Get Reel: Acting isn't always child's play
Children have been stealing scenes in movies as long as there have been scenes to pilfer. Most capitalize on their inherent cuteness while others can just flat-out act.
Abigail Breslin, the child star du jour, has both cuteness and acting talent in her corner, having already been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "Little Miss Sunshine." The 12-year-old has since starred in "Nim's Island" and "Kit Kittredge" after making her film debut at the tender age of 6 playing Mel Gibson's daughter in "Signs."
On the boy's side, Freddie Highmore has established an impressive film resume also. After his 12-year-old turn in "Finding Neverland," he has appeared in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "August Rush," "The Golden Compass" and "The Spiderwick Chronicles." Now 16, Highmore is approaching that awkward age where child actors seek a career as thespians and try to make the transition to adulthood.
We'll place emphasis on the word "try" because most child actors don't succeed as adults, as a look at the long list of career crashes will attest. These include the most popular and famous child actress of all, Shirley Temple, who, as an adult, became better known as an ambassador. One of her few mature roles of note was "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer," made when she was 19. If fans want to feel ancient, Temple is now 80.
Other young thespians whose adult careers displayed all the dazzle of a spent sparkler include the youngest Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal ("Paper Moon"), Linda Blair ("The Exorcist") Henry Thomas ("E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial"), Lukas Haas ("Witness"), Margaret O'Brien ("Meet Me in St. Louis"), Macauley Culkin ("Home Alone"), Hayley Mills ("The Parent Trap"), Freddie Bartholomew ("Captains Courageous"), Mary Badham ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), Jackie Coogan ("The Kid" - he later played Uncle Fester on TV's "The Addams Family"), Jackie Cooper ("The Champ" - he later played Perry White in "Superman"), Virginia Weilder ("The Philadelphia Story"), Mackenzie Phillips ("American Graffiti"), Brandon De Wilde ("Shane"), Baby Peggy (aka Peggy-Jean Montgomery), Edward Furlong ("Terminator 2: Judgment Day"), the Coreys - Feldman and Haim - and the stars of many John Hughes films, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.
And who can forget Pia Zadora, who was 10 when she electrified the acting world in "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"? She's now 54.
Before the hate mail starts flying in from fans of some of these stars, let's just say that while these thespians may still be acting, their roles as adults don't measure up to the quality of their films and performances as children. We'll also note that we're not including television work here, only films.
Clearly, most child stars falter when they get older because the cuteness factor disappears. Others get sidetracked by other pursuits, while the rest may have lacked the skill, luck, proper management or drive to keep their name on the marquee. Then there are those juveniles who, when they reached adulthood, simply quit the business or died. River Phoenix, one of the best child actors of his generation, died at 23.
While a number of young thespians have successfully made the transition to adulthood, an even smaller field consists of great child stars who have become great adult stars.
To try to remove some of the subjectivity surrounding the term "great," we'll list actors and actresses whose performances in films when they were young and when they were old both received praise from critics, the public or both. In some instances, the films may be more praiseworthy than the performances, but the child still made an impression. For brevity's sake, we're only focusing on actors and actresses who made a name for themselves in film, though some television work may be worth mentioning. We'll also limit ourselves to a dozen choices, opening ourselves up to attack from the omission brigade.
The following actors and actresses are listed in alphabetical order.
Think the granddaughter of John Barrymore and great niece of Ethel and Lionel Barrymore has acting in her genes? She was 7 when she played Gertie in "E.T.," and while the quality of her adult roles has varied wildly, she has undeniable talent, as was demonstrated in such films as "Ever After." Her greatest accomplishment, other than surviving her turbulent childhood, has been replacing Meg Ryan as the go-to actress for romantic comedies.
She was 14 when she made her film debut in "Once Upon A Time in America." As an adult, she has shown she's more than just an outrageously beautiful face in such films as "House of Sand and Fog," "Requiem for a Dream," "Little Children" and "A Beautiful Mind," for which she won an Oscar.
Made a powerful debut at 15 in "Over the Edge" and has continued to build a career notable for its variety and quality as an adult. His resume includes "Drugstore Cowboy," "There's Something About Mary," "To Die For," "Beautiful Girls" and an Oscar-nominated turn in "Crash." We'll forgive him "Herbie Fully Loaded."
Without question, the greatest child thespian of them all when you consider the variety and quality of her roles, and how little they relied on cuteness. "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Taxi Driver" provide prime examples. In addition to these dramas, the young Jodie acted in a solid comedy ("Freaky Friday"), a musical spoof ("Bugsy Malone") and a thriller ("The Little Girl Who lives Down the Lane"). Add to those accomplishments her two Oscars as an adult actress - "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Accused" - and Miss Foster rates as the Transition Queen of Queens. Interestingly, her latest film has her starring alongside Breslin in "Nim's Island."
