Oscars: Young Actors Glow With Complex Performances

Tim Gray
Variety

Producers of the Oscar telecast always try to trim the running time, so the last thing they want is another award category. But the films of 2016 have offered some remarkable work, so this might be the perfect year to revive a long-dormant Academy Awards tradition: A special Oscar to young actors.

There are a flood of knockout performances by actors playing characters of high-school age or younger. Viggo Mortensen has rightly received a lot of attention for “Captain Fantastic,” but how about those kids? George MacKay is terrific in a complex role as the oldest, teenage son. And the five actors who play his younger siblings each create a distinct character and manage to work well as an ensemble.

Other standout performances: Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”; John-Paul Howard, as Chris Pine’s son in “Hell or High Water”; and Jovan Adepo, who holds his own with a powerhouse cast in “Fences.” They certainly merit supporting consideration.

But a trickier question is young actors who carry the movie, or at least large chunks of it: Sunny Pawar, age 8, in “Lion”; Lewis MacDougall in “A Monster Calls”; Neel Sethi, “The Jungle Book”; Madina Nalwanga, “Queen of Katwe”; and Jaden Piner and Ashton Sanders, as the same character at different ages in “Moonlight.”

It’s possible that some will be nominated in the lead category, or even supporting. But, as 2015’s Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) and Abraham Attah (“Beasts of No Nation”) proved, young actors have an extra hurdle with the Academy Awards.

Audiences are impressed by young performances; great work is great work (Tremblay got a SAG Award nomination; Attah was nominated as part of the best ensemble). But often young actors are unknown, so it’s hard to tell whether they’re just being themselves or if the director used a lot of takes/tricks to pull out that performance.

There’s another yin-yang hurdle with Oscar and SAG Awards, where nominations are made by actors. For someone who’s worked hard at their profession, it can be both impressive and unnerving to realize a kid can do what you do, at a fraction of your age.

In 1934, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences handed a special miniature Oscar to Shirley Temple “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.” And why not? She was the world’s biggest movie star.

There were 11 more juvenile Academy Awards (or “juve Oscars,” as Variety called them back then), including to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The 12th and final one went to Hayley Mills in 1960.

Two years later, the Academy rule books stopped listing instructions about the juve Oscars, without an explanation. And that year, Patty Duke (“The Miracle Worker”) and Mary Badham (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) were nominated as supporting. They weren’t the first kids nominated, but Duke was the first youngster to win.

Since then, young actors have occasionally competed in the four main acting categories. Back in 1979, 8-year-old Justin Henry was nominated for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” where his competition included 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas of “Being There.” (For the record, Douglas won.) Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin won in 1973 and 1993, respectively, for supporting actress while Timothy Hutton won supporting actor in 1980. So it happens, but not frequently.

It’s never easy to gain Oscar attention, but sometimes — as in 2016 — ya need to give the kid a break.

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