WATCH: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" trailer
I was at a Manhattan industry lunch dishing with a pair of over-40 actresses the other day, and they were less enthusiastic about the Oscar buzz surrounding Quvenzhane Wallis, age 9.
The two hardworking veterans (one an Oscar winner, the other a SAG nominee) didn't want to seem to be tearing down the achievement of a lovely little girl, but ... both agreed, in whispered tones, that this was more stunt than performance. Where was the craft? However wonderful the young girl was in "The Beasts of the Southern Wild," her scampering around the Louisiana bayou was not an acting achievement worthy of an Oscar.
Experienced screen actors have good reason to be a little peeved. They often struggle for years to get a break, much less Oscar recognition.As the three of us closed the circle of our discussion so as not to be overheard, I said that as charming and effervescent as Wallis is as Hushpuppy in that Southern gothic fantasy, credit director Benh Zeitlin for the performance (he got a nomination today). The actresses seemed relieved to hear me, a journalist, articulate the point that was making the rounds in their world. Save those five important best-actress slots for recognising the major achievements of working actresses -- and let's see if Wallis will continue to perform in roles not tailored to her.
While Wallis gets credit for being the charismatic centre of "Beasts", the role draws on her innate charm. She's not stretching in the way that, say, Naomi Watts did in "The Impossible" or Lawrence, who was so different in "Silver Linings Playbook" from her Katniss Everdeen in "Hunger Games."
Furthermore, Wallis's performance relied heavily on a voiceover narration that was laid down after the shoot.
Looking back historically at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which started in 1994, child stars rarely get their nominations. A minor has never won from the actors-only group, which boosts the argument that actors know it takes years to develop the craft.
Certainly, when I compare 9-year-old Wallis's achievements with those of contenders snubbed by Oscar today -- Rachel Weisz in "Deep Blue Sea," Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina," Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone," and Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock" -- I have to agree with my two actress friends. It doesn't seem fair. How could the Academy overlook these performances and raise up Wallis's? It seems mercurial at best, and downright frustrating to working actors, to fail to acknowledge the craft and bravery of these women who have put themselves out there, stripping down physically and emotionally for role after role.
When the actors sit down to vote for a winner in the best-actress category, this sentiment will colour their view of Wallis -- and it's doubtful that she will win the statuette. She joins a long history of young and unknown Oscar nominees. Remember Keisha Castle-Hughes from "Whale Rider" in 2002? Others in the list include Justin Henry ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense"), Quinn Cummings ("The Goodbye Girl"), and Mary Badham ("To Kill a Mockingbird").
Of course, there have been successful young nominees, like Jodie Foster, Anna Paquin, and Abigail Breslin. My Academy Award-winning source remembers asking director Lee Daniels what would happen to his "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe after his movie. As it turns out, he needn't have been concerned. Sidibe has gone on to parts in "Tower Heist" and "Seven Psychopaths" and to a regular role in TV's "The Big C."
Thelma Adams writes for Yahoo! Movies