Going into the Oscar nominations yesterday, this Academy Awards-Obsessed gal was hoping for a few relative long shots that actually managed to come true - "Django Unchained" and "Amour" Best Pic nods! Haneke Director nod! Emanuelle Riva Actress nod and Christoph Waltz Supporting Actor nod! NO TOM HOOPER! Sure, some omissions were bumming me out, like a lack of Ann Dowd, Ben Affleck and Jonny Greenwood, but overall I was feeling pretty excited. And yet, there remains a little something bothering me that I just can't seem to shut up about.
For me, perhaps the most mystifying nomination of all, despite how beloved and predicted it was, is Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Controversial, I know, and I spent a good hour and a half engaging in Twitter fights over this opinion in the wee hours of yesterday morning, but I just can't shake how completely baffled I am. The Actor's Branch of the freaking Academy seems to think not only that a six-year-old has the cognitive capacity to actually engage in the craft of acting, but that this "performance" was strong enough to warrant an Oscar nomination. Over what some are saying is Marion Cotillard's best performance of her career yet in "Rust & Bone."
But this is a touchy subject. People love "Beasts of the Southern Wild"-- I mean, LOVE it. Cried throughout it. Saw it multiple times. Been in love with it for an entire year, since its premiere at Sundance last January. And far be it from me to offend these people.
"Beasts…" didn't work for me, a damn shame considering I love getting behind the little indie that could. To me, it was contrived, overblown empty sentimentalism, playing at something profound without truly having anything to say. To other people, it was a revelation, and I envy that feeling. I do not begrudge anyone that feeling. But one thing I cannot understand is confusing the way the movie made one feel with the skill involved in the art of acting.
Ultimately, my entire argument here boils down to one simple fact: Wallis was six years old when she played the part of Hushpuppy. Six. A child. Think about being six years old. Think about the films and television you watched when you were six and how profoundly different they were when you revisited them as an adult or even a teenager. Think about how the world looked. Think about how you behaved. Think about how you were treated. We're not talking thirteen. We're not talking eleven. We're not even talking nine. We are talking SIX.
When someone is that young, unless they are straight up a genius child prodigy anomaly, that person simply does not have the awareness required to give a fully realized performance.
Let's talk about the tenets of acting. Observation, listening, responding, knowing what you want and engaging with your fellow actors in such a way that translates that want with groundedness and honesty. Emotional complexity. Being able to read a script and dissect its purpose. Understanding subtext. Understanding context. Even in the most demystifying of acting techniques, there is nothing without a fundamental understanding of the words and what they are intended to aid the actor in conveying.
How exactly does any of this apply to what a six-year-old is even capable of doing? Assuming she was able to memorize her lines, as opposed to them being told to her to repeat right before a take, how is it reasonable to assess that she had an intention behind them, as opposed to being told, "now yell!" "now be sad!" "now run really fast!" Not to mention, most of the film is in voiceover, a voiceover which sounds surprise surprise like a child being herself and saying sentences.
Now, some may argue, not all adults understand the craft of acting, and we don't begrudge them for not having a technique, why does it matter here? To this I say, I'm not talking about training or technique; some people do have raw talent that they hone, of course. I'm talking about basic cognitive function. About simply being OLD ENOUGH to understand what is going on and have the capacity to craft a performance. Pure and simple. Even fully grown terrible actors have the theoretical ability to do that.
Some may argue, can't she just be a natural talent? Any charming, self-confident child who likes being the center of attention can be called a natural talent when it comes to performing. It's called being a kid. It has nothing to do with ACTING. Even having that spark that makes a kid interesting to watch on screen still, I repeat, has nothing to do with ACTING.
Others may argue, well screw acting, she was being, why not reward something that is simply true and beautiful? As Movies.com's David Ehrlich put it, do we award the subject of documentaries with acting awards? This is a case of a charming, confident child being cast for being a charming, confident child. Director Benh Zeitlin has even said in interviews that they altered the "Beasts…" script to fit her strong personality. Because they found a subject. They found an interesting being to film this movie around and adjusted the movie accordingly.
