Best and Worst Child Performances

Steven Spielberg and Haley Joel Osment.

hide captionSteven Spielberg and Haley Joel Osment on the set of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Warner Brothers

The summer movie series continues with a look at the best and worst performances by a child actor. Murray Horwitz of the American Film Institute talks about memorable performances — and ones that might best be forgotten.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Well, you've waited for it all week. In fact, for two weeks. Behold, the TALK OF THE NATION'S summer movie festival. We love them, we hate them, but rarely can we forget the performances of child actors.

(Soundbite of The Sixth Sense)

Mr. HALEY JOEL OSMENT (Actor): (As Cole Sear) I see dead people.

CONAN: The pre-pubescent set has delivered some of Hollywood's most iconic moments, but a fine line separates the sweetness of the young Elizabeth Taylor from the wince inducing saccharine. Dakota Fanning, anyone?

Well, today we honor the best and worst child performances. What youngster's gut-wrenching realism caught you by surprise? Which pint-sized stars and starlets made your ears bleed? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And joining us here in Studio 3A is Murray Horwitz, director and COO of American Film Institute Silver Theater here in the Washington area. And Murray, even before start, there's one child actor who really you have to put all in a category all her own.

(Soundbite of Bright Eyes)

Ms. SHIRLEY TEMPLE (Actress): (Singing) On the good ship lollipop, it's a sweet trip to a candy shop. Where bonbons play on the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay.

CONAN: Well, nobody could do cute like Shirley Temple.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (American Film Institute): Oh, is that who that was?

CONAN: Oh, I know you'd figure out who it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. She really does get pride of place here. She was one of the biggest stars in the history of the movies in America. And that's one of the things about this category, Neal. Really you're talking about - I'm sure that every stage parent or screen parent who shoves their child forth to be a star thinks that they're all going to end up like, you know, Ambassador to the United Nations. They're going to end up being a Shirley Temple.

But the truth of the matter is some of the biggest stars did start out as kids. You know, you think of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor, you mentioned, and Natalie Wood. I mean, these are - and my personal favorite of the child stars - there is a short subject from 1933 called Rufus Jones for President which features -

CONAN: I missed that one somehow.

Mr. HORWITZ: You can find it on DVD. It's an amazing performance by the eight-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. HORWITZ: Just singing and dancing up a storm.

CONAN: I think I may have seen clips of it probably in his obit, but.

Mr. HORWITZ: So, you know, it can lead to stardom in other ways. But there's a kind of a dictum about working with kids on the stage or the screen, which is as a director you sort of just let them go. Point them in the right direction and let them do what they do.

But just as in certain areas - like mathematics, music, some of the other arts - there are some young people who can really, really act. And some of them have turned in some amazing performances. One of the reasons I think we're in mind of this this summer is there's a movie right now out called Little Miss Sunshine...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HORWITZ: ...which features an extraordinary performance by Abigail Breslin.

CONAN: Let's hear a clip from Little Miss Sunshine.

(Soundbite of movie, Little Miss Sunshine)

Ms. ABIGAIL BRESLIN (Actress): (As Olive) I don't want to be a loser.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): You're not a loser. Where'd you get the idea you're a loser?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive) Because Dad hates losers.

Unidentified Man #1: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a minute. A real loser is somebody that's so afraid of not winning, they don't even try. Now you're trying, right?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive): Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Then you're not a loser. We're going to have fun tomorrow, right?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive): Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HORWITZ: And I'll paraphrase a bit, but that's right I think before one of my favorite lines in the movie, where Alan Arkin says to her, he says are you kidding? I love you, and it's got nothing to do with your talent or your brains.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: This is Abigail Breslin, and at our theater, the AFI Silver, we frequently have directors and filmmakers talking about their work. And the directors of the movie, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a husband and wife team - terrific people and terrific directors - and they said she was one who really absorbed ideas and translated them through art and craft into an acting performance, and you can see it on the screen.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation.

Mr. HORWITZ: I want to really hear what our listeners have to say about these.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Jerry(ph). Jerry's calling from Cleveland, Ohio. Jerry, are you there?

JERRY (Caller): Yes I am. Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JERRY: Well I - my favorite one was Margaret O'Brien, Meet Me in St. Louis. She absolutely stole the show away from Judy Garland.

CONAN: Well, it's hard to steal anything from Judy Garland, but Margaret O'Brien was awfully good.

