Fame can be a double-edged sword for those in the entertainment world. The attention, the glamor, and the adulation are great, but the pressure of staying on top is enormous. And it weighs even more heavily on child actors, who get saddled with descriptions like “prodigy” and “precocious” when they turn in a spellbinding performance. A breakout role for child actors has been a blessing for some, a curse for others.
To compile a list of more than 50 of the best child actor performances of all time, 24/7 Tempo gathered information from IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, as well as various entertainment industry media sources.
Some of the breakout roles for child actors can be considered harrowing, such as the possessed girl played by Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” and Heather O’Rourke’s character who is tormented by malevolent spirits in the Poltergeist movies. Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance as a sociopathic girl in “Orphan” was so disturbing, one critic wasn’t sure she would ever get another role.
Some young actors performed convincingly in themes about the effects of dislocation caused by war, such as Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly in “Forbidden Games,” Edmund Moeschke in “Germany Year Zero,” and Nikolay Spiridonov in “Come and See.”
A great performance as a child actor doesn’t mean a long career, such as those enjoyed by Drew Barrymore or Christina Ricci. Actors such as Moeschke and John Howard Davies had a brief movie career and either disappeared or they switched to film production. Others resumed their film pursuits later in life. Fossey chose to focus on school, and Indian actor Subir Banerjee went 57 years between film credits before appearing in the movie “Achal: The Stagnant” in 2012.
Critically acclaimed performances by child actors have been an indicator of Oscar-winning roles to come for Christian Bale, Jodie Foster, and Natalie Portman. For Anna Paquin, her screen debut in “The Piano” at age 11 earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, making her the second-youngest actress to win a competitive Academy Award (Tatum O’Neal at 10 years old was the youngest). (These actors won an Oscar before the age of 30.)
We can only speculate about the careers of Heather O’Rourke and River Phoenix, actors who distinguished themselves in their formative years and died too soon. (These are 20 movie and TV stars who died far too young.)