Friday Night Seitz

Great performances by child actors

Slide show: Why act your age? These young stars -- including Jodie Foster and Kirsten Dunst -- had it from day one

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    Henry Thomas, “E.T.” (1982)

    The spirit of Steven Spielberg’s early work is incarnated in Henry Thomas’ performance as Elliott, the fatherless boy who bonds with the title character of “E.T.” The key to this amazing performance is its ability to convey innate decency without becoming cloying and phony, which is often a problem with star turns by very young actors playing “nice” characters. From the minute you see Eliott, you instinctively grasp that he’s a good, smart boy with an unusual ability to empathize with others, as well as sufficient intelligence to process the astonishing things that are about to happen to him and devise clever solutions to plot problems. Thomas, who was just 10 during production, also manages subtle shifts in mood and motivation that would trip up many older actors. For instance, the moment near the end where Eliott fake-cries for the benefit of assembled government agents is a perfect example of comic acting that signals its true intent to the audience while plausibly fooling the other characters on-screen. The film’s final shot — a close-up of Thomas’ face as he watches the starship ascend — is worthy of the greatest silent films, capturing a moment of profound evolution, and perhaps the start of maturity, with no words.

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    Mary Badham, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

    How can you not love Mary Badham’s gritty beguiling performance as Scout Finch in the screen version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? It embodies the movie’s mix of wonder, terror, innocence and wisdom, and also makes you believe that this little girl would one day grow up to write the novel that would one day be adapted into the film you’re watching. There isn’t a moment in her entire performance that I don’t love unreservedly — even when she struggles with the dialogue, it comes across as a child’s fumbling with complex thoughts rather than an actor’s difficulty mastering lines. The high point for me, though, is the scene where she puts together all the pieces of her terrifying Halloween night experience and ultimately realizes that her secret savior, Boo Radley, is in the room with Scout, her brother Jem, her father, Atticus, and the town doctor. Watch that smile very slowly dawning on her face, then listen to how she says, “Hey, Boo.” It might be one of the most beautiful moments in any film, ever.

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    Cameron Bright, “Birth” (2004)

    For degree of difficulty, Cameron Bright’s performance in the underrated Nicole Kidman vehicle “Birth” (2004) deserves at least an 8 or 9. Just think about what this boy has to do: 1) convince you that he might very possibly be the reincarnated soul of the heroine’s dead fiancee; 2) be a bit spooky, as befits the plot; 3) suggest a deep need for mothering that awakens the heroine’s own material instincts; 4) project such quite charisma and force that you could believe that the heroine would find herself responding to him romantically, despite her better judgment; and 5) pave the way for the revelations in the film’s final act, which I won’t reveal here in case you haven’t seen it. This small but important moment between Kidman and Bright under a bridge in Central Park encapsulates many of those qualities in less than a minute of screen time. Just look at how the boy carries himself. He’s 10 years old, but he makes you believe that his soul is old, maybe ancient.

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    Jackie Cooper, “The Champ” (1931)

    The ending of the 1931 Wallace Beery boxing picture “The Champ” is so unabashedly sentimental, and still so powerful, that people who heard about it but haven’t seen it might assume that the little kid who’s watching out for his alcoholic fighter dad is some moppet who was cast because of his ability to cry on cue. But that’s not anywhere close to an accurate description of Jackie Cooper, whose performance here and in many other films is defined by a street-tough quality that perfectly evokes the personality of a boy forced to grow up way too fast. (“Put your feet out one after another,” he advises the Champ, who’s having trouble climbing stairs. “That is a good idea,” the boxer replies.) If you didn’t know Cooper was the member of a showbiz family who’d be acting practically since he was old enough to walk, you’d think he got pulled out of some Bowery slum during an open casting call.

    Of course this facade of indestructible hardness makes it all the more devastating when a Cooper character buckles under misfortune and reacts as any little boy would. I cited him for “The Champ” here because it’s his best-known performance, but I could just as easily have listed him for “Skippy,” the first feature based on a comic, and a film that earned Cooper the distinction of becoming the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award as best actor in a leading role.