JERRY: Yes she was. And also in the Secret Garden she was excellent.

CONAN: And the Bad Seed, let's not forget that.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, that was not she. That was actually another Irish name. That was Patty McCormack.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

Mr. HORWITZ: In the Bad Seed.

CONAN: Oh, those Micks, I get them confused.

Mr. HORWITZ: You know, Margaret O'Brien, there's a famous story, which is one of those that if it's not true, it should be - but Vincente Minnelli could not get her to cry during the scene where Julie Garland sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

CONAN: A great song.

Mr. HORWITZ: And she had been so trained by her mother to be smiling and chipper all the time that Minnelli finally said cut, went up to Margaret O'Brien and said you know your little dog Jasper? Yeah, he was just run over by a cafeteria truck outside. And she started weeping, and Minnelli said action, and that's the performance you see on the screen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And Judy Garland married him, didn't she?

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right. What a man.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, of course, that's one child actress, former child - how are we defining child, Murray?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well thank you for asking. I think we sort of have to draw the line here at adolescence. So I mean - my staff at the AFI Silver, which helped me with this, said well you know, why don't we draw the line at puberty, which is different for some people than it is for others.

But there are so many coming-of-age films now, especially in the last 10 or 20 years, that we have to sort of - not - you know, somebody - among those who were not maybe in the hall of fame. Somebody nominated Hilary Duff, and she was kind of a ‘tween in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. But now, of course, she's sort of a young woman, so she's off limits.

There is a kind of - there's one coming-of-age movie performance that is so extraordinary that it deserves special mention, and that's Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut's the 400 Blows.

CONAN: And that's again a separate category.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Take all the awards, then give out the silver medals.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from - who is this from? Sandra(ph). Best performance by a child actor, I nominate Justin Henry who played opposite Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer and held his own. Did ever a child cry so convincingly? Worst? Well, there are just too many to choose from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Well it's interesting, you know. When we ask people about worst performances from a child actor, we're breaking a cardinal rule of show business, which is you never criticize anybody, particularly anybody living.

CONAN: I thought the cardinal rule of show business is never follow a dog act or a child.

Mr. HORWITZ: Or a kid, that's right.

CONAN: We were mentioning earlier that the immortal Elizabeth Taylor really came to prominence in the great National Velvet.

(Soundbite of movie, National Velvet)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actress): (As Velvet Brown) Mi?

Mr. MICKEY ROONEY (Actor): (As Mi Taylor) Huh?

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet Brown) Could The Pie win the Grand National?

Mr. ROONEY: (As Mi Taylor) Who do you think you are?

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet Brown) I'm the owner of The Pie

Mr. ROONEY: (As Mi Taylor) And does that give you leave to think you could take the richest, grandest prize a horse ever won? Why that's for kings, and you're just a wisp of a butcher's daughter who should be playing with a dolly.

CONAN: And does that give you leave to think that you could play Puck, me lad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Twelve years old, Elizabeth Taylor, and it's sort of all there. All the magic on the screen is there in that performance, and it's just really something.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Bill(ph). Bill's calling us from Detroit.

BILL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

BILL: I got - I don't know how great of an actor he is, but there's a scene in the movie The Champ when Ricky Schroder did The Champ with Jon Voight. At the end of the movie, when Jon Voight dies on a table, and he's saying wake up, champ, wake up, champ. A friend of mine and I saw it. We're both police officers, and were with his girlfriend, and we both cried, and she didn't do a darn thing.

CONAN: Well, Bill, I have to tell you that if you'd seen the original...

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: Jackie Coogan and...

Mr. HORWITZ: Well actually it's Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery.

CONAN: And Wallace Beery, yes.

Mr. HORWITZ: But you mentioned the other great child star, Jackie Coogan, in the silent The Kid with Charlie Chaplin.

CONAN: And - but that scene - you're the champ.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: What a tremendous, tremendous performance.

Mr. HORWITZ: And you're absolutely right about men being a sap for that. I mean, I'm getting tears welling up right now and I hate that movie. It's just great. It's just impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.

BILL: All right, Neal, great show. Thanks very much.

CONAN: Thanks. Bye-bye. Let's go to Jen(ph). And Jen's calling from Chattanooga.

