During the recent early-morning Oscar nomination announcements, the best actress category concluded when the final Brady Bunch-like square filled with the face of nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. I was in Toronto, but I'm pretty sure I heard Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren scream.
Nominating children is a curious Oscar tradition. The first kid nominee was 14-year-old Bonita Granville in 1936, and most recently, Hailee Steinfeld, also 14, earned a 2011 supporting actress nomination for True Grit. Kids don't often win – the last time was 11-year-old Anna Paquin in 1994 – but their presence always stirs controversy. Prior to the announcements, CBC radio show Q weighed in with a panel: "Should children be nominated for Oscars?"
On Yahoo!, Thelma Adams described a conversation with two 40-plus actresses who were not pleased, whispering that Wallis's performance as Hushpuppy, one of New Orleans's forgotten poor in Beasts of the Southern Wild, was a one-off stunt: "Save those five important best-actress slots for recognizing the major achievements of working actresses – and let's see if Wallis will continue to perform in roles not tailored to her."
Adult ambivalence about child actors isn't mere jealousy, but gestures at a deeper concern about the presence of children in the world of celebrity. Personally, I welcome anything that might puncture the smooth superficiality of a three-hour awards ceremony. More animals, kids and robots – would somebody please give E.T. his honorary award?
When actors sniff at Wallis, they're really saying that she makes it look too easy. Child acting is often praised for not being acting at all: Some nobody kid taps effortlessly into an almost mystical talent that real actors slave to achieve, pounding miles of pavement and conquering mountains of rejection for years. No fair.
In Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote of young Hunter McCracken in the 2011 film The Tree of Life: "McCracken, who had never acted in a movie before, is so unaffected that his performance seems less like a construct than a natural event." That innate looseness is the opposite of the kind of child acting that feels as manipulated as the pageant hopefuls on stage in Toddlers & Tiaras mimicking their moms shimmying in the audience.
The best child actors are perfect conduits for the kind of naturalism that's dominated the craft over the past half century. Viewed through a Romantic lens, children are closer to nature, innocent, pure – inherently unself-conscious in the exact ways that the best actors strive to become. In rubber boots and underwear, Wallis as Hushpuppy storms the churned-up, off-the-grid corner of the bayou she calls home. Ripping into a mound of slippery crayfish with her bare hands, flexing and screaming "Beast it!," she is a new Huck Finn, master of her universe and achingly vulnerable for all she doesn't yet know.
Why shouldn't this beautiful, unfettered feat be celebrated? Oscars aren't meant to reward a body of work but a single performance in a single year. Beasts of the Southern Wild would not have been the same film without Wallis, who was just six years old at the time of filming.
But is it acting? Well, Wallis was not, by all accounts, found wandering the bayou; she auditioned. Anyone who spends time with children knows how easily they slip in and out of personae. A 2009 paper by Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner published in Creativity Research Journal showed how actors are predisposed to perform even as young children. The authors interviewed 11 professional adult actors, comparing them to a group of lawyers, and the actors all recalled greater engagement with "alternative" (imaginary and fictional) and "inner" (emotional and mental) worlds than the lawyers did. Some reported acting and directing at age four.
Of course, one fears for a kid with an Oscar nomination. Seeing a child on a red carpet is like watching a beautiful flower float down a toxic river. The fear is that the uncorrupted instinct that makes a child actor so wonderful will be sullied by the fame it brings. This, in effect, was the thrust of Jodi Foster's recent speech at the Golden Globes. Foster, Oscar-nominated at age 14, has been performing for 47 years. Winning a lifetime achievement award, she spoke of her love of her craft, but maligned the corrosive effects of the profession. Certainly, many child actors don't survive celebrity. River Phoenix got an Oscar nomination at 18 and overdosed at 23. Tatum O'Neal, who won a supporting actress Oscar at age 10, has wrangled addiction for years.
Wallis should take note: The child nominees and actors who seem to age gracefully in the industry are the ones who leave for a while to go to university. Foster, Paquin, Claire Danes and Natalie Portman – all armed themselves with education and life experience. They might have grown out of their youthful instincts, but they have the intelligence to navigate fame – something no child is born with.