    Trivia note No. 1: This is not the same actor who played opposite Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid”; that was Jackie Coogan, who might have made it onto this list had he not been 6 when that film was shot, and thus incapable — in my opinion — of giving a self-willed and fully conscious performance.

    Trivia note No. 2: Cooper was the youngest actor ever nominated in any acting category until 1980, when Justin Henry — who was just 7 when he appeared in 1979′s “Kramer vs. Kramer” — got a best supporting actor nomination. I didn’t list Henry here for the same reason that I didn’t list Coogan for “The Kid”; although he’s charming and natural, I can’t believe that a child that young could really be said to give a “performance.” Agree? Disagree? Let’s argue about it in the Letters section.

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    Kirsten Dunst, “Interview With the Vampire” (1994)

    The movie version of Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire” was in many ways a misfire, with two miscast leads (Tom Cruise as a sexually magnetic bloodsucker and Brad Pitt as an innocent) and a number of tonal problems; I’ve forgotten almost everything about it except for Kirsten Dunst’s astonishing performance as a preadolescent girl who is turned into a vampire by Cruise’s Lestat in order to give Pitt’s narrator, Louis, somebody to care for, and a reason not to abandon Lestat. This girl, who is dubbed “Claudia,” is the film’s most disturbing character because she throws the essence of vampirism into such sharp relief: Her body is frozen at exactly the age she was when the transformation happened, but her mind continues to age, which means that she’s experiencing adult feelings (sexual desire, embittered wisdom, the onset of cynicism) even as she remains outwardly a child. I cannot even imagine what the director, Neil Jordan, told her, or what Dunst imagined, in order to produce the performance she gives here, but it’s astounding — sweet, disturbing, grotesque, acerbically funny and ultimately tragic. She was just 11 when she acted in the film, and it’s arguably her best work.

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    Elizabeth Taylor, “National Velvet” (1944)

    Warning to those who haven’t seen “National Velvet“: Elizabeth Taylor’s character, the horse-obsessed Velvet Brown, is not a psychologically complex modern child, but a heroic abstraction, a ray of sunshine who unhesitatingly believes in her own potential and that of her beloved gelding Pirate (nicknamed “The Pie”). If you aren’t into “force of nature” performances, best to avoid this one; but if you respond to that sort of energy to any degree, both the film and Taylor’s performance are made for your needs.

    In the role that made her an international star, Taylor projects such uncomplicated decency, pouring on the optimism with every line and gesture, that both the plot’s obstructions and the viewer’s objections can’t help but fall before her. I adore her work here and find it inspiring; she puts across Velvet’s pluck, work ethic and selflessness so convincingly that it turns the story into an inspirational manifesto as well as a children’s film. It sits comfortably alongside “E.T” and “The Black Stallion” on a list of films that I watch with my kids when I want to recharge my spiritual batteries. “Do you think the Pie could win the Grand National?” Velvet asks the horse’s trainer, Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney). “Velvet Brown, who do you think you are?” he asks. “I’m the owner of the Pie,” she replies. Can’t argue with that.

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    Kevin Hooks, “Sounder” (1972)

    Kevin Hooks comes in just under the wire of my arbitrary age cutoff for this slide show; he was 13 when he starred in “Sounder,” Martin Ritt’s 1972 drama about a sharecropping family’s struggles in the Depression-era South. I might have given him a pass anyway, though; his star turn as David Lee Morgan is one of my very favorite performances by a young actor, and one that tends to get forgotten in slide shows about great child performances, perhaps because the subject matter is so grim that list-makers tend to forget that it’s technically a children’s film. Adapted from William H. Armstrong’s novel, “Sounder” is named after the family’s loyal dog, which is itself associated with the family’s strong, brave and loyal dad, Nathan Lee Armstrong (Paul Winfield). The father disappears fairly early in the tale, arrested for stealing food for his starving family, and the dog, shot and wounded by deputies, vanishes along with him. What remains is essentially a two-character drama, with Hooks and the great Cicely Tyson (playing David’s mother, Rebecca) carrying much of the story’s weight, and conveying its major theme (the difficulty of maintaining faith and perseverance in the face of poverty and racism) in silent gestures as well as in dialogue. Hooks gives one of the great reactive performances in 1970s cinema. Its high point might be the scene where David brings a cake to his father in jail and is forced to watch while guards break it up and eat it in front of him under the guise of “searching” it. This one painful scene encapsulates the essence of racism better than any other in its era; its awful weight is conveyed almost entirely in Hooks’ expressions as David tries and fails to hide his anger and sorrow.