Of course, the goal of all actors is to come across as though they are just being, but remaining honest, open and connected while being cognitively aware that you are playing a character and telling a story, and understanding specifically what your hand is in that process, is a skill, one that can definitely be worked on and applied to a raw openness to result in brilliance but if someone is actually just being, it is not acting.
Someone else may argue, well, why rain on her parade and not, say, the children on "Boardwalk Empire", or the youngest son from "The Impossible"? To that I say, because no one is running around saying they deserve awards. It's very clear that the casting directors found children that tell the story they want just by saying sentences and following basic instructions. No one is calling them the second coming of acting. They do what child actors do, which is be themselves for the purpose of serving the story being told by the folks who have an actual craft. Which is why most child actors stop as soon as they become self-actualized human beings.
If Quvenzhane Wallis is still acting in 10 years, I will be floored. Although if she goes away, goes to college, decides she actually wants to pursue an acting career, works on it, and reenters the scene as a brilliant performer, I'll be the first one to say, good for her, that's awesome, you person now capable of understanding what goes into acting, you.
Perhaps most importantly, I feel as though all of this praise is being heaped on Wallis because she is the face and voice of a film that moved a lot of people, despite the fact that if you broke down her performance, it wouldn't truly add up to much but a cute little girl running around in big boots, yelling at a mop mom. Her surroundings elevate her. Her performance is classic child actor meticulous manipulation, but cushioned by lush cinematography, careful direction, clever editing, a lovely story, and perhaps the best score of the year. (In my personal opinion, everyone is mixing up Wallis' performance with the music. Although the movie didn't do much for me, the most power came directly from the stunning, and disappointingly snubbed score. )
But this is not a movie where, even if you hated it, you walk away thinking "But DAMN her performance was outstanding." Would you think that about Dwight Henry? Absolutely. God knows I do. And this is a trend for many movies this year. Many people hate "Lincoln", but can't argue that Daniel Day Lewis is a god among actors. Maybe "The Master" left you cold, but even its most vocal of haters do not deny the incredible work that went into the performances. Hell, everyone on the face of the planet seems to hate "The Paperboy" and yet Nicole Kidman got a Golden Globe and SAG nomination.
But this is not a sentiment attached to "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Across the board, the people that thought she was brilliant are the same people who thought the movie was brilliant, projecting the overall emotional result of the film on to the most seen, but perhaps least active member of the group that brought it to life.
Another potential argument - all performances are made up in part to the work happening around them, so how is this any different? To this I say, of course our perception of one's performance takes everything into account, from costumes to editing to direction and so on, no argument there, all I'm saying is one of the components really should be the art of acting as well. You know, when awarding the art of acting.
As @eruditechick pointed out, take a look at "The Fall." The child in that movie, Catinca Untaru, is amazing. Incredibly effective, moving, wonderful. But the reason she works so well has nothing to do with talent. It has to do with the careful behind the scenes manipulation of how to get the desired effect from a child actor, perhaps a director's skill in its own right! The production made her think lead actor Lee Pace was in fact paralyzed and filmed portions of their scenes together through holes in curtains, to maximize the realism. Would the movie have worked as well or been as effective without this? No. But does that make her a great actor worthy of being rewarded for her skill? Absolutely not. It was a case of the people around her knowing how to get what they wanted from the vessel they needed to use to tell this story properly.
So the question becomes: If Wallis was, at the end of the day, "powerful and effective" as one great blogger passionately put forth, is that all that matters?
When rewarding one's craft, one's skill, should it not matter if it was their own skill versus someone else's skill projected onto them? If a scientist is too old to be able to say, pour certain chemicals into a beaker without shaking, and hires someone younger who knows nothing about science, but has the strong, non shaky hands of a youth, to assist him, and it is this young set of hands mixing the chemicals dictated by the scientist - who is responsible for the ground breaking new vaccine? The vessel the scientist used to accomplish his goal, or the scientist who conceived of the goal and manipulated the situation in a positive and efficient way to allow for its success?
To the Academy, I say, reward the overall result, reward the true talent that crafted this film, but next time when nominating Best Actress, an award given for achievement in the craft of acting, please oh please take the craft of acting into account.
Thanks to everyone who debated about this issue with me on Twitter yesterday, thus inspiring my desire to get all my thoughts out in one place, particularly @mtgilchrist and @totorovsbatman.