POSTED March 21 2014

Who’s on your all-star team of child actors?

Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

My younger daughter and I are in the middle of a binge-watch of Christian Bale films, which number a lot more than you might think. (Having started acting at 10, his movie career is nearly as long as that of Tom Hanks.)

We just finished Empire of the Sun, in my top four favorite Steven Spielberg films (along with E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Catch Me if You Can), and every time I watch it, I am stunned by the breadth and quicksilver mood changes of Bale’s performance, where he goes from exhilaration to grief in the span of a sentence. Every time I watch it, I ask myself, is this the greatest juvenile performance on film? And then I wonder, what are the others?

The great child actors don’t act, they behave.

What’s his competition?  Tremulous Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz believes in Munchkins and shrinks from The Wicked Witch, so I believe her dream is real. Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is so natural that I feel I am in the room with her. Wide-eyed Enzo Staiola in The Bicycle Thieves gives empathic reaction shots. Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon plays her role like a Dead End Kid. Fernando Ramos da Silva in Pixote,  a baby-face eight year-old, persuades me that inside him is a struggle between a cherub and a harden criminal. Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in E.T. (like Garland in Oz) make a fantasy seem real because their behavior is so recognizable. Likewise Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and A.I. Emma and Sarah Bolger in In America and Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee are so unassuming and in the moment that I feel I am in their shoes.

If there were an All-Star team of juvenile actors Bale et al would be my drafts. Yours?


  1. No contest: Haley Joel Osment in A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

  2. Tim Page says:

    Elizabeth T. Walker — then known as “Tippy” Walker — steals the show from Peters Sellers, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley and Paula Prentiss in her very first film, “The World of Henry Orient,” a gorgeous and neglected comedy from just about 50 years ago.

  3. Carrie says:

    I love Henry Orient, Tim. The saga of George Roy Hill’s behavior on that movie is really upsetting. But both Walker and Spaeth areincredible.

  4. David Broida says:

    Jackie Cooper

  5. I think your and all the readers’ selections are very good. I kind of give the nod to Christian Bale, but these are good memories. I think Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore are fine, but I’ve never liked E.T. and never will.

  6. It’s nice to see Jackie Cooper remembered. I would add Jackie Coogan also.

  7. Margie says:

    Victoire Thivisol in Ponette has THE most incredible performance. It’s an amazing little known French film, but well worth the time to track it down.

  8. wwolfe says:

    I’m very happy to see someone mention the wonderful performance from “Ponette.” That’s my choice, too.

  9. Lou says:

    Ron Howard!!!

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