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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

November 2, 2012 at 10:27 AM

Best actress: How young is too young?

Since we were talking about the best-actor Oscar race yesterday, let’s look at the other side of the ballot today, and confront a tricky question: How young is too young for this category (or for any typically grown-up acting award, for that matter)? Were this 2011, full of strong roles for leading women, we might not be having this conversation, but it’s looking quite possible that 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (first name pronounced kwa-VAHN-je-NAY, I hear) might be nominated in this category in January for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Let me start off by saying that Wallis is absolutely remarkable in this role: self-possessed, funny, determined, mesmerizing. She was 5 years old when cast in the film and 6 when it was filmed, and there’s no question that she’s a little girl of uncanny intelligence, confidence and charm. But is she an actress? Can you be an actor (or an actor) at age 6? Is it fair to have her compete with grown-ups — fair to her and to them?
Some years ago I saw a fascinating presentation by a well-known indie director who came to town and talked a bit, in front of an audience, about working with young children. (Her film featured a lovely performance by a little girl, then about 8 years old.) Without taking anything away from the child’s performance, the filmmaker explained some of the “tricks” directors have to employ with very young actors: telling them a story off-camera (sometimes unrelated to the movie) that will elicit a certain response, then filming that response and using it in context; piecing a performance together from very short takes, because the child doesn’t have the concentration to film a long unbroken scene; always making it a priority (in a way that you might not with adults) to be sure the child is happy and interested and entertained. I remember thinking at the time that it wasn’t fair to compare a child’s performance (let’s define that as roughly an actor under 10) to an adult, just because of the differences in the director’s approach. When we watch, say, Meryl Streep having an emotional reaction on screen, we know that’s because she’s immersed in the role; when we watch a six-year-old, the question of being “in character” can’t be answered.
If Wallis were to be nominated (and it would have to be the best actress category; by no stretch of the imagination is this a supporting role), she’d be the youngest nominee by a good five years (Keisha Castle-Hughes was a few months short of 14 when nominated for “Whale Rider.”) Only two actors under 10 have ever been nominated in any category: Justin Henry in supporting actor for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” and Jackie Cooper in lead actor for “Skippy,” way back in 1931.
Other contenders for best actress this year: Marion Cotillard for “Rust and Bone,” Emmanuelle Riva for “Amour,” Jennifer Lawrence for “The Silver Linings Playbook,” Keira Knightley for “Anna Karenina,” Helen Mirren for “Hitchcock,” Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Judi Dench in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead for “Smashed,” Streep in “Hope Springs,” and no doubt many more, even in a not-great year for actresses. Who should step aside to make room for Wallis? Is that fair? Or is it fair to disqualify her simply because of her age? Should the Oscars resurrect their special juvenile acting category, an honorary award given sporadically between 1935 (after much controversy over Cooper’s 1931 nomination) and 1960 to performers under the age of 18? So many questions, for a Friday morning.
beastsofthesouthfilm13.jpg
Quvenzhane Wallis, utterly winning in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Photo by Jess Pinkham, courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

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