the gold rush

A History of Child Oscar Nominees

Summoning circle for Alan Kim’s Oscar nomination. Photo: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

It’s rare that the annual Critics Choice Awards offer much of interest to talk about beyond, “Wow, that’s a lot of nominees in every category!” but this year, we got one of the most genuine and disarming moments of the season: 8-year-old Minari star Alan S. Kim won the award for Best Young Actor/Actress and got about ten words into his acceptance speech before getting overcome by tears, yet still plowing through every single thank-you to his castmates, director, and production companies, concluding with an obliteratingly sincere, “I hope I get to be in other movies … is this a dream … I hope it’s not a dream” — at which point the audience at home was weeping right along with him.

Awards season is a lot of things — it’s campaigning and getting screeners out and deciding which people are overdue — but it’s also just a series of moments which can end up building on each other to form a narrative. And Alan Kim at the Critics Choice Awards was most definitely a moment, and in particular a moment that happened smack in the middle of the window when Oscar voters are filling out their ballots. So now the question becomes: Did Alan Kim steal the hearts of awards voters enough that he might have a shot at a nomination? It’s a long shot, but — as we have all probably grown tired of observing by now — it’s a weird and unpredictable year where quite simply, anything could happen.

But Oscar nominations for kids are hard to come by. At 8 years old, Kim would be right up there with Kramer vs. Kramer’s Justin Henry as the youngest acting nominee ever and the first child nominee since Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012. There’s always been an odd double-edged sword aspect to children campaigning for Oscars, which has made for infrequent but memorable instances when the Academy has embraced kid performers.

There is often an implicit suspicion when it comes to child performances in film. They’re so young! How can they be that good at acting? It must be the director very skillfully maneuvering them toward the end result on the screen. The degree to which this is true or not is unknowable, of course, but it’s harder to make the case for bravura acting coming from a child. This probably plays into the fact that very often, child performers are campaigned in the supporting categories even when they’re the leads of the film. Tatum O’Neal won the Supporting Actress Oscar for 1973’s Paper Moon despite being the co-lead of that category. More recently, Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) were nominated as supporting performers even though they were the leads and focal points of their respective films. Usually, when there are exceptions to this rule, it’s when there are no other big movie stars in the cast who can lay claim to the lead mantle instead. Back in 2003, Newmarket Films tried to get cute with its campaign for Whale Rider, placing star Keisha-Castle Hughes — the titular whale rider — into the Supporting competition, but Oscar voters overruled and nominated her in Best Actress. Fox Searchlight perhaps took a lesson from that and campaigned Quvenzhané Wallis as a lead actress from the start for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that paid off with what is to date the youngest-ever Best Actress nomination, at 9 years of age.

Child actors are also, by definition, not known quantities as movie stars, which can be a huge hindrance when it comes to awards campaigning. Nobody’s going to be able to build a Glenn Close–style “they’re due” narrative over Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit. The only real exception to this rule was when 14-year-old Jodie Foster was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for 1976’s Taxi Driver after years of building up considerable child-star equity in Disney films. But even if it’s hard to lean on child stars for their career achievements, they can become invaluable to an Oscar campaign for the very obvious reason that they are so damn adorable. Jacob Tremblay may not have ended up getting nominated for his performance in 2015’s Room, but his presence at press events and on red carpets undoubtedly helped to secure Room a Best Picture nomination that year.

If they do end up getting nominated, however, the child performer in question should always be considered a threat to win, if only because it makes for such a great story. And so you get Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker besting the likes of Angela Lansbury for The Manchurian Candidate, or Anna Paquin toppling Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson for her Best Supporting Actress win for The Piano.

For Saoirse Ronan, her Best Supporting Actress nomination at age 13 ended up being just the beginning of her Oscar story, with a total of four nominations now and a Kate Winslet-esque case for being overdue an Oscar at an incredibly young age. Still, child nominees like Ronan and Foster are more the exception than the rule, as most child Oscar nominees don’t ever get a second nod. In a way, maybe it’s better to come close to an Oscar nod as a child but miss out. Dakota Fanning got a SAG nomination for I Am Sam, was left off of the Oscars’ Supporting Actress ballot that year, and ended up building an incredibly robust career for herself. Jamie Bell won a BAFTA for Billy Elliot but was snubbed by the Oscars, and doesn’t seem all the worse for wear because of it. Keke Palmer got a bunch of breakthrough-performance attention for Akeelah and the Bee that never materialized into an Oscar nomination, but her career is going quite strong. And of course the gold standard here is Tom Holland, who was Oscar-buzzed at age 16 for his performance opposite Naomi Watts in The Impossible, wasn’t nominated, and is now doing pretty okay for himself, all things considered (even if Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t know who he is).

How things will shake out for Alan Kim at Monday’s Oscar nominations is anybody’s guess. Whether he’s the Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine or the Sunny Pawar in Lion of this year’s nominations is up to Oscar voters. But in a year where almost nothing has gone according to plan, a surprise nod for one of the youngest nominees ever would be another dream come true.

A History of Child Oscar Nominees