The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t hand out Oscars to everyone. It’s a sign of prestige to be awarded one of the golden statues and the recognition of the Academy and cinematic peers that comes with it. So, when someone wins who is still coming-of-age, or in the infancy of their career as a young adult, it’s a testament to their tremendous talent.
Shirley Temple, one of the earliest and most successful child actors, never officially won an Academy Award. But she did become an Honorary Juvenile Award recipient at the tender age of six, making her one of the most impressive young talents in Hollywood. Adrien Brody, meanwhile, made history when, at 29, he became the youngest actor ever to win a Best Actor Academy Award for the 2002 movie The Pianist.
Even so, Brody still doesn’t come close to being one of the youngest ever to win an Academy Award. There are at least a dozen Academy Award winners who were in their 20s, and many more nominees who were even younger, from Abigail Breslin at 10 to Saoirse Ronan at 13. Here, however, are the youngest winners ever, in any category.
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook, 2012 (Age 22)
Named by Time Magazine in 2013 as one of the most influential people in the world, one of the reasons Jennifer Lawrence received this distinction was because, at 22, she had just won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the romantic comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook. The movie is about a young man named Pat (Bradley Cooper) with bipolar disorder who, after being released from an institution, meets a young widow named Tiffany (Lawrence). Despite initial tensions between the two, they decide to enter a dance competition together as a means of therapy. It doesn’t take long for them to realize how much each has to offer the other in their time of grief and reinvention.
Lawrence went on to act in various other roles that demonstrated her acting range and abilities, including Joy, Don’t Look Up, Causeway, and The Hunger Games and X-Men films. She’ll next appear in the coming-of-age comedy-drama No Hard Feelings.
Stream Silver Linings Playbook on Starz.
Marlee Matlin – Children of a Lesser God, 1986 (age 21)
When she was just 21 years old, Marlee Matlin turned heads in her first-ever movie acting role as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, a former student and now janitor at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. She meets a new teacher James (William Hurt) who takes an interest in her and her story. Indeed, Sarah has a lot of troubles she has pushed aside.
Matlin made history as both the youngest winner in the Best Actress category as well as the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award, period. She was joined 36 years later by Troy Kotsur who won in 2022 for his role in CODA, a movie in which Matlin also appears (and advocated to ensure other deaf actors were cast). CODA made history for Apple TV+, making it the first streaming service to earn a Best Picture win.
Stream Children of a Lesser God on HBO Max.
Timothy Hutton – Ordinary People, 1980 (Age 20)
Today, people most recognize Timothy Hutton from his roles in series like Jack Ryan and American Crime. But back in the 1980s, Hutton was an up-and-coming actor whose first major film role shocked Hollywood by earning him an Academy Award nomination and win. In Ordinary People, Hutton starred as Conrad, a young son whose suicide attempt following the accidental death of his brother lands him in a psychiatric hospital. The story continues as Conrad deals with his survivor’s guilt and PTSD. Hutton won for his emotionally charged portrayal, ranking him not only among the youngest-ever winners, but also the youngest-ever winner in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Hutton can most recently be seen in the ABC drama series Women of the Movement and as Senator John Lyons in the Apple TV+ movie Emancipation.
Stream Ordinary People on Paramount+.
Patty Duke – The Miracle Worker, 1962 (Age 16)
Only 16 at the time, Patty Duke played Helen Keller in the movie The Miracle Worker, and her performance was so impressive, it earned her an Academy Award. Duke had previously played the role on Broadway as well.
Duke continued acting, taking on more mature roles as she grew into adulthood, including in Valley of the Dolls and Me, Natalie. For several years in the ‘80s, she also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Duke, who counts actor Sean Astin among her children, was a passionate advocate for mental health having suffered from bipolar disorder herself. The Patty Duke Mental Health Initiative was set up by Astin in his mother’s name following her death in 2016.
Stream The Miracle Worker on HBO Max.
Anna Paquin – The Piano, 1993 (Age 11)
As a pre-teen, Anna Paquin became the second-youngest actor to win an Academy Award for her supporting role in the movie The Piano, a designation she still holds today, 30 years later. Paquin’s character in the movie, set in the mid-19th Century, is Flora McGrath, daughter to Ada (Holly Hunter), an electively mute woman who speaks only through playing the piano and using a form of sign language only Flora can interpret. Given this situation, Flora becomes a voice and translator for her mother.
Paquin continued to be recognized for other child roles and maintained a successful acting career through adulthood with roles like Rogue in the X-Men franchise, Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood, and, most recently in the starring role of Robyn in the British dramedy Flack.
Rent or buy The Piano on Amazon.
Tatum O’Neal – Paper Moon, 1973 (Age 10)
Fifty years on, Tatum O’Neal retains the title of being the youngest actor ever to win an Academy Award. She took home the statue when she was just 10 years old for her performance as Addie Loggins in the movie Paper Moon. She starred alongside her father Ryan O’Neal in the comedy drama about a con man who winds up traveling with an orphan girl. He’s reluctant at first, believing that transporting her will be an easy job. But she quickly proves to be far more clever than he ever could have imagined.
O’Neal won the Golden Globe New Star Of The Year – Actress award the same year for her role. O’Neal continued to act through adulthood, most recently appearing with other Academy Award recipients in the 2021 movie Not To Forget, which was made to raise awareness and money for the fight against Alzheimer’s.
Stream Paper Moon on Amazon Prime Video