Child stars come of age at Oscars: Kirsten Dunst, Kristen Stewart, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Things don’t always work out for child actors in Hollywood. But this year’s Oscar nominations showed three promising paths to grown-up success. Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (also “Power of the Dog”) earned their first nominations this year after long careers that started before any of them could legally drive.

It’s certainly not unheard of for child stars to become Oscar nominees or winners as adults. There are examples going as far back as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who made names for themselves as children and earned multiple Oscar noms as adults, and Rooney ended up winning an Honorary Oscar in 1983 for his lifetime achievements. Jodie Foster earned her first Oscar nomination for “Taxi Driver” (1976) at age 14 before growing up to win two Best Actress trophies for “The Accused” (1988) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Natalie Portman broke out in “Leon: The Professional” (1994) when she was 12 before becoming a three-time Oscar nominee in adulthood, winning for “Black Swan” (2010). And more recently Saoirse Ronan earned her first nomination at age 13 for “Atonement” (2007) before picking up three more for “Brooklyn” (2015) “Lady Bird” (2017), and “Little Women” (2019) in her 20s.

Dunst got her start around the same time Portman did, earning critics’ prizes and a Golden Globe nomination for “Interview with the Vampire” (1994). She had additional high-profile roles in “Little Women” (1994) and “Jumanji” (1995), transitioned to teenage roles in films ranging from “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) to “Bring it On” (2000), and played Mary Jane Watson in the “Spider-Man” movies (2002-2007) as she made a fairly smooth transition into adult roles, for which she has received ample plaudits: Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for “Melancholia” (2011), an Emmy nom for “Fargo” (2016), and a SAG Award as a member of the “Hidden Figures” (2016) ensemble cast. But no Oscar noms until just now.

Her on-screen son Smit-McPhee is still just 25-years-old, but he arrived at his first Oscar nomination with more than a decade of film experience. His breakthrough was playing Viggo Mortensen‘s son in the dystopian Cormac McCarthy adaptation “The Road” (2009), followed by the lead role in the horror remake “Let Me In” (2010) as a boy who befriends a vampire; he earned Critics Choice nominations for Best Young Actor/Actress for both. Like Dunst, he took his turn in a Marvel superhero franchise, playing a young Nightcrawler in “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016) and “Dark Phoenix” (2019). He has worked steadily throughout the last 10 years, but “Power of the Dog” may be the turning point that transitions him into the next phase of his acting career.

Stewart’s career trajectory has been especially interesting. She was a pre-teen playing the daughter of aforementioned former child star Jodie Foster in the David Fincher thriller “Panic Room” (2002). Through her adolescence she made other studio movies like “Catch That Kid” (2004), “Zathura: A Space Adventure” (2006), and “The Messengers” (2007), but even then she was drawn to indie, films like “Undertow” (2004), “Into the Wild” (2007), “The Yellow Handkerchief” (2008), and “Adventureland” (2009). It’s kind of ironic, then, that her most famous role was in a blockbuster franchise, the “Twilight” saga (2008-2012), especially since she followed that with a bunch more art house movies like “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014), “Still Alice” (2014), “Certain Women” (2016), “Personal Shopper” (2016), “Seberg” (2019), and now “Spencer.” So really she’s more of an indie darling who, like Smit-McPhee, was briefly involved with vampires.

Now she, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee can forever add “Oscar nominee” to their resumes — and soon, perhaps “Oscar winner.” As of this writing Smit-McPhee is the only one who leads our Oscar odds: he’s the heavy favorite for Best Supporting Actor. But Dunst is a close second in our Best Supporting Actress odds, and the Best Actress race has been all over the map this season with all of the nominees being snubbed by the SAG Awards, the BAFTAs, or both, so Stewart could still challenge in that wide-open race. You could already almost consider it a lifetime achievement award since these three actors have a combined age of 95 but between them represent more than 60 years of film experience.

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