Welcome back to the latest installment of EW’s Ask the Critic column. This time around, you wanted to know who gave the greatest child performances of all time, what some classic films would look like with a little gender-swapping, and who was better in Michael Mann’s Heat: Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. So let’s get to it…
“In your opinion, what is the best child-actor performance ever? The ones that immediately come to mind to me are Henry Thomas (E.T.), Natalie Portman (The Professional), and Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). And let’s say the actor has to be 12 or under. Thanks. —Peter
Peter, those are all extremely solid contenders for the title. And, for the record, I like a questioner who defines the parameters of the debate as pro-actively as you did (the actor has to be 12 or under). Okay, I’ll play ball. Of the three you mentioned, I’d argue that Thomas is good, Osment is better, and Portman is best. But I don’t think any member of that pint-sized trio would be my top pick. Let me throw some other talented tykes into the mix…
For the purpose of suspense, let’s start with some runners-up before we get to my two favorites. How about Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland? His vulnerable, sad-eyed performance opposite Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in the story of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie was heartbreakingly good. And since the movie was released right before his 12th birthday, he just squeaks in under the rigid restrictions of your age limit (unlike poor Linda Blair, who was a geriatric 14 when The Exorcist came out). Then there’s the 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire, who with her porcelain skin and blonde ringlets, projected a doomed-to-eternity wisdom and pathos beyond her years. No? Maybe I could interest you in 10-year-old Quinn Cummings as a precocious motormouth verbally sparring with Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl? Or the mop-topped 8-year-old Justin Henry in Kramer Vs. Kramer? Or that malevolent, mischievous pig-tailed moppet Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed?
All of those child actors have at least one thing in common. They all delivered performances that were not only accomplished beyond their scant years, but also unaffected and indelible. I’d also add that there is a real contender about to hit theaters too: Jacob Tremblay, who is amazing with Brie Larson in Room. (Abraham Attah is also generating buzz for his work in Beasts of No Nation, but he is already a teenager). But enough about them. Let’s move on to my top two. It absolutely kills me that I can’t put Jodie Foster’s performance in Taxi Driver in here because I think she would be my No. 1. But once again, thanks to Peter and his fascist 12-and-under cutout, she gets the ol’ snub-ola. (She was 14 when the movie came out).
So coming in second, I’m going with Macaulay Culkin, whose riotous performance in Home Alone is slapstick, smartass, and sadistic. Any child actor would be lucky to give one performance as perfectly dialed in as the 10-year-old Culkin’s as little Kevin McCallister. But here’s the thing: that’s not even Culkin’s best work! For that, I’d urge you to go back a year earlier for another second-tier John Hughes classic, 1989’s Uncle Buck. I humbly offer this clip of the film’s best scene (with an assist from the late-great John Candy) as Exhibit A in why Culkin makes my Top 2:
Still, as good as the Mac Attack is, was, and ever shall be, my heart and by vote will always belong to Tatum O’Neal as the lippy little poker-faced grifter in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 classic, Paper Moon. In his review in Time magazine, critic Jay Cocks called O’Neal “a cyanide Shirley Temple”, which, to me, sounds just about right on the money. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1973. As a footnote that may be of interest only to me, three years later, O’Neal starred as the foul-mouthed tomboy pitching ace Amanda Whurlitzer in The Bad News Bears… and my first ever official puppy-love crush was born. Get your minds out of the gutter: I was 7!
“Stephenie Meyer just published a new Twilight book, where the gender roles are reversed. Is there a classic movie that might be fun to do that? Like Casablanca…” —Nicolette Blaine
Nicolette, for a second there you really had me worried that I was going to have to answer a Twilight question. So, thanks for not asking one. On to the cinematic gender-swapping… So we’re talking about The Godmother? Or Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington? Or Dirty Hariet? All of which were just written as jokes, but I’m now thinking that I’d like to see all three of them. I think your suggestion of Casablanca is an intriguing one — a world-weary female café owner in North Africa during the Second World War who has to choose between a lost love and the greater cause of freedom. Let’s be clear: I am in every way opposed to anyone ever messing with Casablanca. But it’s not hard for me to imagine Angelina Jolie sporting an androgynous white dinner jacket in the Bogie role.