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    Tatum O’Neal, “Paper Moon” (1971)

    This Peter Bogdanovich film would fit nicely on a double bill alongside “The Champ” (see previous slide on Jackie Cooper); both films are about children being forced to grow up too fast, and to look out for parents who by all rights should be looking out for them. O’Neal’s costar in this movie about a father-daughter team of scam artists is none other than her biological father, Ryan O’Neal; no doubt a lot of their natural chemistry came from having observed each other for years before Bogdanovich cast them together. But O’Neal’s performance is a marvel in its own right, and I have no doubt that she would have been just as impressive, albeit with a slightly different energy, had she been cast opposite Burt Reynolds, Elliott Gould or some other comparably big star from that era. Just look at her steely gaze and listen to her clipped, forceful delivery in this car scene between her and her dad, which would be remarkable even if it weren’t shot in a long, unbroken take that left zero room for error on either actor’s part. She’s got a bit of Jackie Cooper’s pugnacious brightness, plus a hardbitten wisdom that’s entirely her own. You believe that a little girl could actually talk this way to her father. He has the height, but she has the authority.

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    Jodie Foster, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

    Jodie Foster’s performance as the child prostitute Iris in “Taxi Driver” is the most disturbing performance on this list, not just because of the character’s debased circumstances and forced ease with sexuality, but because of Foster’s eerily spot-on rendition of a little girl faking sophistication because her circumstances demand it. I love her physical awkwardness in this; even though shockingly adult words and phrases pour out of her, she still walks, talks and giggles like a middle schooler. Her slow dance with her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), is alarmingly tender; Foster mashes against him the way a daughter would hug a beloved father rather than a sordid exploiter/lover. But my favorite scene of hers is the coffee shop conversation between Iris and her wannabe-savior, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), which includes a hilarious bit where Iris tries to deduce Travis’ astrological sign, sounding for all the world like a slightly ditzy college student making small talk with George Segal in some early ’70s swinging comedy. “That’s it, you’re a scorpion, I can tell every time,” she says. She’s a dumb kid playacting sophistication; he’s an adult with the mentality of a troubled 14-year-old boy. They belong together.

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    Haley Joel Osment, “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (2001)

    I put this performance last because it’s the only performance on the list so sad and disturbing that I can hardly bear to watch it. Director Steven Spielberg has a long track record of wresting superlative performances from child actors, but he outdid himself here, spurring an already spookily assured young actor to new heights of confident invention.

    I used the phrase “degree of difficulty” in a previous slide about Cameron Bright in “Birth”; if Bright in “Birth” is an 8 or 9, this performance is a 10, because at least the character in “Birth” is a warm-blooded human being who has grown up in the world we all know and understand. Osment’s character in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” — a robot named David, purchased by a couple to replace a blood son who’s in suspended animation while doctors try to cure his rare disease, and then cruelly abandoned — has no real-world reference point, and the emotional specifics of David are so unique to “A.I.” that I can’t think of many previous films about robots that would have been much help to Osment on set. (Even the “Blade Runner” androids were essentially people who’d been labeled as something else.) David doesn’t experience feelings as the rest of us know them — he’s not wired for that — but he does experience some mysterious, protean version of them, and one of the film’s many tragedies is that, like Frankenstein’s monster, he dies (or more accurately is frozen) just as he seems to be on the verge of fulfilling whatever latent potential for full humanity that he possesses. One of the many astonishments of Osment’s performance is that he manages to suggest the full (potential) humanity that’s buried under David’s circuitry — and oppressed by “orga” society — without italicizing it. This is what I call a “tip of the iceberg” performance. You only see a small part of what’s there, but the outline of the rest is faintly visible, drifting beneath a chilly surface.

    Note: I was tempted to put Osment’s performance in “The Sixth Sense” (1998) on this list, but didn’t only because it would have given two slots to one actor.