There’s a scene at the end of “The Godfather.” We all know it. A decrepit and doomed Vito Corleone enjoys his last days in his tomato garden, toying around with his innocent grandson Michael and sporting monster faces with orange slices for teeth. The old man chases the youngster playfully, then buckles and collapses. The na-ve child circles him in victory, giggling, and then pauses. Vito passes away. Devastatingly beautiful.
As the music cuts in we hear the boy start to cry in the way children do when they simply don’t know what’s going on. Absolutely brilliant. Aside from sealing the fate of the has-been mobster, there are allusions to the innocence of children — Michael was once innocent, but not any more by this point — and the passing from one generation to the next. As far as we know, this child may one day be the Godfather.
What may be even more brilliant, however, was Coppolla’s ability to implement the power of children — their instant evocation of a sense of innocence — without actually having to deal with a child performance.
Having been a longtime skeptic of child actors, I went into a weekend preview of “Hearts in Atlantis” with guarded skepticism. “Hearts” is the upcoming Anthony Hopkins feature and the first in what will be a long line of upcoming fall/winter Oscar hopefuls. More than an Anthony Hopkins film, though, it’s an Anton Yelchin film. Never heard of him? Chances are, if you miss “Hearts,” you never will. At eleven years old, he is a necessity that the script demanded. At the same time, he’s a liability to the film. He makes P. Diddy’s performance in “Made” look Olivier-esque. There have been whispers about an Oscar for Hopkins’ role, but with a cartoon character for a co-star, Hopkins can stop thinking about clearing out space on his mantle. And so I wonder: Why would Hopkins take a role across from a child?
Kevin Spacey made the same mistake last year, taking on one-time Oscar hopeful “Pay it Forward” opposite child-acting spokesperson Haley Joel Osment — who, only last year, had knocked Bruce Willis out of Oscar contention with his whiny “I see dead people” nymph role.
I believe that was the same year the young Jake Lloyd (“The Phantom Menace”) took a filmic dump on what was once considered to be the movie trilogy of eternity — something we thought even Satan himself could never tarnish.
And before that, Steven Spielberg allowed kids to turn what just might be the coolest sci-fi idea ever, “Jurassic Park,” into a family movie — something we sell action figures and t-shirts for. Instead, it should have been taken seriously — but where’s the money in that?
While it’s easy to ridicule and attack any child’s performance — and I will be the first to jump at the opportunity — there are countless advantages to writing a child role into a movie. The problem is that there are two conflicting interests: that of the serious movie-goer who wants to see memorable performances and who doesn’t want to bothered by cute kids babbling phrases they couldn’t possibly understand and mimicking emotions they couldn’t possibly have experienced; the other is that of the producer, who knows he can cross a movie over into the more profitable family movie genre by incorporating or emphasizing a pre-teen.
Further complicating this mess is the fact that there are only so many of the little ankle-biters around whose mommies will let them act — or whom we naively believe can act — so we end up with three to four movies a year with Haley Joe Osment or Anna Paquin (who continues to think that she’s an actress into her teen years) leading.
This isn’t to say that no child actor has ever shown brilliance or, at the very least, has been acceptable. But adequacy is the whole point. No child actor has the life experience to be able to act, so why try? Children should be left to be children. They frolic in the background and, like in “The Godfather,” provide powerful symbols of innocence, but should be left to that and nothing more.
“Life is Beautiful,” “E.T.,” “The Piano” and “You Can Count On Me” are only a few in a line of movies that have allowed children to be children — and I herald them as some of the best pictures ever. But too many potentially-impressive films have failed by putting too much in the wee hands of youths. Maybe it was the actor, maybe it was the role. Regardless, “Almost Famous,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Hearts in Atlantis” and many more were absolutely ruined by tiny actors. No matter how much you adore any of these, think how much better they could have been.