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Friday, February 15, 2013
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The Top 10 Oscar-Nominated Performances By Pre-teens

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor

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As 2012 was wrapping up, I took a look at some of the older members of the industry that were top-tier contenders for citation by the Academy. Today I’m back with the other side of the coin: A list of the top 10 performances by pre-teens that Oscar wound up nominating. Unlike the subjects of that older piece (no pun intended), they didn’t have much experience, but like many of those highlighted in the aforementioned article, they still managed to capture the hearts of many voters.

It’s much harder for younger contenders to get noticed than their older counterparts. Academy members seem to loathe nominating pre-teens unless the work is a real standout and they’re head-over-heels for the film of which the performance is a part. They also prefer to sort of ghettoize younger candidates into the Supporting categories as opposed to the Lead ones, something senior actors and actresses know about all too well.

Yes, Oscar does enjoy young and attractive nominees, but that applies to those who are well past puberty. When you’re still in grade school, your work is often dismissed as not being on the same level of more seasoned competitors. There’s periodically some validity to that, since young actors/actresses are sometimes judged on a sliding scale, but when they get into the Oscar conversation, it’s because they’re well past that level and into the realm of being as good or better than anyone else that year.

Some young thespians I cite had a smear campaign of sorts launched against them, based solely around trying to divert credit for the work to the director instead of giving it to the child. I never buy that argument.

Either way, not many actors under the age of 12 have managed to capture the Academy’s respect, so I’d like to highlight those who did. I’ll note Keisha Castle-Hughes was a 13 year old at the time of her nomination for Whale Rider, so she was not in play here. But the following were:

10. Abigail Breslin for Little Miss Sunshine

While hardly a known commodity, Abigail Breslin wasn’t an unknown either when she put on a tiny fat suit and stole our hearts in Little Miss Sunshine. Just 10 years old at the time, she wasn’t just swept in with the Academy’s love of the film, she actively made it in on her own accord. The flick only got four nominations (though it won two, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay), including hers, so she was obviously a favorite part for many Oscar voters. The performance isn’t a giant of cinema, but it is one of the most charming of that year and deserves a mention.

Since that nod, Breslin’s career has been fine but mostly unspectacular. She’s going to be turning 17 soon, though, so I expect to see the next decade or so be filled with more mature performances from her. We know she’s talented, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her get another nomination one of these days.

9. Jackie Cooper for Skippy

The youngest Best Actor nominee in history, Jackie Cooper managed to be nominated at the tender age of nine. Yes, he actually got a nod in the Lead Actor category, which is almost impossible to do. Skippy was nominated for four Oscars (winning Best Director), so Cooper’s work wasn’t the only thing voters liked. That said, it likely was among the features they liked best of all.

Best known to many for his work in the Superman franchise as Perry White, Cooper passed away almost two years ago. He may be most highly regarded there, but his Oscar nomination as a young boy is what I’m sure he and his family were most proud of. It was a true triumph, one I’m not sure we’ll ever see again in that particular category.

8. Patty McCormack for The Bad Seed

At the age of 11, Patty McCormack broke through to a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in The Bad Seed. Another four-times-nominated film, McCormack’s work was the most high-profile in the flick and was rightly noticed by the Academy. Her performance was quite unsettling and is probably the high water mark for young performers seeking to do this sort of work.

McCormack has done her fair share of solid work, and just this past year popped up in The Master, but The Bad Seed  is the apex in my eyes.

7. Brandon DeWilde for Shane

An iconic western, Shane received six Oscar nominations and won for Cinematography, but the title character wasn’t among them. Someone who did get nominated, though, was Brandon DeWilde, who at 11 years of age was the one toward whom the Academy gravitated.

DeWilde died in a road accident at 30, but we’ll always have his performance in Shane. It was hardly his only solid screen performance, but it’s the one that’ll be remembered most of all. He has a place in many a heart for his iconic line in the film: “Shane … Shane … Come Back!”.

6. Justin Henry for Kramer vs Kramer

Few actors can have a better start than Justin Henry did. At the age of seven, he was chosen for a big part in Kramer vs. Kramer, and a year later he was a Best Supporting Actor nominee at the Oscars. The youngest Supporting Actor nominee of all time, Henry helped break hearts in the film. The Academy went for the flick in a big way, giving it five Oscar wins out of its nine total noms.

