February 21, 2007 / 8:14 PM / 12 years ago

"Baby" Oscar winners advise "Sunshine" child star

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Mickey Rooney says enjoy being a kid. Margaret O’Brien cautions to choose friends wisely, and Hayley Mills advises to get a good education.

Actress Abigail Breslin, nominated for best supporting actress for 'Little Miss Sunshine' attends the 79th annual Academy Awards nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills California in a file photo from February 5, 2007. If 10-year-old Abigail Breslin wins a supporting actress Oscar on Sunday for playing a young beauty pageant contestant in the film comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," she will join a distinguished list of child actors honored with an Academy Award. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

If 10-year-old Abigail Breslin wins a supporting actress Oscar on Sunday for playing a young beauty pageant contestant in the film comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” she will join a distinguished list of child actors honored with an Academy Award. While her award would be a full-fledged Oscar, the three above were all honored with so-called “baby” Oscars given to child actors from 1934 to 1960.

The careers of Rooney, O’Brien, Mills and others such as Claude Jarman of “The Yearling,” have varied widely since being honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

O’Brien, 70, and Mills, 60, enjoyed success in television and on the stage. Jarman, 72, owns a travel company based in San Francisco, and Rooney, 86, still performs in a touring song and dance show with his wife, Jan Rooney.

The former juvenile Oscar winners said in some ways Hollywood has changed, including the amount of money stars are paid. But in many ways, it is the same. The media, for instance, always shined a spotlight on stars, and if Breslin wins the Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the glare will be harsh on her.

“You have to have something else in your life, and have to know how to handle your money. You have to have people around you who you trust,” said O’Brien.

In the 1940s, O’Brien was a huge box office draw. She was given her miniature Oscar at age 7, in 1944, when she wowed audiences in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

The first “baby” Oscar — a statue about half as tall as a real Oscar — was given to Shirley Temple in 1934. Until they were discontinued, the honors were special awards given to child actors for their achievements, and they did not compete against adult actors in the various categories such as best actor or actress.

GROWING UP GOLDEN

Oscar historian Robert Osborne said the Academy’s idea was to acknowledge the young actors’ contributions to the movies with a “special award” and not make them compete against adults who were trained in the arts.

Osborne said it was unclear why the Academy stopped giving out baby Oscars after Mills earned hers at age 13 for 1960’s “Pollyanna.”

Regardless of the reason, Mills said it is important for child actors to continue their studies and try to live a varied life. She credits getting out of movies and onto the stage in her young adult years for giving her longevity as an actress.

“You go from acting that is quite spontaneous and instinctive, to being ... much more self-aware and self-critical,” she said. “The theater was really my salvation because that was like going back to school and learning how to approach my work,” Mills said.

Instead of trying to transition from child star to adult actor in the 1950s when Hollywood’s studio system began to break down and television was threatening cinema’s existence, Jarman returned home and went back to school.

“Acting is like any job, you had to be fighting and scratching to get the work. I got into another life and got distracted,” he said.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Jarman strikes a contrast to Rooney, who has maintained a storied presence in show business since he was given his miniature Oscar at the 1938 ceremony. Rooney recently appeared in family comedy “Night at the Museum,” which has become a box office smash with $471 million in global ticket sales.

“I think it’s important to keep your eye on the future,” Rooney said.

But when it comes to child actors today, he added: “I believe you can’t rush them, you only get a childhood once ... I just hope that they savor something for the later years.”

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