With this year’s Oscar nominations perhaps one of the year’s best performances was cruelly snubbed by the Academy Awards. That would be Jacob Tremblay and his astonishing performance in Room. Let’s be honest, if his performance in Room even had a hint of a flaw in its portrayal, the film never would have worked. The impact of Room rested on Tremblay’s shoulders because the entirety of the film revolved around his character. Even arguing his performance is supporting is somewhat ridiculous since Tremblay was in the vast majority of the film, but for the sake of this opinion piece, I will describe the performance as being supporting.
It is not impossible to be nominated for an Oscar as a child actor. When observing the history of the Oscars, age is almost immaterial. It would actually be a disserve to argue that the Oscars are biased towards child actors. However, one cannot deny that the probability of a child actually winning the award is close to none when being put in competition with older actors who have experience and a deeper knowledge of the art of acting. When observing the rare child actors who managed to win an Oscar, it is evident that the Academy will only award a performance that truly transcends past a child portraying a mere child on film.
This is why Justin Henry didn’t win within his supporting actor category for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979 (he was 8 years old) because his performance was comprised of a child enduring the sad reality of his parents enduring a divorce and his mother subsequently abandoning them. Justin Henry’s performance was entirely of a child missing his mother, crying for her to be a part of his life again, and ultimately learning to appreciate his father. Despite how stunningly real the performance was, it was still a performance of a child actor being a child.
The same argument can be extended towards Abigail Breslin, who was nominated in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine when she was 10 years old. While her performance was the highlight of the film and the film’s various situations hinged on her character’s purity and innocence, it was still the performance of a child from a child actor. Breslin’s famous “Super Freak” dance scene was comedy perfection because Breslin perfectly captured the innocence of her character still being a child amidst a complicated family, to which her dance was hilariously ironic since she doesn’t realize the sexual connotations of her dance moves. Yet again, even with popularity towards the performance, the Academy chose not to have Breslin win. Like Justin Henry, these were performances of children from children and the Academy clearly desired for them to transcend past that acting barrier if they were to consider awarding them the Oscar.
Out of the vast list of child actors nominated for Oscars, only two have ever won: Tatum O’ Neal, who was 10 years old when she starred in Paper Moon and Anna Paquin, who was 11 when she starred in The Piano. There is a reason as to why O’Neal and Paquin won their awards: Their performances transcended from being a child within the roles they occupied. O’Neal’s performance in Paper Moon is that of a 9-year-old whose behavior doesn’t match the fact that she is a child. Her Addie Loggins is a character who has a penchant for hustling money and recognizes that in order to get what she wants, she has to manipulate a situation to make it beneficial towards her. O’Neal’s Addie actually is the driving force of the film, forcing her Con Man friend, Moses (Ryan O’Neal), to provide for her both financially and emotionally.
Paquin’s performance as Flora McGrath in The Piano is perhaps one of the most complex performances ever offered from a child actor. Her character is one who provides for her mute mother (Holly Hunter) by being her voice. Her character, despite being a child, is one who is calculating and somewhat cruel. She is used to being the center of attention regarding her mother and when that changes, Flora willfully instigates a situation that puts her mother in harm’s way. Whether that is Flora’s deliberate intention or not is left for the audience to decide since Paquin’s acting was so profound in that she was even capable of instilling ambiguity into the performance regarding her character’s motivations. Paquin’s Flora could either be seen a misguided child or a cold and menacing monster. For Paquin to achieve that was acting brilliance that truly earned her a well-deserved Oscar.
The purpose of mentioning both O’Neal and Paquin is evidence to the fact that the two performances that went beyond mere child acting were the performances that ultimately won the Oscar. Therefore, the argument can be made that it is only such performances that truly can put child actors in a genuine competition with adult actors. Otherwise, a child actor’s nomination is their award. I also mention these performances because it is my firm belief that Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room is on the same level of complexity and denseness as these two actresses, therefore he should have seen himself nominated for an Oscar. The Critics Choice Awards at least had the decency to nominate and award him with the Best Young Actor/Actress Award and the SAGs even nominated him in the supporting actor category, which indicates there was at least some traction for Tremblay. Yet more importantly, Tremblay’s performance was one that put most veteran actors this year to shame. Like O’Neal and Paquin, Jacob Tremblay offered a performance that truly transcended beyond being a mere child.
At the age of 10, Jacob Tremblay offered a performance unlike any child actor has before: One of a child who has a complete wonder of the world, who has never encountered the outside world, and ultimately is immersed in a world he doesn’t truly comprehend. Room initially begins with a false reality being perpetuated upon Tremblay’s Jack Newsome, who believes and has been told that the world isn’t real, that what he watches on television is mere pictures. He questions his mother (Brie Larson) of the outside world, but his questions are shut down with the emphasis that he and she must stay within their confined room that shields them from the outside world. Rather than being scared, Jack is intrigued and still challenges the narrative being told to him.
It is not until Jack’s mother is forced to “have them escape” that Tremblay’s performance truly shines, but for a reason unlike any film has ever done before. Tremblay’s performance during the “escape” sequence is one of the most heart-pounding, most harrowing sequences ever put on film entirely because of Tremblay’s performance. There was so much weight being put on this child’s shoulders during this sequence that, quite honestly, the film’s success hinged on it. The fact that Tremblay was able to incorporate child-like fascination mixed with intense fear and ultimately going into shock was perhaps one of the most difficult things to see ever in a film, but the reason why is because Jacob Tremblay was so convincing in his role, so much so that one had to remind themselves of that this child was, in fact, only acting. It was the most authentic performance throughout the 2015 year of films.
Yet this now begs the question, what is the point of writing this when the Oscar nominations have already been unveiled and Jacob Tremblay has been clearly snubbed by the Oscars. Well, the purpose is to emphasize the need for the Academy to better recognize child actors by asking the Academy to consider bringing back the “Juvenile Award.”
This award existed from 1934 to 1960 and it was a “special Oscar” given to child actors at the discretion of the Academy. In the award’s 36-year span, only 12 child actors were given what was known as the “miniature statuette.” The award was primarily in existence as an attempt to not overlook extraordinary performances from child to teenage actors, who might have been otherwise overlooked by the Academy. Without the Juvenile Award, Shirley Temple never would have been able to say she was an honorary Oscar winner by the age of 6 or Judy Garland wouldn’t have been recognized for her work in The Wizard of Oz. The Juvenile Award was at least something that made sure such performances weren’t ignored.
In cases like Jacob Tremblay and his astounding performance in Room, a “special Oscar” would be deserved. However, the Juvenile Award was stopped on account of the Academy seeing that child-actors could be nominated in competitive acting categories, therefore the award seemed, to them, to be irrelevant. I’d argue the special Oscar for child-actors is absolutely relevant, especially when worthy actors are being snubbed.
It is not likely that we will see Jacob Tremblay be given a special Oscar for his extraordinary performance in Room, which leaves both critics and moviegoers with the hope that this will not be the last time we encounter him in a film. Nonetheless, nobody can deny that without Jacob Tremblay would Room have worked as a film. The film depended on him and he delivered beyond any child actor ever has before. He may not have been nominated for an Oscar, but I personally will declare Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room as the best performance of the year.