I also think Psycho could be gender-flipped effectively. And some possibilities that popped into my head have already kind of happened. Think of the Road Warrior for example. You could argue that Mad Max: Fury Road was more about Charlize Theron’s heroine than Tom Hardy’s hero. And what was the girl-power action-horror flick The Descent but an xx-chromosome riff on Deliverance? I also kind of like the idea of Rocky remade with Ronda Rousey in the title role (just as long as Entourage’s Turtle doesn’t show up as Adrian). But if I had to come up with just one pitch, I think I’d go with Tootsie. Think about it: A struggling female actress in New York gets frustrated by losing out on roles in a male-dominated industry (no real stretch of the imagination there) and pretends to be a dude to book a recurring role as a tough-nosed, recovering alcoholic cop on a Law & Order-style series only to become an Emmy-winning sensation. Shakespeare pulled stunts like this all the time so we’d be in good company. We just have to figure out what to call it: They call me Stubble? (Wo)Man in Blue? NYPD Butch?
“Heat turns 20 this year. When this opened when I was in college, it was an incredible cinematic experience — Pacino and De Niro, staring each other down on screen (and off screen, I suppose). Who’s better in the movie, and…gulp…which actor has had the greater career? —NoWin
Apparently, “NoWin” isn’t just your moniker, sir or madam, it’s your mission. This question is virtually impossible to answer. But I’ll give it a go anyway. I love Heat. I’ve seen Heat dozens of times. If I stumble onto Heat on TV, the next two-plus hours will go up in smoke. It is the ultimate macho crime film from a maestro of macho crime films, Michael Mann. For those unfamiliar with the 1995 capital-E epic, the first thing you need to do is stop reading this now and go watch Heat. But if your time is limited, then what you need to know is this: the film is a super-intense cat-and-mouse thriller pitting Robert De Niro as the no-nonsense, no-attachments leader of a gang of highly skilled thieves against a bloodhound, workaholic L.A.P.D. detective played by Al Pacino. In the film’s storyline, these two are equals and onscreen these two are equals as well. Both are brilliant at what they do, and by both, I mean the characters and the actors playing them. It’s an undeniable masterpiece.
The publicity hook when Heat came out 20 years ago was that although De Niro and Pacino were both in The Godfather Part II together, this was the first time that the best actors of their generation would finally share a scene together. Two actually. One in the middle of the film across the table from one another in a diner, the other in the film’s pulse-pounding climactic pursuit set atmospherically in an airfield at night.
I mean, come on! But if I have to give someone the edge in the film — and I really hate to do this — I guess I have to go with Pacino. The reason I suppose is that I never really bought De Niro’s romance with Amy Brenneman, whereas Pacino’s with Diane Venora felt tense and real and immensely integral to his character’s psyche. But really, this is splitting hairs.
As to the second part of your question, I’m going to go with De Niro (again, this is splitting even finer hairs). Pacino was Michael Corleone, Serpico, Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, Tony freakin’ Montana, and Glengarry’s Ricky Roma. He was Carlito, Lefty in Donnie Brasco, and gave one of my favorite performances this year in the underrated Danny Collins. But to me, De Niro’s greatest characters are just a little bit better, and his bench of second-tier films is just a little deeper: Once you put aside the indisputable classics like Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas, you’re still left with movies like Once Upon a Time in America, Angel Heart, The Untouchables, Cape Fear, A Bronx Tale, Casino, Wag the Dog, Jackie Brown, Silver Linings Playbook, and of course Midnight Run (which probably belongs in the top tier, come to think of it). The resume is deeper, the performances just a bit more varied. Damn you, NoWin, for making me do that.
Join us again next time and don’t forget to email your movie questions and opinions to me at CriticsMailbag@ew.com or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just post a comment below.