How Macaulay Culkin's unforgettable 'Home Alone' scream face came to be

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Everett Collection
Macaulay Culkin became a huge star playing Kevin McCallister in 1990's Home Alone — and this pose had a lot to do with it. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Everett Collection)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Macaulay Culkin is officially a star today. At the age of 43, the actor who started entertaining us as an adorable pint-sized child actor, gets a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Culkin soared to fame playing Kevin McCallister in 1990's Home Alone (also the most-rewatched holiday classic, per our new Yahoo/YouGov poll). His movie mom, Catherine O'Hara, appeared at the ceremony in L.A., praising Culkin for bringing his "sense of sweet, yet twisted, yet totally relatable sense of humor to everything that you have chosen to do since Home Alone."

She didn't yell "Kevin!" But that movie moment — acknowledging that the parents had forgotten their precocious 8-year-old after boarding a flight to Paris for Christmas — was unforgettable — and so was the scene where Culkin's character applied aftershave to his face and then screamed from the resulting burn. Young Culkin was paraded all over Hollywood doing the pose in the years that followed, which is likely a big part of why he retired at age 14. (He came out of retirement a few years later and has had a colorful career since, which includes a parody band, The Pizza Underground, and his Bunny Ears podcast/comedic website.)

MacCaulay Culkin at the American Comedy Awards at the Shrine Auditoirum in Los Angeles, California in 1991. in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Culkin at the American Comedy Awards in 1991. He walked around the room doing "the face" for the stars in attendance, from Steve Martin to Betty White. (Barry King/WireImage)

The Home Alone face was improvised

That magical movie moment, the scream seen around the world, was actually improvised by the kid actor, the film's director, Chris Columbus, has said.

"He wasn't supposed to do that," Columbus told Business Insider in 2020. "If you put something on your face that burns, most people move their hands right away. So my direction to him was when you pat your face, move your hands and scream. And I think it was the first take, he kept his hands on his cheeks. We all started laughing hysterically. We did it a couple more times with his hands off his face, but my editor, Raja Gosnell, he cut that take into the first cut that I saw and it was in there forever. It's funny, the iconic moment from Home Alone was an accident."

That "accident" helped propel the film to mega-success — it was the third-highest-grossing movie of 1990 and a certifiable pop-culture phenomenon. There were multiple sequels, with and without Culkin.

In 2021, Yahoo Entertainment spoke to Columbus for the film's 30th anniversary and he said of his young star, who also appeared in Uncle Buck, My Girl and Richie Rich in that era, "He was such a unique kid. Incredibly charismatic, he didn't look like he came out of the Hollywood cookie-cutter world of fame. He didn't look like some kid you see on a TV show. This was a real kid. ... And he was funny and charming."

Culkin grew weary of the scream face

Culkin was all those things, and he became next-level famous while still in elementary school. That was a lot to deal with alongside the media coverage of his family — his brother is Kieran Culkin — as his parents split and had a custody battle, Macaulay sued them to safeguard his fortune and a devastating fire broke out at the family's NYC apartment. That's when he stepped back from the spotlight and lived his life a little, not that public interest in his life really dissipated.

While Culkin, who shares two children with with actress Brenda Song, continues to act — like in American Horror Story: Double Feature in 2021 — he infrequently gives interviews. But while speaking to Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show in 2016, he discussed the Home Alone face — and the "curse" of being an adorable child star.

"It's a curse and a blessing — I still have the same face," he said, as an old photo of him as a child popped up on screen and the audience issued a collective aww. "I can get into any restaurant I want without a reservation, but while I'm there everyone is staring at me. And they're all going, 'Aww.'"

Culkin went on to say that said strangers often approach to ask him to "do the face thing." What does he say? "It's like, 'No. I've been there, done that, guys," he said. "I'm 37 now, OK.' Everybody wants me to do that."

Columbus said in 2020 that fans approach him on the street to "do that scream pose" as well. "It's like, 'Seriously? Twenty-five years later, I'm getting this? This is my lot in life?'" he laughed.

Culkin did channel his iconic character in a 2018 commercial, sans scream. And during the pandemic, he indulged us all — when we were bored at home and miserable — by posing with his Home Alone scream face mask by a replica of the Empire State Building.

"Just staying Covid-safe by wearing the flayed skin of my younger self," he wrote.

At Culkin's star ceremony on Friday, he ended his emotional speech with a nod to Kevin McCallister.

"To wrap things up and in the spirit of the holiday season I just want to say, 'Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals," he said to applause.