While Foster is arguably the greatest child actress in the biz, the youngster with the most talent is unquestionably the child born Frances Ethel Gumm. Garland's performance in "The Wizard of Oz" alone grants her nonnegotiable greatness. Has any child sung a song with more maturity in her voice than Garland in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"? That's a rhetorical question. Her brilliance was rightfully recognized with a Juvenile Oscar.
Yet as amazing as Garland was as a child actress, she was just as incredible, if not more so, as an adult. Her resume includes "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Harvey Girls," "Easter Parade," "A Star is Born" and "Judgment at Nuremberg." She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for "Star" and Best Supporting Actress for "Judgment."
We won't get into Garland's personal life as an adult, which resembled a train wreck in a tornado.
Even before he was Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show," Ronny, as he was billed back then, played Winthrop Paroo in "The Music Man." As an adult, Howard starred in "American Graffiti," one of the greatest ensemble films of the 1970s. He made a bigger name for himself on television with "Happy Days" and later as a director, winning an Academy Award for "A Beautiful Mind." Still, few child actors have made such a successful transition to adulthood with so little emotional baggage going along for the ride. Heck, he's only been married once.
"Manny & Lo," "Ghost World," "Lost in Translation," "The Prestige," "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Say no more. She's also Woody Allen's latest muse.
Far too many males of a certain age would sell their souls to be Portman's paramour. Her spellbinding performance in "Beautiful Girls" at 15 may have something to do with this forbidden attraction. She was also incredible at 13 in "The Professional." As an adult, she impressed in "Garden State." The less said about her performances in the "Stars Wars" films the better. The good news for all these males is that Natalie is now 27. Good luck, guys.
While the quality of his work as a child and adult actor has had more ups and downs than Joan Rivers' face, Mickey Rooney, born Joe Yule Jr., has been making movies of merit for 70 years. The Andy Hardy films may not be high art but they're pleasurable enough. Ditto for his movies with Judy Garland such as "Babes in Arms," for which he was nominated for an Oscar. As a teen, he played Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and starred with Spencer Tracy in "Boys Town." As an adult, he received Oscar nominations for "The Human Comedy," "The Bold and the Brave" and "The Black Stallion." Not bad for the former husband of Ava Gardner, who later wed Frank Sinatra.
Her work as a teen shines with roles in "Beetle Juice," "Heathers," "Mermaids" and "Edward Scissorshands" as proof. As an adult, she continued her winning ways with Oscar-nominated performances in "Age of Innocence" and "Little Women." Other films includes "Reality Bites" and "Girl, Interrupted."
Temple may be the most popular child actress, Garland the most talented and Foster the most versatile, but without a doubt, the most beautiful, especially as a young woman, was Elizabeth Taylor. Her child career in films such as "Lassie Come Home" and "National Velvet," while notable, was definitely trumped by her work as an adult. To wit, Oscars for "BUtterfield 8" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well as Oscar nominations for "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Raintree Country." You want star power - Liz in her prime had enough to light up Los Angeles. Her social life also may be personally responsible for boosting the circulation of every gossip magazine known to mankind.
In the beauty category, Wood more than holds her own with Taylor. Her tragic death by drowning spawned so many tasteless jokes that the public may have forgotten her noteworthy contributions as an actress, first as a child in such films as "Miracle on 34th Street," next as a teen in "Rebel Without a Cause" and then as an adult in such films as "Splendor in the Grass" and "Love with a Proper Stranger." She received Oscar nominations for the latter three films. She also starred in one of the most popular films in the 1960s, "West Side Story," a movie that won 10 Academy Awards. While Wood looked great as Maria, her singing voice was dubbed by the Grand Duchess of Dubbers, Marni Nixon.
Sean Astin, Christian Bale, Thora Birch, Robert Blake, Claire Danes, Patty Duke, Kirsten Dunst, Helen Hunt, Diane Lane, Lindsay Lohan, Roddy McDowall, Anna Paquin, Christina Ricci, Kurt Russell, Brooke Shields, Dean Stockwell and Elijah Wood.
ON THE FENCE
The following actors and actresses made name for themselves as children and/or teens. It remains to be seen if they'll succeed as they approach or settle into adulthood:
Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Hilary Duff, Amanda Bynes, Frankie Muniz, Tina Majorino, Heather Matarazzo, Jena Malone, Leelee Sobieski and, gag, the Olsen twins.
Play's the thing
It's now time for TRIVIA.
Last month's tester: The father created an anti-hero. The son portrayed a superhero. Name the father and son and what they are famous and infamous for. Clue: The father and son are both alive.
Answer: J.D. Salinger, author of "The Catcher in the Rye," who created the anti-hero character of Holden Caulfield; Salinger's son, Matt, portrayed the superhero title character in "Captain America."
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