Of the eight films under Hillary Wolf's second-degree black
belt, the most unjudolike was the 1992 comedy Big Girls Don't
Cry...They Get Even. At one point Wolf's character encounters a
bunch of wild teenage runaways. Too wild, it turns out, for one
of them rips apart Wolf's diary. Wolf responds by decking the
runaway with a right cross. "I'll guarantee you one thing," says
Steve Cohen, Wolf's longtime judo coach. "If Hillary were in a
real fight, she'd be throwing somebody, not punching them."
This is an article from the July 26, 1996 issue
Wolf needs more than a solid right today at the Georgia World
Congress Center, when she represents the U.S. in the women's
106-pound division. At 19 the child movie star turned adult judo
star faces her stiffest competition, including Ryoko Tamura, who
hasn't lost since the final of the 1992 Barcelona Games and is
the favorite to win the gold medal. Revered as sort of a
national treasure in her homeland of Japan, Tamura manhandled
Wolf in their last meeting last October at the world
championships in Tokyo--pinioning her to the mat in a viselike
hold in about 15 seconds. "Hillary is capable of beating Ryoko,"
says Cohen. "It doesn't mean she will, but she's capable."
The 5'2" Wolf seemingly is capable of anything. Perhaps best
known for playing Macaulay Culkin's insufferable older sister in
the two Home Alone films, she's the youngest judoka on the U.S.
team. Her matches tend to be brutal and brief--even briefer, if
that's possible, than Big Girls Don't Cry's run at neighborhood
multiplexes. As a 14-year-old at the 1991 U.S. Olympic Festival,
Wolf dispatched 28-year-old Jean Kilmer about five seconds into
the women's 99-pound final. One festival official remarked,
"They came out. They shook hands. I heard the crowd, and then
Kilmer was on her back."
Judo and film first were twined in Akira Kurosawa's 1943
directorial debut, Sugata Sanshiro ("Judo Saga"). The precursor
of every martial arts movie from Enter the Dragon to The Karate
Kid, it chronicled the unruly life of an unruly young judoka in
Japan. In one scene the upstart encounters a bunch of jujitsu
experts and uses judo to flip them into the sea. The kid's
teacher is not pleased. He warns, "To act as you did, without
meaning or purpose, to hate and attack--is that the way of life?
No. The way is loyalty and love. This is the natural truth of
heaven and earth."
Wolf embraces this cinematic judo philosophy. She has been
taught to avoid fighting, and she frowns on any ostentatious
display of technique. In fact, it's a point of pride with Wolf
that she has never had to fight in earnest. "Judo is almost all
defensive," she says in her cracked rasp of a voice. Judokas
under attack don't block or punch. Instead, they pretend to
yield to an opponent then use the opponent's motion to throw or
otherwise incapacitate him. In effect, the opponent defeats
himself. "I've never really hurt anyone using judo," Wolf says.
"The only time I ever really hurt myself was at a night class
during a film shoot." When she showed up the next day with a
black eye, the director made her swear off the dojo.
Chicago-born and bred, Wolf approaches judo and acting with
brisk confidence and trim efficiency. Pushed into acting by her
parents, she made her film debut at age six. "It was A Matter of
Principle," she says, referring not to her convictions but to
the TV movie's title. Her lone line: "Daddy, can I have a
cracker?" That led to commercials for everything from McDonald's
to Kleenex. "I was one of two girls in the Kleenex commercial,"
she recalls. "The director asked who wanted to play the sick
one." Wolf volunteered, a decision she still regrets. "I had to
sneeze for eight hours," she says.
She made her judo debut at age seven. Her older brother, Brett,
was taking classes and would practice on his sister, the two of
them falling, rolling and tumbling on a mat in the attic. "I
took ballet," Hillary says, "but it bored me." One night she
packed a duffel bag and announced to her parents, "I'm going to
judo class too."
"No way," said her father, Malcolm, who owns a trucking company.
"I'm going," she replied.
"No way," said her mother, Marilyn, a real estate broker.
Hillary went. A month later, weighing 45 pounds, she entered her
first tournament, the Junior Olympics in Chicago. She competed
in the girls' lightweight division. "I was not particularly
serious, and I got killed," she says. "But getting killed made
me realize how much I hated to lose." Over the next six years
she won six Junior Olympics and seven Junior National titles.
Wolf progressed steadily through the spectrum of self-defense
belts: white, yellow, orange, green, brown, black. As a brown
belt at the age of 14 she entered the Senior Nationals in
Honolulu. The tournament was open to all comers who had a black
belt and were at least 15, but because of her great success in
the juniors, Wolf received an invitation. "I was the youngest
person at the meet," she says. "Nobody even knew who I was." She
got everybody's attention with her opening moves in the women's
99-pound championship match. Wolf threw her 34-year-old opponent
onto her back to score an ippon, the judo equivalent of a pin in
wrestling. Four years later she won gold at the Junior World
Championships in Egypt, becoming the first American in any
weight division to win in that event.
While Wolf's father oversaw her judo career, her mother managed
the acting end. In between Hillary was a full-time student,
attending the same private school from kindergarten until her
high school graduation in June 1995. From age six to 13 she
averaged a movie a year. Playing an assortment of tigerish
pixies, Wolf had the energy of Bruce Lee loaded into a small,
wiry frame. Her sly comic edges reminded you of a young Tatum
O'Neal, an all-American girl with mischief inside.
The plot summaries Wolf offers to her movies are often
infinitely more entertaining than the films themselves.
Of Sunday Drive she says, "A family goes out for a Sunday drive
and stops at a restaurant and another family is at the same
restaurant and their car is the same color and the same make and
the kids get switched and there's this big mix-up and everything
Then there's Waiting for the Light: "My mother inherits this
diner somewhere in the boondocks and my brother and I scare this
weird neighbor and steal his fruit and he scares us and we meet
Shirley MacLaine, who's burned out and not into chakra or stuff
like that." Nevertheless, at the start of filming in Tacoma,
Wash., MacLaine gave each member of the cast and crew a
purifying crystal. "She said she'd brought the crystals to the
Pacific Ocean and dipped each one in salt water to neutralize
the negative ions or something," Wolf says skeptically. "I don't
know. Somehow I can't imagine Shirley MacLaine spending her free
time hand-dipping 200 crystals."
Wolf is so self-conscious about her acting that when she's
watching one of her films, she fast-forwards through scenes in
which she appears. Yet she studies videos of her judo matches
with a director's discriminating eye. "I used to be the sorest
loser," she says. "But I've learned that kind of attitude
prevents you from getting anything out of a defeat." Once all
instinct and daring, she now impresses with her mastery of
"Hillary's not your normal 19-year-old," says U.S. Olympic
assistant judo coach Ed Liddie. "With her films and all, she's
accomplished more things than a lot of people do their whole
Wolf says she's prouder of her achievements on the mat than on
the screen. "Getting a part in a movie is so much luck, it's
ridiculous," she says. "I was up for a part in The Karate Kid.
I'm glad I didn't get it. It would have been like betraying my
sport. Judo and karate are completely different. I don't even
know what karate is."
She hazards a guess: "It looks like chopping."