Friday, February 22, 2013

Oscars for Amateurs: How Quvenzhané Wallis Made it to the Big Dance

Much attention has recently been paid to Emmanuelle Riva, who at 85 is the oldest nominee ever for the Best Actress Oscar. I have not yet seen Amour, but I’ve never forgotten her bravery in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a 1959 landmark of French New Wave cinema. If the Academy chooses to honor Riva, it will be for a sterling performance, but also for her place in cinema history.

I wonder how she feels, and how the other nominees feel, about the fact that one of their competitors is not only a brand-new actress but pretty much a brand-new person. Quvenzhané Wallis, now a charming nine-year-old, was only five when she auditioned for the leading role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and she went before the cameras at six. Now she’s the youngest Best Actress candidate in Oscar history, which must make such doddering oldsters as Naomi Watts (born 1968), Jessica Chastain (born 1977), and Jennifer Lawrence (born 1990) wonder why they wasted so much time learning their craft.

Of course there are many factors at work here. To win Oscar gold, you need to be the right actor in the right project. Your film needs to be a critical success, and today an award-season strategy involving paid consultants and freebies for voters is definitely part of the mix. And if you’re a young newcomer, the Actress categories are more welcoming than those for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, because the men’s competition is always more crowded.  Abigail Breslin was a mere ten when she became a Best Actress nominee for Little Miss Sunshine, though by that point she was a veteran of several movies.  But both Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin took home Best Supporting Actress statuettes for their debut films, Paper Moon and The Piano. O’Neal was ten, and Paquin a ripe old eleven.

What gives? How did these largely untrained amateurs get to play with the big girls? Partly it’s a matter of savvy casting: finding a child whose personality and life situation nicely match the role she’s asked to assume. Tatum O’Neal, who’d endured a tumultuous upbringing and was street-smart beyond her years, took easily to playing a con artist alongside her actual father. Wallis, a Louisiana native, has the fearlessness and the sass essential to the role of Hushpuppy. A drama teacher I know insists that most children are natural-born actors. They excel at “let’s pretend” because they are comfortable shrugging off social niceties and entering fully into the part they are asked to play. It’s only when they approach their teens that they become self-conscious, which is why older actors have to learn to be as spontaneous and in-the-moment as children. So if you combine a kid’s natural flair for the dramatic with a role that’s a perfect fit, magic can happen.

There’s another category of first-time actors who’ve made a splash on Oscar night: people who have such close personal ties to the roles they play that they are essentially playing themselves. Oscar voters salute them because they have endured the unendurable, and brought this experience to the screen. Haing S. Ngor survived Pol Pot’s Cambodia, then re-enacted his suffering in The Killing Fields. Harold Russell was the perfect choice to play a gutsy World War II vet in The Best Years of Our Lives. I just learned that Russell’s role was originally meant to showcase a returning soldier suffering from PTSD. But when the production team learned of Russell, who had lost both arms in a military training accident, they knew they had the right man for this film.    


  1. I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and loved it and thought Quvenzhané Wallis was terrific although I don't think what she accomplished was acting in the same sense in which a trained older person acts.

    It was interesting that almost always we hear her voice only in voiceover. In a sense her job is split in two: to act with gesture, expression, body language, etc. and to act through speech.

    I wondered if the director made the decision to do this because it made the job easier for a six-year-old. Does anyone know?

  2. I don't know, but this is an excellent question, Joan. I know that Beasts of the Southern Wild was originally a stage play (featuring a little boy rather than a girl), and the stage is well-suited to voiceover narration. I also suspect, given the realities of casting a movie, that the production team wouldn't want to completely rewrite its screenplay to suit the child they'd chosen to cast. I'm sure there were small adjustments made, and the voiceover was probably recorded after principal photography was complete. But my guess is that little Quevnzhane was chosen because out of all the candidates she was best able to bring the existing script to life. (One thing I need to add: much as I loved her, I sometimes found her speech patterns hard to fathom. I'm sure her accent was authentic, but it sometimes defeated my understanding of what she was saying.) Thanks for visiting Beverly in Movieland, Joan -- and do drop by again soon!

  3. Sadly, the actual voting and winners were far more staid and expected than either the oldest or youngest nominees.