While her presence is undeniable, nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Wallis’ nomination raises the question: How young is too young to compete for an Oscar, the film industry’s highest honour, which has eluded performers with decades more experience and acclaim? Is a child really capable of acting, with craft, or do these performances reflect uncanny instinct?
Wallis is the youngest best actress Oscar nominee by four years: the next is Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was 13 when nominated for ‘Whale Rider’ in 2003. The third, Lawrence, nominated again this year, was first tapped in 2010 at age 20 for ‘Winter’s Bone’.
The youngest ever best actress Oscar winner is Marlee Matlin, who took the prize in 1986 for ‘Children of a Lesser God’ at the positively mature age of 21 years and 218 days.
The youngest person to ever win an Oscar in any competitive category is Tatum O’Neal, who was just 10 when she took home the best supporting actress prize in 1973.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined a request to comment on Wallis’ youth.
Youngest-ever Oscar nominee
Justin Henry, who remains the youngest-ever Oscar nominee in any category for 1979’s ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’, said that in some ways, it’s a purer form of acting at this age.
Henry was just six years and had never acted when a casting director came to his Rye, New York school looking for someone to play Billy, the little boy at the center of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s custody battle. He was seven when he shot the film and eight when he was nominated for best supporting actor — he lost to 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas for ‘Being There’. (Tatum O’Neal is still the youngest Oscar winner in any category — she was 10 when she earned the supporting-actress Oscar for 1973’s ‘Paper Moon’.)
A voting Academy member, Henry said he thought it was “awesome” to see Wallis get nominated for the acclaimed Fox Searchlight indie drama, which he called the best movie of the year. Now 41 with a seven-year-old daughter of his own, he looks back at his own nomination and acknowledges: “I didn’t even know what it meant. ... I just remember being nervous as hell about having to give a speech in front of 3,000 people.”
“That’s the great thing about acting: In some ways, it’s a child’s game,” said Henry, who went on to play Molly Ringwald’s wisecracking younger brother in the John Hughes classic ‘Sixteen Candles’ and now specialises in web video distribution. “You’re just pretending, so sometimes it’s easy when you’re a kid. You just kind of follow your instincts.”
‘Red carpet is a grind’
Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies and a longtime awards prognosticator, points out that Shirley Temple was already well on her way to a career by the time she was six, the same year she earned an honorary juvenile Oscar.
“There was a lot of craft to what she was doing,” Adams said. “With [Quvenzhane’s] performance, it’s kind of a life force. They’ve captured this wonderful little girl ... but it’s not an acting performance.”
“I’ve seen her at parties,” added Adams, the mother of two teenagers who perform. “I know she can get up in her party dress and charm, but I also saw a little girl who’d rather be riding a pony at a kids’ party. ... To have her nominated, it’s not good for her, no matter how great she was in the movie — and she was terrific — but this red carpet thing is a grind.”
But it’s exactly that kind of passion that drives such extraordinary kids, said John West, headmaster at The Mirman School for highly gifted children in Los Angeles, whose alumni include actors Crispin Glover, Masi Oka (‘Heroes’) and David Dorfman (‘The Ring’ movies).
“I’m not sure they fathom the importance of the honour. They fathom the importance of the work they do — that’s far more important,” he said. “Any of our students who have been engaged in the arts don’t do it because they’re looking for approval or glory. They’re doing it because the work itself in some unique way touches them in their own lives.”
West has no problem with Wallis’ nomination: “People throw around all the time that someone is an old soul packaged in a very young body, and as cliched as that may be, it’s true.”
Kid on the sets
But Zeitlin said Wallis was still very much a little kid on the set: “She would say things to me like, ‘Benh, I’m only six years old, you need to use smaller words,’ or ‘I’m gonna get cranky sometimes.’ She had this awareness almost like an observer of a child.”
He also points out that Wallis is nothing like the girl she played.
“Hushpuppy as a character is going through unbelievable circumstances. She’s damaged, she’s morose, she’s contemplative, she’s quiet, she has this great burden on her shoulders,” Zeitlin said. “Quvenzhane Wallis is the most carefree, fun-loving, goofy, playful person you can imagine, and she had to put herself in that skin on a consistent basis.”