To some degree, Henry is thought to have gotten his nod due to how much voters dug the movie, but his performance deserves more than that. Like many others on this list, he never again approached this type of work, but his career is hardly in tatters. When I think of Henry, I think of Kramer vs. Kramer, bar none.

5. Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Much like Henry, Quvenzhane Wallis couldn’t have asked for a more dream start to her career. For a screen debut, you really can’t beat being the lead in Beasts of the Southern Wild. A nine-year-old nominee for Best Actress, Wallis is a little more than a week away from trying to become the youngest Oscar winner ever. Her chances of winning are somewhat remote due to the smear campaign I mentioned that suggests her performance came more out of filmmaker Benh Zeitlin’s direction than her acting talent, but this is still a major accomplishment.

Moving forward, Wallis has landed a role in the highly anticipated film Twelve Years a Slave, and the sky is the limit for her. If she chooses to make this a long-term profession, I can see Wallis winding up as one of the greats. She certainly has the skills to make it happen.

4. Mary Badham for To Kill a Mockingbird

Merely 10 at the time of her nomination, Mary Badham was a part of an all-time great film project in To Kill a Mockingbird. An Academy favorite, the movie won three Oscars out of the eight nominations that were bestowed on it. One of those was a Supporting Actress nod for the young Badham, who played the iconic character of Scout. Badham translated the character perfectly from the page to the screen, and it resulted in a well-deserved nom.

Badham is best known for her role here, but she also has plenty of fans for a particular episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” She hasn’t worked in a while, but she’s certainly given us a top-flight performance admire for all time. Opposite Gregory Peck, she more than was able to hold her own, and how many people can say that?

3. Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon

Take away all of the antics and just think about the performance Tatum O’Neal gives in Paper Moon. It was so good that not only did she get a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the age of 10, but she also wound up winning the Oscar. The youngest winner in any category, O’Neal was the highest-profile nomination that the film received (it had four in total, but only she emerged victorious). It’s an incredibly underrated performance, and it’s one that’s only been ignored more due to O’Neal not exactly capitalizing on her win.

O’Neal did her best work in Paper Moon, but she’s hardly been a slouch since. The Bad News Bears came shortly after, and even after a rough patch in her career, she had a solid guest arc on the show Rescue Me. Her Oscar-winning performance stands apart from everything else, but it’s hard to deny the talent she has at her disposal.

2. Anna Paquin for The Piano

Joining O’Neal as a young winner, Anna Paquin captivated audiences as an 11-year-old in The Piano. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three of them, including Best Supporting Actress for Paquin. Hardly the flashiest performance in the film, it is the best part of the work to me. There’s a tremendous amount of maturity in Paquin’s performance, and that certainly contributed to the Academy embracing her before she hit her teenage years.

The only person on this list to have done better work after their nomination (or nomination and win, in her case), Paquin has proven to be an immensely talented actress. Her work has been eclectic, and while most know her now for her work on True Blood, she gave a towering performance in 2011 in the long-delayed Margaret. That performance deserved more acclaim, but I have a feeling once True Blood ends we’ll be seeing Paquin impress us on the big screen once more.

1. Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense

The film’s reputation may not be as sterling as it once was, but you all remember the first time you saw The Sixth Sense — and notably the performance of Haley Joel Osment. A genre film that managed six Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor citation for Osment, it was clearly the type that captured the zeitgeist on all levels. That, of course, extended to Osment’s performance, which everyone talked about. He saw dead people, and you saw what I consider to be the best performance ever by a pre-teen.

Osment continued to impress after his nomination with performances in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Pay It Forward, but he’s moved more into video game voice work of late. I’m not sure we’ll ever see him return to the heights of The Sixth Sense, but that achievement will be with him forever.

As you can see, the saying that “age is just a number” goes both ways. These 10 performances were incredible regardless of who did them, but when you consider how young these actors and actresses were, that just makes it even more impressive.

We might see another young winner emerge at the Oscars next week, but regardless of that, I know I’m looking forward to the next pre-teen performance to capture the Academy’s heart. Something just feels happier about the Oscars when they do.

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