Once upon a time, the Academy regularly gave special Oscars — they were miniature statuettes — to child actors.
Shirley Temple was the first such winner, in 1934, when she was just 6. In the following years, awards went to Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, Claude Jarman Jr., Ivan Jandl and Bobby Driscoll.
That list is revealing: Yes, we take Rooney and Garland for granted. Deanna Durbin is alive still, and she was a huge market factor at Universal in her day. Movie buffs love Margaret O’Brien, but many readers might have a hard time naming the movies that helped win awards for Garner (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”), Jarman (“The Yearling”), Jandl (“The Search”) and Driscoll (“The Window”).
Children grow up; their fans forget. Freddie Bartholomew was a sweet, grave-faced English boy. He was superb in “David Copperfield,” whether playing opposite Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver or W.C. Fields. But he retired; he became an adult. On the other hand, some child performers had an air of cuteness, of precocity, of anything but true naivete, so that Graham Greene once accused Shirley Temple of being an adult pretending to be a child — and he was sued for saying it.
Yet I think everyone knew what Greene felt. Judy Garland may give the most tender performance of childhood in “The Wizard of Oz,” but she was 17 when that film opened. Patty Duke is magnificent as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” but by the time she did the movie she was 15. Similarly, Mickey Rooney was never quite a child. He was a kid and remains one at 86.
These considerations arose as I tried to answer the editor’s request: the 10 best performances by children in world cinema — “children” being defined as 14 and under. Don’t bother to argue with that rule — save your real dispute for the choices. It’s a wide-open field. But here are my 10, in no particular order.
I want Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St Louis.” She is the heart of the family, the brave urchin at Halloween. She joins her older sister (Judy Garland) in an exquisite dance number and smashes her own snowmen as if moved by Judy’s wistful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She doesn’t plead for love or cuddles, but reveals a tough, imaginative, depressive child, someone to worry over.
I want Jean-Pierre Leaud in Francois Truffaut’s “Les 400 coups.” He was 14 and playing younger, a version of Truffaut himself, the wild child who might end up badly, but who seems saved by being in a movie and by realizing that seeing yourself on a screen is a way of trying to grow up. The last frozen close-up, as the boy runs to the ocean, is a perfect expression of the fear and the hope in a child waiting for life.
I want Patty McCormick in “The Bad Seed.” Now, this is a strange film, and Patty plays a very bad girl indeed — about as far from any sentimental sense of childhood as movies have gone (short of kids like Damian in “The Omen”). The acting is awkward sometimes, until you see that Patty was probably a good girl and she’s trying to imagine evil.
Here’s one that’s recent, but I can’t forget Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” a clever and intricate film in which Osment plays the kind of kid who needs a lot of help in life, but who ends up giving help to others. He’s a spirit more than a real child, and it’s extraordinary that Osment grasped that without being sinister, or coy.
Anna Paquin in “The Piano” is the embodiment of Dickensian childhood, in some ways a very wise old woman, and then a kid who does cartwheels on the stormy beach. She has very troubled elders to put up with, and brings such fondness and charity to the art of watching them. There are children who promise eternity, stamina and endurance. She is one of them.
In Carol Reed’s film “The Fallen Idol,” Bobby Henrey plays a little boy who is cared for by the family butler (Ralph Richardson), until he begins to be caught up in that sad man’s private life and the possibility of murder. They say Reed schooled Bobby in every word and gesture. It worked.
Do you remember Carlos Saura’s film from the 1970s, “Cria cuervos,” in which Geraldine Chaplin played with a little girl, Ana Torrent? Extraordinary, haunting, they both play the same person.
Pushed for space, I want George Winslow, who played in two Howard Hawks films. He’s the kid onboard ship who finds Marilyn Monroe trying to squeeze through a porthole in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Sad of voice and expression, no male onscreen understood her better. And he’s also the boy who terrorizes his kidnappers (Fred Allen and Oscar Levant) in “Full House.” The funniest kid in pictures.
Tatum O’Neal as Addie Pray in “Paper Moon,” acting with her father (and doing her best to educate him), grim, tough, a killer, but a frightened child, too, and divine in her scenes with Madeline Kahn.
Last: Kelly Reno in “The Black Stallion,” swimming for his life, finding the horse, riding him at magic hour and then coming home, being trained by Rooney and winning the big race. Are we quite sure Kelly Reno wasn’t Mickey Rooney?
There are many I’ve left out — Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Dean Stockwell, Jon Whiteley, Brandon DeWilde, Mary Badham, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Wood, Jodie Foster, Hayley Mills — but they are not forgotten.
David Thomson is the author of “The Whole Equation: The History of Hollywood” (Knopf) and the recent biography “Nicole Kidman” (Knopf).