Oscar: Children as Oscar Nominees

The youngest nominees in the Academy’s history are in the supporting leagues.

Justin Henry was only eight when first nominated for Kramer vs. Kramer, a remarkable achievement since he had never acted before. The youngest nominees among the supporting actresses are Tatum O’Neal, who won for Paper Moon in 1973, at the age of ten, and Quinn Cummings for The Goodbye Girl, who, at eleven, earned a nomination for her first picture, though she had appeared on TV before.

New Zealander Anna Paquin, who at eleven won Supporting Oscar for The Piano, is one of the youngest performers in Oscar’s history to have received the award. Paquin attained early attention for her riveting performance as Holly Hunter’s emotionally complex daughter in The Piano. Like Tatum O’Neal, Paquin was an engaging, knowing-beyond-her-years girl. However, unlike O’Neal, whose career was short, Paquin has proved herself to be a capable actress in both studio and indie movies (Hurly Burly, A Walk on the Moon, X Men).

Earning a nomination at an early age is more prevalent in the supporting categories because their players tend to be cast in younger screen roles. The Academy voters are also less discriminating in appraising performances by children and teenagers–sentimentality has always played a considerable role.

Children have been nominated for Oscars ever since the Supporting Oscars were created in 1936. Bonita Granville was the first child to earn a nomination in 1936, for These Three, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. In 1962, two young girls competed for the Supporting award: Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird); Duke won. The same situation prevailed in 1973, when Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon) and Linda Blair (The Exorcist) were Supporting nominees; O’Neal won.

At fourteen, playing a teen prostitute in Taxi Driver, Jodie Foster became one of the Academy’s youngest nominees. In 1977, Quinn Cummings was nominated for The Goodbey Girl, but the winner was Vanessa Redgrave for Julia. No child actress was nominated between 1977 and 1993, when Paquin received the award for The Piano. In later years, Juliet Lewis was sixteen when nominated for Cape Fear, in 1991.

By comparison, fewer child actors have been nominated: Brandon De Wilde (Shane) in 1953, Jack Wilde (Oliver!) in 1968, and Justin Henry in 1979. In 1999, at age eleven, childactor Haley Joel Osment co’starred with Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. More than any other members of the cast, which also included Oscar-nominated Toni Colette as his mom, Osment deserves credit for contributing to what became the most popular horror thriller in the genre’s history.

No child actress has ever been nominated for Best Actress. The youngest nominees in this category are Marlee Matlin (who won at 21 for Children of a Lesser God), Janet Gaynor and Kate Winslet, who each was twenty’two when nominated, the former for three roles, the latter for Titanic. Jackie Cooper, nominated at the age of ten for Skippy, is the only boy to compete for the Best Actor. But Cooper was a known quantity, a nephew of film director Norman Taurog (who helmed Skippy) and a veteran who began performing in Bobby Clark and Lloyd Hamilton comedies, and later in the popular Our Gang series, in which he made audiences laugh and cry with his mishaps and antics.

The Academy has acknowledged the importance of starchildren as box-office champions with Special (Junior) Awards. In 1939, Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney were awarded miniature Oscar trophies. Durbin was honored for her performance in her first feature, Three Smart Girls, which made her a star and also saved Universal from bankruptcy. Rooney received the award in recognition of his Andy Hardy movies, “for significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth and as a juvenile player setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”

In 1940, Judy Garland won a Special Oscar as “the year’s best juvenile performer,” for her appearance in the musical The Wizard of Oz, one of MGM’s all’time smash hits. Other children were honored with a Special Oscar in the 1940s, but later, youthful performances qualified for nominations in the legitimate awards.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (Continuum Int’l, 2004 paperback)