By Beckett Mufson
If Quvenzhané Wallis wins at this year’s Oscars, she will be the youngest Academy Award winner ever, aside from Shirley Temple, who won a non-competitive award in 1935. If Wallis doesn’t win, she will still be among the elite dramatic forces of small children who are good at pretending to be other small children, which is a respectable accomplishment. Each of these starlets earned a permanent place in the day care of cinema history, and are the standard that child actors everywhere are measured against.
Here they are the best of the youngest and the youngest of the best the Academy has ever seen.
Justin Henry, 8 years-old, for “Kramer vs. Kramer”
Justin Henry is the leader of this prestigious bunch because of his Best Supporting Actor nod for playing Billy Kramer in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). His childlike honesty and earnestness are the heart and soul of the film, earning him his place as the youngest Academy Award nominee of all time.
Quvenzhané Wallis, 9 years-old, for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ portrayal of Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) illustrates a vastly different perspective on childhood than the metropolitan family crisis that earned Justin Henry his nomination. Hushpuppy plays with rodents and bugs instead of toys, and tears apart crabs with her bare hands instead of having her dad make her French toast. She’s the beastly Incredible Hulk to Henry’s prim and proper Captain America, but both actors convey the same childlike innocence that brings movies about family to the next level. This innocence, combined with her compelling reaction to some very adult problems, puts her in the top tier of the ferocious competition for Best Actress of 2013.
Jackie Cooper, 9 years-old, for “Skippy”
“Skippy” came out in 1931, so it was among the earliest films to participate in the Academy Awards. Thus when Jackie Cooper was nominated for the Oscar at a mere nine years of age, he didn’t have much competition for the imaginary award of “Youngest Nominee Ever.” That said, his interpretation of Skippy was still spot on, highlighting the highs and lows (mostly lows) of Depression-era class struggles. He held the title of youngest Oscar nominee until 8-year-old Justin Henry swept it away in 1979.
Mary Badham, 10 years-old, for “To Kill a Mockingbird”
The classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” received acclaim on every level in 1960 when it was published, and the 1962 film adaptation starring film legend Gregory Peck followed suit. Mary Badham’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress was among a whole slew of awards that marked “To Kill a Mockingbird” as one of the most celebrated films of the decade. Badham’s Scout Finch lives the typical life of a tomboy in a small Alabama town (if there is such a thing) until her father, Atticus, defends a black man in court. Badham’s performance stunningly captures a child struggling to deal with race and isolation in pre-Civil Rights Movement America.
Abigail Breslin, 10 years-old, for “Little Miss Sunshine”
“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) was at the forefront of the mid-2000s indie movie boom that redefined the reinvigorated the field’s mainstream appeal. It had everything the perfect indie movie needs: a soundtrack of pop rock hits, the hand drawn titles that show just how unique and nostalgic the movie is, and a quirky female main character. While the first two aspects have become somewhat cliche pillars of the indie genre, the quirky female is expertly executed by Abigail Breslin. Her desire to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant while maintaining her quirky integrity (all the way through the supremely uncomfortable strip tease) is as believable as it is heartwarming (which is a lot).
Tatum O’Neal, 10 years-old, “Paper Moon”
Tatum O’Neal is the youngest person to emerge victorious from the vicious, sometimes disgusting battlefield that is Oscar season. At 10 years old, she played Addie Loggins in “Paper Moon” (1973), the tale of a con man and the girl who may or may not be his daughter. The movie begins on a decidedly depressing note: with Addie’s mom’s death and subsequent funeral. The story quickly picks up as Addie embarks on a heartwarming journey to her aunt’s house, finding happiness where she least expected it: with the con man who may or may not be her dad. Her heartwarming performance made her the youngest winner for Best Supporting Actress and the youngest person to win an Oscar in any category. Unfortunately for Tatum, Quvenzhané Wallis is creeping up her turf, and may snatch that honor out from under her aging feet at Sunday’s award ceremony.
Quinn Cummings, 10 years-old, “The Goodbye Girl”
Last, but not least, Quinn Cummings was nominated for her performance as Lucy McFadden in Neil Simon’s classic rom-com, “The Goodbye Girl” (1977). Lucy is put in a classic American predicament in this Oscar-heavy film: her single mother is about to helplessly fall in love with some dude (but that dude is the hilarious Richard Dreyfus, so I guess we don’t blame her), and it’s up to her to make sure he’s a decent fellow. Every scene with her and Dreyfus is hilarious, and the end gets you right in the feels. Dreyfus himself puts it perfectly talking to the mom: “Listen, I can’t stand you, but you got a ten year-old in there I’m nuts about.”