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ACADEMY AWARDS

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Quvenzhané Wallis gives a great stare, but is that Oscar-worthy?

Most child actors, however talented, are out of their depth in the race for gold

By Mary Pols
Special to MSN Movies

Quvenzhané Wallis was 5 when she was first cast in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," age 6 when she murmured Hushpuppy's best line -- "I want to be cohesive" -- and even three whole years later, at age 9, she is still the youngest-ever nominee for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category.

She is a natural in front of the camera, possessed of a fierce stare and the kind of beautiful little face that draws the eye. Hushpuppy is unquestionably the lead of director Benh Zeitlin's 93-minute parable of environmental ruin and a heartbreaking figure, abandoned by her mother, awash in hunger and poverty and looked after only by her angry, dying father as the waters rise around them. At 6, Wallis was too young for artifice. She was too young to be embarrassed by her costume of boys underwear, tank top and rubber boots, or, really, anything.

Bing: More about Quvenzhané Wallis | More about 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" itself is earnest, muddled, sometimes totally pretentious, filled with confused-looking amateurs (oh, those wild-eyed drunks) and yet, in a few key scenes near the end, possessed of nearly magical, dynamic beauty. Almost all of the film's power comes from the image of the child, first threatened, then empowered. The last time I can remember feeling this sad for a child on-screen was when then-4-year-old Victoire Thivisol played a toddler whose mother had just died in the 1996 French film "Ponette." It felt vaguely wrong then too.

The Academy made a mistake in nominating Wallis. Not a surprising one, since to be bowled over by the capacity of youth to stand in front of a camera and look the part while responding to orders and bribes is the group's most oft-repeated nominating blunder. Wallis isn't even the youngest-ever acting nominee -- Justin Henry of "Kramer vs. Kramer" was a supporting-actor nominee when he was 8 -- although no youthful nominee was younger during their actual performance (largely because of its indie status, "Beasts" took a while to make it to the marketplace).

My first objection is the one I think most people will, at least on some level, agree with. In favor of Wallis, Academy voters overlooked worthier veterans like Rachel Weisz ("The Deep Blue Sea"), Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone") and Meryl Streep ("Hope Springs," which few saw, but she was her usual wonderful, skilled self). It's an insult to their hard work, their process of creating a character, to pay homage instead to a child in a spotlight. Others might argue that Helen Mirren ("Hitchcock") and Keira Knightley ("Anna Karenina") were overlooked as well. I'd advocate instead for a couple of underappreciated actresses who were terrific in small movies, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a drunk in "Smashed" and Melanie Lynskey, who gave the best performance of her career (outside of "Heavenly Creatures") in "Hello I Must be Going." Another youngster, the wildly talented Elle Fanning, 14, did lovely, sad, challenging work in Sally Potter's "Ginger & Rosa," and hers was a considered performance, not a series of artful poses. But if the goal is to be shocking, I guess 14 is a little old. No records would have been broken (Keisha Castle-Hughes was 13 when she was up for Best Actress for "Whale Rider") and that's less exciting for everyone, right? Meanwhile, on in the actor categories, Tom Holland, 16, who does a remarkable job playing Naomi Watts' valiant son in "The Impossible" (weighty dialogue, physical hardship, constant emotion), wasn't nominated.

Bing: More about Elle Fanning | More about Tom Holland

My praise for the image Wallis projects speaks to how I see the work she's done in "Beasts," as a series of photographic poses. Wallis gives a great, defiant, almost menacing stare and a pretty good fearful face in the scenes where Dwight Henry, as Hushpuppy's father, Wink, is cursing at her. But I don't think of it as a performance. Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster were show business kids from the start, appearing in commercials as infants or toddlers. They knew no other life but the professional games they played in front of the cameras. Wallis was a kid whose mother just brought her by for the audition on a lark. Here's what she told The Hollywood Reporter about working with her director, Zeitlin: "He was fun and kind of funny and fun to play with." Give that man an award for making the character of Hushpuppy seem at all convincing anywhere but on paper. He turned this series of artful shots, of captured snippets of emotion, into something that looks like an intentional, planned-out performance.

