uncanny understanding of film acting that no one had taught her.” Balk’s odyssey to Oz began at age 8 when she decided to become an actress. Her mother Cathryn, a former flamenco and belly dancer of Dutch extraction and current manager of her daughter’s career, enrolled her in acting classes. She soon found commercial work and won a role as Loretta Swift’s daughter in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a 1983 ABC-TV movie. Then in May Balk appeared in Deception, an NBC-TV drama about twin sisters in which she played Stephanie Power’s daughter. Said Cathryn Balk: “I am a little worried about how she will cope with rejection because she has gotten every part she has tried for.” Clearly, the most challenging change in the life of the young actress is her newfound celebrity.
During the filming of the $25-million Oz sequel, pictures of Balk appeared almost daily in Vancouver newspapers. Said Balk: “At home, people stop me in stores and point at me. I just want to be like everyone else.” That may be the one role that Balk cannot win: with her current publicity tour, her wide-eyed looks have been broadcast across the continent and she is already being offered new scripts. Meanwhile, Cathryn Balk has redecorated her daughter’s bedroom with designer curtains and wallpaper, hoping to convince her fledgling star that there is no place like home.