W.C. Fields famously said about show-business, “Never work with children or animals.” This year, a trio of films are challenging that conventional wisdom with regard to the animal kingdom (“War Horse,” “We Bought a Zoo,” and “The Artist,” whose canine companion has inspired an unlikely awards campaign), but perhaps more surprising is how many films in this year’s Oscar race are dominated by children.
Fourteen-year-old Asa Butterfield plays the title role in “Hugo,” an orphan who lives inside the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. Thirteen-year-old Thomas Horn makes his film debut in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as a boy searching for answers after his father is killed on 9/11. And though the existential drama “The Tree of Life” has no single focus point among its cast, Fox Searchlight’s campaign materials identify young Hunter McCracken, who plays Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain‘s rebellious son, as the film’s only lead performance.
Children have featured prominently in Oscar films before, but usually in supporting roles – or lead roles masquerading as supporting, such as Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”; she received a Supporting Actress bid last year despite having more screentime than her Best Actor-nominated co-star Jeff Bridges. Children are almost always represented in the lower category; only two actors under age eighteen have ever competed in the leading race – Jackie Cooper in “Skippy” (1931) and Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider” (2004) – compared to sixteen in supporting.
Best Picture nominees centered around young children are few and far between. Haley Joel Osment arguably played a lead role in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), but, like Steinfeld, was nominated as a supporting actor and had a big-star for a co-lead (namely, Bruce Willis). “Hope and Glory,” released in 1987, told the story of a British family during World War II through the point of view of a ten-year-old boy (Sebastian Rice-Edwards). Before that, of course, was “E.T.,” Steven Spielberg‘s 1982 family film about a group of kids harboring an alien. “E.T.” lost Best Picture to the adult-oriented biopic “Gandhi,” which is not remembered nearly as fondly thirty years later.
Older teenagers have fared better in recent years. Dev Patel was seventeen when he filmed “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won Best Picture in 2009. “Winter’s Bone,” “Precious,” “An Education,” and “Juno” also earned Best Picture nods with teen protagonists, though the stars of those films were older than their characters, and all of them were in their 20s by the time the Oscars rolled around.
Will voters be able to relate to this year’s crop of prepubescent stars? All three are aided by Oscar-anointed supporting actors and directors with strong track records: “Tree of Life” was helmed by Terrence Malick, a nominee for “The Thin Red Line”; “Hugo’s” Martin Scorsese is a multiple nominee and recent winner for “The Departed”; and “Extremely Loud’s” Stephen Daldry is so well-liked by the Academy that he has been nominated for all three of his previous directing efforts. But it’s worth noting that the only Daldry film that failed to receive a Best Picture bid was “Billy Elliot,” the one about the kid.
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