“Never work with animals or children.” – W.C. Fields.
Both kids and animals can be scene-stealing and unpredictable. They’re threats on set – not just because a tantrum might hold up filming, but because the ability of a child to do good work is pretty damaging to ego-driven actors. I know for a fact that a child could not do my job. Could a kid do yours? It was a little controversial when 9 year old cutie pie Jacob Tremblay failed to receive an Oscar nomination for his work in Room, but the truth is, the members of the Academy will always be reluctant to admit than a 9 year old may have out-acted Leonardo DiCaprio. Patty Duke was 16 when she won for The Miracle Worker. Keisha Castle-Hughes was just 13 when she was nominated for Whale Rider; same for Saoirse Ronan for Atonement. Quvenzhané Wallis was 9 when she was nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild but the title of youngest nominee goes to Justin Henry who was 7 when he filmed Kramer Vs Kramer, and 8 when he attended the ceremony.
Shirley Temple: Shirley started acting when she was just 3 and broke out in the movie Bright Eyes, a film written as a vehicle for her talents. She received a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1935, at the age of 7 and remained the top box-office draw for four years running in the late 1930s, with hits like Curly Top and Heidi defining her career. Her wholesome image led to merchandising opportunities and soon she had a line of clothing, dolls and dishes, which doubled what she made in movies. She was tabloid fodder too: in American people gossiped about whether her curls were real, often tugging on her hair in person. Abroad it was thought that she was not a child at all, but a 30 year old dwarf, and even the Vatican set about confirming it. At the top of her fame she even got to meet the Roosevelts at the White House, but her popularity decreased sharply when she hit puberty, a fate all too many child stars know, but her agent didn’t see it coming and actually turned down the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (Judy Garland would snap it up). Several films made while she was a teenager flopped and she was retired completely at the ripe old age of 22.
Macauley Culkin:Little Mac started acting at the age of 4. John Hughes discovered him for the John Candy film Uncle Buck but it was his next film, Home Alone, that would make Culkin a star. He hosted SNL at the age of 11, starred in Michael Jackson’s music video for Black or White (and also in Michael Jackson’s trial for sexual molestation), and followed up with a successful sequel, and memorable roles in My Girl, Richie Rich, and The Good Son. But guess what? Puberty! Macauley Culkin retired from acting at age 14 and nobody heard much from him except for the occasional arrest for drugs. He’s since popped back up doing very sporadic work and performing in a comedic rock band called Pizza Underground (he has previously stormed off a stage during a kazoo solo, which is not weird at all), and looking so haggard at times that fans worry he’s dying. So far, still alive.
Jodie Foster: Jodie started her career as a child model at the age of 3 (she was the Coppertone girl) and made the leap into acting a couple of years later. Her breakthrough was of course in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which she portrayed a child prostitute. The role earned her her first Oscar nomination. She followed that up with successful turns in Freaky Friday and Bugsy Malone, making her a bona fide teen idol and the first on this list to continue working into her teens, and of course beyond. She interrupted her successful career to attend (and graduate) Yale, and though she loved her time as a student, she knew she wanted to pursue acting as a career. [Sidebar: during that time she was stalked by John Hinckley, who later attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagon in a bid to impress her.] Roles as an adult were sparse at first but she broke through for a second time playing a rape survivor in The Accused, and this time she won her Academy Award. She followed that up with The Silence of the Lambs, a wise choice that cemented her as a star, and then turned director with Little Man Tate. Her career has had some ups and downs but she’s worked consistently and just got her star on the walk of fame earlier this year, having directed George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Money Monster.
Haley Joel Osment: He got his acting start in a commercial for Pizza Hut and achieved fame by the age of 11 , thanks to a starring role in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense that garnered him an Oscar nomination (though he’d also appeared in Forrest Gump). He capitalized on his fame with follow-up roles in Pay It Forward and AI: Artificial Intelligence, earning him praise and Roger Ebert’s assessment that he was one of the finest working actors of the time. But you know what happens next: puberty, and its accompanying acting slump. He went dormant for a while, except for the obligatory child actor DUI, but is now back at it, acting in films that nobody sees.