A great deal of it is trickery. In "Beasts," Wallis had about 40 lines to read in voice-over narration. Her delivery is flat  the lines feel very read, rather than felt  but fortunately for Zeitlin it's effective because that flatness provides a counter to the volatility on-screen. She has 57 lines that she speaks with the camera on her, 44 of which have five words or less (three are repetitions of the sentence "I am the man"). Seven are simply pleas for "Daddy" with no more than two other words mixed in. Another six are just requests or greetings to "Mamma" with, at most, three other words mixed in. Her longest speech is three short sentences together. When you hear Wallis telling Jay Leno or The Hollywood Reporter about how she was coaxed into additional takes with pizza parties (or the threat of their cancellation) is to understand her true level of emotional engagement in the movie. "They said if you can't go any more, then we are going to cancel the pizza party," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm like, no, I'm getting up!" This is not a criticism of Wallis; it is a criticism of the working conditions under which one gets a 6-year-old to play a lead role in a movie. She was 6. She was normal. Moviemaking isn't normal. The expectations of this notoriously fickle, ageist industry aren't normal either. What other business decides it is a good idea to put a child in the running for its biggest, most pressure-heavy award?

Just ask Jodie Foster, 50, whose acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award at this year's Golden Globes was as bittersweet, strange and angry as any awards show speech in history. "Trust me," said the grimacing Foster, whose first Oscar nomination was at 14, for "Taxi Driver." "Forty-seven years in the film business is a long time." In terms of underage nominees, she and Anna Paquin stand as the industry's biggest success stories. Both have proved that those early, uncannily good performances were not just flukes. But for every Foster or Paquin there are three or four more whose greatest moments in front of the cameras were their Oscar-nominated performances, like Justin Henry, Mary Badham of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense."

Bing: More about Jodie Foster | More about Anna Paquin

Then there is Quinn Cummings, who gave a captivating, Oscar-nominated performance as Marsha Mason's character's daughter in 1977's "The Goodbye Girl" -- just the kind of wise child turn that would fit right in in a Wes Anderson film. She went on to appear on the television drama "Family," a prototype "Parenthood." Retired from acting, Cummings has published two books, one a memoir about her life in the business, the other a chronicle of homeschooling. She also posts regularly on a wonderfully no-frills blog, where there is no mention of her Oscar-nominated past. Just last week, before Wallis was Oscar-nominated, Cummings wrote about having a Disney television scout approach her young daughter at the mall and invite her to an audition. She writes about how much she loved what happened between the words "action" and "cut" but what a small part of acting that actually was: "The other 90 percent -- the uncertainty, the powerlessness, the unhealthy fixation on weight and appearance -- erodes even the most resilient adult and I wasn't walking around the mall with an adult." Cummings wrote that she smiled at the talent scout and told her, "Thank you, but no." I wonder if, in another three or four decades, Wallis would do the same?

I'll eat one of Zeitlin's fetid catfish props if she wins Best Actress. Coming off the dramatic Golden Globes, Jessica Chastain has the momentum, even over comedy winner Jennifer Lawrence. Don't count the well-loved Naomi Watts out or even the oldest nominee ever, the fantastic Emmanuelle Riva of "Amour." I hope Wallis goes on to have whatever kind of career she wants (she has already filmed a small role in "Shame" director Steve McQueen's next film, "Twelve Years a Slave"). In the meantime, here's an idea for the Academy: Back when Shirley Temple was 6, in 1935, they gave her a special juvenile Oscar as recognition of her spectacular performance at the box office. It wasn't a Best Actress award. She didn't have to duke it out with Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert or Miriam Hopkins. It was an award for being spectacularly good and spectacularly young in Hollywood. Why not bring back that award?

Mary Pols is a Maine-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/ Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.

172Comments
Jan 29, 2013 8:55AM
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since she was not too young to play the part then she is not too young to be nomonated ,,, ( stop the hating )

Jan 28, 2013 9:51PM
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You dont have to be an old hag to win an Oscar...if your good, your good.  She was good!!!
Jan 28, 2013 9:05PM
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If someone has worked for it they should be rewarded regardless of color or age.

Jan 28, 2013 7:00PM
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Good old USA, obsessed with age, females, and anything that even hints of sex.  I keep hearing "she (mostly) is too young to be.." (Insert choices) An Olympic gymnast; concert pianist; model; entertainer; ballerina; etc.  BUT when a boy at those same ages becomes something suddenly he is a child protegee/has a great future/gifted/awesome/called by God, ad infinitum.  It's just more of the misogynistic mindset of narrow minded idiots that women/girls are not supposed to excel at anything other than male imposed traditional female roles.
Jan 28, 2013 7:31PM
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Making excuses to not give the young lady an Oscar!  Give it to the same ego tripping actors each year.
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