Only 9-years-old, Quvenzhané Wallis has made history by being the youngest actress ever to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Wallis is nominated for her role as Hushpuppy in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The best actor and actress awards reward the work of starring actors and actresses considered as the best in the film industry; people are now wondering whether Wallis is just too young to be considered. The main question is, can children really embody a character and truly act?
Wallis was only 5-years-old when she auditioned for her character and 6 when Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed. Can we really speak of the acting talents of a 6-year-old? According to an article published, last December, in The Atlantic the answer is no. Its author, Scott MacDonald, seems to believe that Wallis was too young to have truly "played" her character Hushpuppy. Along with other reasons, he wrote “acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own.” This implies that Wallis was just being who she naturally is and that she didn't really have to play any role in Beasts of the Southern Wild. MacDonald describes her as simply a “great camera subject.”
But MacDonald is wrong. Children are not just passive subjects. Even at a young age, they already possess the ability to play. Even in every day life they are able to create artificial environments, and indulge in illusions without getting lost in them. Furthermore, in an interview, in June 2012, Wallis, in her own words distinguishes herself from Hushpuppy. By doing so she shows that, despite her young age, children can adopt a persona and more or less act, contrary to what MacDonald thinks.
This is not the first time a young actors’ performances has been questioned. In 1996 the awarding of the Best Actress prize to 5-year-old French “actress,” Victoire Thivisol, at the Venice Film Festival, sparked a lively debate in the film indusrty. Most critics of the time claimed that she was less deserving as she was not fully autonomous to play the character all by herself. Film directors are particularly criticized for managing their younger actors on set and then relying on editing and other post-synchronization technics to clear their defects on the screen. But even at such a young age, Thivisol never confused herself with the character she was playing. Indeed, according to the psychoanalyst who followed the filming of Ponette, Thivisol always spoke of herself in the third person when speaking about how she acted, proving that she could very well make out the difference between herself and her character.
Nonetheless, MacDonald raises the question of whether child actors should compete in the same awards as adults and suggests the return of the Academy Juvenile Award which might be a good thing for young actors. But trying to minimize Wallis’s role in Beasts of the Southern Wild or implying that children don’t actually act underestimates their abilities. In a book titled L’Enfant acteur (Child Actor), French writer Nicolas Livecchi provides some concrete response about this phenomenon, particularly through analysis of two filmmakers: Steven Spielberg and Jacques Doillon (Ponette’s director) ultimately paying tribute to the talent of these young and very real actors.
If Quvenzhané Wallis wins the Best Actress Oscar this February, she will be the first minor to win the coveted statuette since Anna Paquin did at age 11 for her supporting role in The Piano.