JEN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JEN: I wish I had a name for you, but the little girl from Whale Rider.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes. Actually I have her name for you - and where is she? She's right here on my list. But she was actually - it was Keisha Castle-Hughes and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Whale Rider. And that's another good point we have to mention, Neal. There are some kids on whose shoulders the whole movie rests.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. HORWITZ: They're not just like incidental, they've got to carry the film.

CONAN: And that is one of them, I think.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, I agree.

CONAN: Jen, thanks very much.

JEN: You're welcome.

CONAN: You mentioned also that these child actors, some of these were spawning grounds for future, you know, mature actors. And well, one of those spawning grounds was that serial, The Little Rascals.

(Soundbite of The Little Rascals)

Unidentified Child #1 (Actor): (As Alfalfa) I don't like to brag, but Butch might as well give up right now. He hasn't got a chance.

Unidentified Child #2 (Actor): (As Darla) Oh, do you really think so?

Unidentified Child #1: (As Alfalfa) Just wait until you see what I did to the street.

Unidentified Child #2: (As Darla) Oh, look. Here comes Butch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Child #3: (As Butch) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Child #4 (Actor): You won't laugh when I'm mayor.

Unidentified Child #2: (As Darla) I'm proud of what Alfalfa's doing. If you expect to be mayor, you'd better start doing something too.

Unidentified Child #3 (Actor): (As Butch) I bet he hasn't done a thing.

Unidentified Child #1: (As Alfalfa): Butch, you're just jealous. You come with me, Darla, and I'll show you what I've done.

CONAN: And you want to sing... na, na, na, na, na.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's enough.

CONAN: No singing anymore.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well there's a real important point there to me, Neal. I mean, they get my award of awards, I mean even more than Sammy Davis. Because you know we go to the movies to see ourselves in some way, and you know the Little Rascals and the Our Gang comedies by Hal Roach were enough of a metaphor or an emblem that even E.L. Doctorow at the end of his novel Ragtime, you know, picks them as a kind of emblem of America and what America had become. And for many generations, The Little Rascals have sort of seeped into the national consciousness. I give them an ensemble award.

CONAN: And lest us forget that one of the late members of the ensemble was Robert Blake.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right.

CONAN: And now on - well, now doing what everybody in Hollywood is doing, he's on trial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz of the AFI Silver Theater, and we're talking today about best and worst child performances. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. The conversation also continues online. Listeners offer their picks at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And well, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Christopher(ph). Christopher calling us from Nevada.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Yes, hi. I think that Macaulay Culkin for his work in The Good Son actually falls under both categories.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well if you think about it, Shirley Temple, late in her career, fell into both categories, too. But anyway, what were you thinking, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER: I was thinking that he did a great performance. He was very convincing, but I actually thought it was - I put it under bad performance as well simply because it's kind of disturbing that they'd have a child actor do and say all those dark things that he portrayed.

CONAN: Yeah, people putting words in kids' mouths.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's very true. And also the other thing about Macaulay Culkin -and you mentioned late Shirley Temple - there's - the poor kid, you know, I mean there's overexposure. So finally you want to say get him or her just off the screen. I'm just annoyed by them by now.

CONAN: Absolutely. The worst thing about the success of the movie Seabiscuit was the fact that they re-ran the old movie, the Story of Seabiscuit, with Shirley Temple's first on-screen kiss, which we could all skip. But, of course, we mostly remember Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

(Soundbite of movie, Home Alone)

Mr. MACAULAY CULKIN (Actor): (As Kevin) Everyone in this family hates me.

Ms. CATHERINE O'HARA (Actress): (As Kate) Then maybe you should ask Santa for a new family.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Kevin) I don't want a new family. I don't want any family. Families suck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And that...

Mr. HORWITZ: Talk about putting words into the mouths of youngsters.

CONAN: Yeah, really. And the immortal Catherine O'Hara wasted in that movie. Not enough work. Christopher, thanks very much for the call. Let's go with -this is Mike(ph). Mike's calling from East Lansing in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

MIKE: The worst actor - child actor I can think of, I don't recall his name, but the movie was Problem Child with John Ritter. I think there was a sequel and they were both equally as bad.

Mr. HORWITZ: Michael Oliver is the actor's name.

MIKE: Okay.