River Phoenix: Like many, River got his start in commercials but you all know his claim to fame: Stand By Me. He’d grown up in a weird family and never attended school, but he was gifted when it came to acting. Stand By Me made him a household name and got him on the cover of Teen Beat and its ilk, but his next few roles were duds. Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty would earn him an Oscar nomination though and put him back on the map. His role opposite Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho established him as an edgy heartthrob with leading man potential, but immersing himself in intense roles was taking its toll, as were his struggles with addictions. River had turned to acting in a bid to support his family but music was his first love, and he started playing in a band. He even got to play with his friend Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), which is what his siblings were there to see that night at the Viper Room. Flea was onstage playing with Johnny Depp when River was outside dying on the sidewalk. His brother Joaquin dialed 911 while his sister Rain gave him mouth to mouth. He was rushed to the hospital but died, of a drug overdose, at the age of 23. Fans were shocked – he’d had a squeaky-clean image until then (“the vegan James Dean” they called him) and the press loved the story, so much so that they broadcast Joaquin’s 911 call and snuck into the funeral home to snap pics of him in his casket. He was slated to start filming Interview With the Vampire just 2 weeks after his death – Christian Slater replaced him, and donated his salary to two of Phoenix’s favourite causes, Earth Save and Earth Trust.
Abigail Breslin: A familiar refrain: she began appearing in commercials at the age of 3. Her first film role was with Joaquin Phoenix in Signs, but of course what you really know her from is putting the sunshine into Little Miss Sunshine, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She later teamed up with another on this list, Jodie Foster, for Nim’s Island, and had a fun and memorable role in Zombieland. She also took on Broadway, playing that role that Patty Duke made famous in The Miracle Worker, and acted opposite powerhouses Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.
Tatum O’Neal: She is the youngest person to have ever won an Academy Award, for starring opposite her father Ryan in Paper Moon. Did it fuck her up? Of course it did. She had a tempestuous, abusive relationship with her father, which culminated in her getting molested by his drug dealer. She went on to star in The Bad News Bears and Little Darlings, and even became Michael Jackson’s first girlfriend, but she couldn’t hold on. Drugs derailed her. She made her one-time husband, volatile tennis star John McEnroe, look like the stable one in the relationship. She’s a millionaire smoking crack in her Manhattan apartment, unable to stop even when her behaviour was destroying her relationship with her own kids. Let’s hope the cycle does not repeat.
Anna Paquin: Anna is the second-youngest Oscar winner, for her role in The Piano, with her only previous credit playing a skunk in a school play. Did it fuck her up? Looks like no. She continued with moderate success as a child actress while also attending school, including one year at Columbia before roles in Almost Famous and the X-Men franchise helped her to transition into acting as a young adult. Then she hit it out of the park with her first role in television, starring in True Blood where she not only earned professional acclaim, she also met her husband, co-star Stephen Moyer. She has children who love her, step-children who tolerate her, and is managing to live scandal-free.
Judith Barsi: Perhaps not a household name, her biggest on-screen credit was Jaws 4: The Revenge, but she also provided voicework for some of my favourite 80s animated films, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven. By the time she was in grade 4 she was pulling in six figures, supporting her parents and paying their mortgage. This made her father increasingly volatile, and his abuse made Judith act out, pulling out her own eyelashes as well as her cat’s whiskers. Judith’s mother planned on leaving him but never got around to it – he shot his wife and 10 year old daughter in the head as they slept, then soaked them in gasoline and burned them before later killing himself.
Drew Barrymore: Her first job was at 11 months old – she auditioned for a dog food commercial and landed the part when the dog bit her and she didn’t cry. Drew made her debut on film at the age of 5 but was 7 when she achieved stardom, starring in Spielberg’s E.T., and becoming the youngest SNL host that year. Crazy fame and permissive parenting meant she was smoking cigarettes at Studio 54 at the age of 9, drinking at age 11, and baby’s first snort of coke by 13. It’s not a joke – the poor dear was in rehab at 14 and spent 18 months in a facility for the mentally ill. She attempted suicide and went back to rehab, and it wasn’t until she lived with David Crosby and his wife that she was able to turn things around, suing for emancipation at the age of 15. The rockiness continued though. She posed nude with her fiancé at the age of 17, and then again for Playboy (her godfather, Steven Spielberg, gifted her with a quilt to “cover herself up” and her Playboy photos doctored by his art department so she appeared fully clothed). Eventually she straightened herself out and went on to act, produce, and start a loving and stable family of her own.
Jake Lloyd: Jake had appeared in Jingle All The Way and Apollo 11 before appearing in the 1999 Star Wars prequel, but you can bet it was being hand-picked by George Lucas to be the young Anakin Skywalker that was his claim to fame. Citing bullying and exhaustion, he retired from acting in 2001 and we didn’t hear much from him, other than appearances at comic book festivals, until he was arrested in 2015 for reckless driving and resisting arrest. He’d been off his meds for schizophrenia and had also recently attacked his mother so Lloyd is currently in a mental health institution seeking treatment.
Danny Lloyd: On a happier note, another Lloyd is living a different kind of life. You may remember young Danny as Jack Nicholson’s co-star in The Shining. He was chosen for his excellent attention span and managed to film the whole thing without ever realizing he was doing a horror film. Having hit this height so early on, he retired from acting at the age of 9 and today is a biology professor in Kentucky.