Why the Academy Should Bring Back the Juvenile Oscar

One of the year's best performances was overlooked when young Sunny Pawar was not nominated for his work in 'Lion' — so it's time to once again give underage performers special recognition.
Illustration by: Jeremy Enecio

When the Academy announced its nominations for the 89th Oscars, one of the very best performances of 2016 was ignored. And that's despite the fact that it was given by the clear lead of a film that earned six nominations, including one for best picture. Some might argue the actor was overlooked because he is a person of color. I think it's even likelier that he was ignored because of his age. And that's not right.

Sunny Pawar was only 6 years old — and never had acted before — when he was chosen from among 2,000 boys in his native India to play young Saroo in Lion, Garth Davis' film about a child who was separated from his family and adopted by a couple in Australia. Pawar is onscreen for the first hour of the film, and again at the end, often alone in scenes that required great skill and subtlety, and he completely knocked it out of the park.

Since the film's rollout began at the Toronto Film Festival, Pawar has been on the awards campaign trail just like his older peers. Brought over to America, along with his father and a translator, by The Weinstein Co., which is distributing Lion, he made the rounds at postscreening Q&As (he loves running onstage as Sia's "Never Give Up" plays over the end credits); posed for photos with former President Bill Clinton at the film's New York premiere as well as President Obama at the White House; and donned a tux for a reception at the British consulate, the Academy's Governors Awards and the Golden Globe Awards (where he fell asleep in the back of the room after introducing a clip of Lion).

Everywhere Pawar has gone, people — including members of the Academy's actors branch — have enthused over his performance. Now, because he wasn't nominated, it's incumbent upon the Academy's board of governors to step up: They should present Pawar with one of the Juvenile Awards that the Academy gave to 12 other extraordinary under-18 performers between 1935 and 1961.

The Juvenile Award came about because of an awkward situation when 9-year-old Jackie Cooper received a best actor Oscar nom for 1931's Skippy, Hollywood's first comic book adaptation. He was nominated alongside Lionel Barrymore, Richard Dix, Fredric March and Adolphe Menjou. And the idea of a child, no matter how talented, competing against adults made all the concerned parties uncomfortable. No adult wanted to lose to a kid, but also no adult wanted to "beat" a youngster, which, in such a public setting, might well have caused distress.

In the end, it all worked out — Cooper was fast asleep on the shoulder of fellow nominee Marie Dressler when Barrymore was announced as the winner.

Three years later, a child superstar was in serious contention for an Academy Award when 6-year-old Shirley Temple, who starred in 10 hit films in 1934, started to look like a sure thing for a best actress nom. So the Academy's board of governors took action, creating a "special award," roughly half the size of the standard Oscar, and presenting it to her on Oscar night. A similar statuette was given to a total of 12 performers during the span of 25 years: from Temple in 1935 to 14-year-old Hayley Mills for Pollyanna in 1961.

Then, in 1962, 16-year-old Patty Duke was nominated for — and won — a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for The Miracle Worker without the world falling apart. That apparently convinced the Academy's governors that young people could compete with adults, and the board discontinued the Juvenile Award. However, over the more than half-century since, only two other minors have won an acting Oscar: 10-year-old Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon (1973) and 11-year-old Anna Paquin for The Piano (1993), both in the best supporting actress category. Many other youngsters have given performances that were worthy of similar recognition. Some even were nominated — most recently, 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis in 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild. But many others — like 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay in 2015's Room — simply were overlooked.

From purely a business point of view, the Juvenile Award should have been brought back years ago. Its presentation at bygone Oscars ceremonies elicited some of the loudest ovations and cutest TV moments of those evenings. Today, such moments would be sure to go viral online, just as Pawar's recent appearance at the Globes did. So why doesn't the Academy take three minutes out of each Oscars ceremony to celebrate a star of tomorrow? And why not start with Pawar? The Academy's board of governors should meet and confer upon him a Juvenile Award to be presented Feb. 26 — and then plan to meet every year after the nominations are announced to determine whether a great child performance has been overlooked and is worthy of receiving special recognition.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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