Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Kids are Better Than Alright

by Eric Peterson

This week's episode was all about child stars, the dangers of being world famous at a very young age, and the number of entertainers who began working professionally as children and have, either despite or because of that experience (and probably, in most cases, a mixture of the two), achieved success as adults.

Entertainment is one of the few professions where children are still employable; stories about people naturally involve children, and audiences would never accept an adult playing the role of a young child -- teenagers, maybe (see: Grease), but kids in the business are a necessity.

But are they any good?

Some of them certainly are. We discussed Shirley Temple on the show, who was -- at the height of her career -- was a four or five year old child, and simultaneously the biggest box office draw in the world. In 1935, she won an Oscar in special recognition of her contribution to film the year before -- a year in which she made eight films.

There are a lot of problems with using the Academy Awards as a barometer of quality; they're so incredibly political -- literally the result of campaigns waged by the nominees, and besides, who's to say among five performances as five different characters is the "best"? But in the absence of any other metric, there are some performances by kids that the industry has chosen to nominate for one of its highest honors.

There used to be special categories for "Juvenile" performances (Judy Garland won the same award as Shirley in 1940, the year after The Wizard of Oz), but they eventually went away, and the only way for the Oscars to recognize child actors was to nominate them along with the adults.

Tatum O'Neal was 10 years old in 1974 when she won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her work in Paper Moon, beating out her co-star Madeline Kahn and fellow child star Linda Blair (The Exorcist). Tatum played the accomplice of a Depression-era con man (played by her father, Ryan O'Neal, who was not nominated for an Oscar for his work - just saying), and there's a decent argument to be made that she belonged in the Lead Actress category. There's little argument that she's terrific in the film, moving from vulnerability to precociousness in the blink of an eye sometimes.

In 1994, three women won Oscars for The Piano: director/screenwriter Jane Campion (nominated for directing, but a winner for her screenplay), Holly Hunter, and Anna Paquin in the Supporting Actress category -- Anna was 11 years old. As I mentioned on the show, as much as I admire Paquin's later work, I didn't really care for her performance in The Piano. As I recall, she was often grating in the film, and I wonder if she was supposed to be at some level. Mostly, I remember that I believed that Rosie Perez should have won instead, for her performance in Fearless (if you haven't seen it, don't judge; Rosie was amazing).

Six years later, Haley Joel Osment was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in The Sixth Sense. He didn't win; that award went (deservedly, I think) to Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules. But again, there's a real argument to be made that he belonged in the lead category as the little boy who "sees dead people." The film is really all about him, and there's good reason to believe that the producers of The Sixth Sense ran him in the supporting category because he had a better chance to win there, as Tatum and Anna had done before him. If you've seen The Sixth Sense, you know how good Haley is in this film -- because of the plot, he's asked to do things that weren't imminently relatable to his young experience, and the surprise ending aside, Haley's understated nature of his performance is ultimately what made that film a worldwide hit (sorry, Bruce).

More recently, in 2013, Quvenzhané Wallis was nine years old when she was nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Beasts of the Southern Wild (a movie she had auditioned for when she was only five). She is still, to this day, the youngest performer ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in a lead category (before Quvenzhané, the youngest nominee was Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was 13 when she was nominated for Whale Rider). I really wanted Quvenzhané to win in 2013 (the Oscar ended up going to Jennifer Lawrence for her work in The Silver Linings Playbook). Yes, she was really young, but she was fantastic. I heard people say that as a child, she wasn't really acting, but probably just playing, and wasn't doing the work that her fellow adult nominees were doing. I didn't care, really; all I knew was that she leapt off the screen in that movie, and affected me much more deeply than the other nominated performances I'd seen that year. I was sad, but not surprised, when the Academy did not send a 9-year old home with an Oscar.

And perhaps the critics had a point. Of the five young Oscar nominees discussed here, only Paquin has been doing work as an adult that I've seen (and yet, another young Oscar nominee -- Jodie Foster -- later went on to win two Academy Awards as an adult, so it's not always a fluke). Quvenzhané is still a kid, but her follow-up effort, as the lead in Annie, didn't show the same promise that she exhibited in Beasts.

So are amazing performances by children just luck? Do they have an advantage, in that they don't edit their emotions in the way that most adults have learned to do? Do they really understand, when immersed in a set and a story, that they're pretending? I guess for me, the most important question is: does it really matter -- so long as they're telling a story in such a way that it takes the audience with them, at least for a time.

If I missed your favorite performance by a young child here, leave us a comment below. And, as always, thanks for listening.

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