Oscarette: The Forgotten Juvenile Oscar

Shirley Temple in ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ (1938) | Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When we see a knock-out performance from a child we tend to latch on to them with a sense of awe and we look upon their careers with a morbid fascination, curious as to whether their lives will go off the rails or not. And when we think about child actors in Hollywood, names like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Roddy McDowall come to mind. Of course, some of today’s A-list players also graduated from that La-La Land kindergarten, such as Kurt Russell, Drew Barrymore, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling, amongst others.

Believe it or not, once upon a time the Academy recognised child performers with a distinction of their own, and in 1934 the ‘Juvenile Award’ was established. Following Jackie Cooper’s youngest-ever Best Actor nomination for his role in Skippy way back in 1931, the Academy took it upon themselves to create a special award that identified exceptional talent from child actors. It was an attempt to create a level and just playing field – perhaps as not to humiliate any adults who came up against the precocious little sods.

The first ‘Juvenile Award’ was given to Shirley Temple in 1934, ambiguously for her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment. Without any specific performance referenced, the award began as a somewhat tokenistic means of encouragement. The trophy itself stood at half the size of the genuine article and was dubbed the ‘Oscarette‘ by Bob Hope (it didn’t take much to tickle people’s funny bones back then). And for the next 25 years the pint-sized award was given out sporadically with 12 recipients in total. Hayley Mills took home the last Juvenile Award in 1960 for her role in Pollyanna. The tradition came to an end – due in part to the creation of the ‘Best Supporting’ awards, where child actor’s would find themselves included – and the countless child prodigies to follow in their footsteps where left to take on the grown ups.

Anna Paquin in ‘The Piano’ (1993) | Miramax

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, today’s generation of kids spend their time consumed with the multitude of social media platforms and are reliant on a constantly-evolving assortment of gizmos (okay, THAT makes me sound old). I have a teenage daughter and so my words come to you from experience, and the scariest thing of all is the constant need for gratification that so many of them have. Can you imagine what a ‘Juvenile Award’ in today’s world of shallow reality-stardom would do to those already-bloated egos? Add that to the weight of a superficial industry and God only knows that sort of monsters we’d get!

Of course, I am being facetious. I am, sincerely, fascinated by the history of the Juvenile’s Award within the Oscars, and the fact that young performers like Tatum O’Neal (aged 10 for Paper Moon), Anna Paquin (aged 11 for The Piano) and Quvenzhané Wallis (aged 9 for Beast of the Southern Wild) have proven that the award is no longer relevant. Talented child actors can indeed hold their own among the grown-ups.

Having said that, please humour me for a moment: let’s take a look at some juvenile performances throughout the years that may have qualified for that prestigious Oscarette. Ladies and gentlemen, here are some outstanding performances from several of Hollywood’s most micro players. I hereby bestow their rightful awards upon…

  • Corey Haim – Best Actor for Lucas (1986)
  • Christian Bale – Best Actor for Empire Of The Sun (1987)
  • Natalie Portman – Best Actress for Leon (1994)
  • Brad Renfro – Best Actor for Apt Pupil (1998)
  • Rory Culkin – Best Actor for Mean Creek (2004)

We have left out some of the more obvious candidates for the sake of conversation. Who do you think would be worthy of the Oscarette?

Christian Bale in ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987) | Amblin Entertainment