- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

Youth, goes an old saw, is wasted on the young. So, it might be argued, are Academy Awards.

Oscars are a bit like pregnancy, come to think of it: a welcome blessing for those who are prepared to handle its ramifications, but a burden on the immature.

Ellen Page, the Canadian ingenue who plays the wisecracking, world-weary title character of the breakout teen-pregnancy comedy hit “Juno,” is spinning her best-actress nomination like a pro.

She is “humbled” by the attention, she told Associated Press. She also finds it “surreal” to be in the same company as A-list actresses such as Cate Blanchett.

“It actually feels kind of wrong,” Miss Page continued, in the vein of media-coached caution. “I feel young, and I feel like I just have a lot more I want to discover — and just so much to learn.”

Young though she is, Miss Page is, to be sure, not a child; she turned 21 yesterday, by which age many other, more famous Hollywood denizens have racked up various traffic violations and stints in rehab.

Compared to 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan, a nominee for best supporting actress for her performance as Briony Tallis in the British period drama “Atonement,” Miss Page is a Hollywood doyenne.

Saoirse fills the role occupied in last year’s Oscars ceremony by then-10-year-old “Little Miss Sunshine” starlet Abigail Breslin — the adorable, precocious ‘tween who wowed academy voters with poise and intelligence befitting far more seasoned actors.

Perhaps the second-best thing to have happened to Abigail’s career is not to have won that Academy Award. (She is the star, most recently, of the romantic comedy “Definitely, Maybe.”)

Oscars history is not exactly rife with child actors, but they are not uncommon — and the trajectory of their careers is almost uniformly toward mediocrity.

Just ask Haley Joel Osment. Not only was he nominated at 10 for his immortal, “I see dead people” turn in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” — and therefore held to concomitantly high expectations — he also had the misfortune of following up that performance with a starring role in the much-derided “Pay It Forward.”

Or ask Anna Paquin, who was 11 when she won best-supporting actress for 1994’s “The Piano.” Now 25, she has worked under respected directors such as Noah Baumbach, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant and Cameron Crowe, but has struggled to find momentum, seemingly flopping from one project to the next.

Or Keisha Castle-Hughes, 13 when she was nominated for best actress for “Whale Rider,” who has sunk back into the obscurity from whence she emerged in 2002.

Time was when celebrated child actors such as Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple were offered ceremonial “Juvenile Awards.” By the 1960s, they were thrown into direct competition with grown-ups.

Ten-year-old Mary Badham was nominated for best-supporting actress in 1963 for her role as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” After that came appearances in TV’s “The Twilight Zone,” followed shortly by retirement from acting.

Tatum O’Neal was 9 when she was nominated for, and 10 when she won, the best-supporting actress award for 1973’s “Paper Moon.” In her memoir, “A Paper Life,” she said life after “Moon” was marked by “profound self-loathing and a sense of worthlessness.” (Granted, there were many problems besides a post-Oscar slump that plagued Miss O’Neal.)

Justin Henry, at 8, remains the youngest-ever Oscar nominee (for 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer”). His career since has been undistinguished at best.

The lone exception here is, of course, Jodie Foster. In 1976, she was nominated at 14 for her role as a young prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” Things only got better: She won two best-actress Oscars — in 1989 (for “The Accused”) and 1992 (for “The Silence of the Lambs”) — and was nominated for another (for 1994’s “Nell”).

It’s probably not right to say that the evenness of Miss Foster’s post-“Taxi Driver” career was simply a case of uncommon talent and versatility. More likely is that Oscars are particularly cumbersome for actors who are both emotionally undeveloped and professionally untested.

Who among us began our careers as teenagers, let alone steered them successfully through adulthood? The fits and starts that are normal for workaday professions are, in Hollywood, more like fatal missteps.

Also, it’s not like adults who win Oscars too early fare any better than their younger counterparts.

When, for instance, was the last time “Jerry Maguire” winner Cuba Gooding Jr. showed us the money?

If I were Ellen Page or Saoirse Ronan Sunday night, I’d have just a two-word speech prepared: “No, thanks.”


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