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Movies On The Radio: When The Kid Steals The Show

Child actress Shirley Temple in 'Poor Little Rich Girl.'
classic_film (Creative Commons)

Child actors are big players in Hollywood. Shirley Temple is one of the most famous, with 17 feature films under her belt before she turned 10. There are several film stars today who began their acting careers when they were children, like Natalie Portman and Christian Bale.
Many films featuring child actors focus on adversity, like “The Miracle Worker” and “Empire of the Sun.” Another recurring theme is the exceptional imagination of children, which comes to light in movies like “The Fall” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Host Frank Stasio talks to Marsha Gordon, film professor at North Carolina State University, and Laura Boyes, film curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, about listeners’ top picks for movies featuring a child actor. Gordon and Boyes share their top picks as well. They’ll also discuss the major themes featured in movies with child stars and highlight some of their favorite child actors.

The Bad Seed (1956)

Marsha: This actress, Patty McCormack, as little Rhoda — she's horrific. And it's such a wonderful, fun thing to see in the context of the 1950s. We have such a different notion of what the 1950s, post-war culture was like, and [we] see this truly, demonic child who is so manipulative and so cruel. 

Laura: It's a nature/nurture argument too, because she's adopted, and it's discovered that she's the child of a serial killer. So there's no way that you can mother her into being a good seed.

Paper Moon (1973)

Laura: This is one of the all-time great child performances. The rapport between Tatum O'Neal and her father Ryan O'Neal is just spectacular.

Marsha: And this was her first film role … She had this burst of amazing roles in the start of her career.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Marsha: This is a film about an unlikely alliance between an adult and a child, just like “Paper Moon.” This is another trope of dealing with child performers, as is the idea of children who are in a cruel world and have to do things to survive that are not in keeping with their age.

Laura: A child accepts the world that they live in as the only option. Adults see that there are other options, but children don't.

True Grit (2010)

Laura: Well this is the rare remake where both versions are truly worth watching for different reasons ... They're both very interesting films about a very strong girl character.

Marsha: The character is so self-possessed, but [Hailee Steinfeld’s] performance has such power to it for someone who's 14.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Marsha: This is another one of those kids who live in difficult, challenging circumstances and who are survivors and by dent of their own steely will. And this performance, I think, was probably the most important thing about the film.

Laura: I agree. A very beautiful, poetic, unusual film.


Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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