Mr. HORWITZ: And by now he's probably 6'8" and weighs 280 and he's going to come and get me for this, but - don't shoot the messenger, Michael. It's - he gets a lot of votes for worst performance that not only is, as the title of Problem Child would suggest, a sort of obnoxious kid, it's really not a great performance.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail. This is from Sue B.(ph). The winner has to be, hands-down, Cammie King for her role as Bonny Blue Butler in the film classic Gone With the Wind. As a teenager in the late 60s, a friend and I attended a theater showing of this movie, which had quite a big audience. The first words the actress uttered were delivered in an ear-bleeding, nails-on-a-chalkboard, whiny screech which never did change throughout the entire performance. When she met her death from a fall off her pony, the entire audience broke into raucous cheers and applause. Now that's one bad performance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: There's a terrible, terrible story - a theater story about a very, very bad amateur production of The Diary of Anne Frank. And at the moment that the Nazis break in, the entire audience says she's in the attic.

CONAN: Let's talk with Stephan(ph). Stephan with us from Orem in Utah.

STEPHAN (Caller): Hi, guys. I'm glad I could make it through. I forgot to send my e-mail; I had two weeks to do it. But it's got to be - best performance was Natalie Portman in Leon, The Professional.

Mr. HORWITZ: There are a lot of votes for that too, Stephan. She's the orphan of a slain family. She has either befriended or adopted or otherwise has a relationship with Jean Reno as a hitman.

CONAN: He's a great hitman, too.

Mr. HORWITZ: Gary Oldman's in the movie, and it's truly an extraordinary performance.

STEPHAN: Yeah, it was. The fact that she had to act so old and so grown up and she was only 11 years old and she was forced to do that because of the slaying of her drug family, that it was just amazing that she could pull off something like that.

Mr. HORWITZ: One of our film programmers at the AFI Silver, Laurie Donnelly(ph), says that if you're impressed by that there is a French movie, a Jacques Doillon movie, called Ponette from 10 years ago in which a girl, Victoire Thivisol, is 5 years old, plays an orphan, and does the same sort of thing at the age of 5. She said it'll just blow you away.

STEPHAN: Terrific. Poonette(ph), you say?

Mr. HORWITZ: Ponelle(ph). I'm sorry, Ponette. P-O-N-E-T-T-E.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Stephan.

STEPHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's another e-mail, this from Todd(ph). My vote for best child actor would be Mara Hobel's performance of a young Christina Crawford from Mommie Dearest. I think she is best for being the worst.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's good. That's true. I had forgotten about that. That's a very good suggestion.

CONAN: Let's get one last call in here. Scott(ph). Scott calling from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

SCOTT (Caller): Hello, yeah. Long-time listener, first-time caller. I have to nominate the performance by the actor who plans Anakin in Episode I: Star Wars - a chance to break out an unbelievable, in my opinion, in the first three movies. It revitalized the franchise and totally blows it in just every scene.

CONAN: I was worried you were going for best there for a while.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

SCOTT: Heck, no. No way. It was making me cry, but definitely not for the right reasons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The only actor who could get upstaged by Jar-Jar, let's put it that way.

SCOTT: True enough.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call.

SCOTT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Next week we're going to be here with the next in our series, the best road movie. So e-mail us your nomination. Now, Two For The Road, not a bad movie in and of itself.

Mr. HORWITZ: Get your motor running, Thelma and Louise.

CONAN: And visit the Web site for a list of all of our categories so far. That's at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And hold your ears while I say that he's Murray Horowitz, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, Tomorrow)

Unidentified Child #5 (Actor): (Singing) Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love 'ya tomorrow, you're always a day away.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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All Movies Mentioned

The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment (best and worst)

Bright Eyes, Shirley Temple (best)

Rufus Jones for President, Sammy Davis, Jr. (best)

Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin (best)

Meet Me in St. Louis, Margaret O’Brien (best)

The Secret Garden, Margaret O’Brien (best)

The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Leaud (best)

Kramer vs. Kramer, Justin Henry (best)

National Velvet, Elizabeth Taylor (best)

The Champ, Ricky Schroeder (best)

The Kid, Jackie Coogan (best)

Whale Rider, Keisha Castle-Hughes (best)

The Little Rascals, ensemble (best)

The Good Son, Macaulay Culkin (best)

Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin (worst)

Problem Child, Michael Oliver (worst)

Gone with the Wind, Cammie King (worst)

The Professional, Natalie Portman (best)

Ponette, Victoire Thivisol (best)

Mommie Dearest, Mara Hobel (best)

Star Wars: Episode One, Jake Lloyd (worst)

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