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Is girl, 9, too young to compete for an Oscar?

  • Article by: CHRISTY LEMIRE
  • Associated Press
  • February 13, 2013 - 8:29 PM

LOS ANGELES - "Beasts of the Southern Wild" star Quvenzhané Wallis is an actress of talent, poise and maturity well beyond her years. She was only 5 years old when she auditioned and 6 when she played the part of Hushpuppy, a little girl of fierce strength and resourcefulness living with her daddy in a squalid slab of Louisiana swampland. She was just a regular kid from Houma, La. -- she'd never acted before.

Now, at only 9, Quvenzhané (Kuh-VAHN-zuh-nay) is the youngest-ever actress nominee at the Academy Awards. Altogether, "Beasts" has four nominations at the Feb. 24 ceremony, including best picture.

While her presence is undeniable, Quvenzhané's nomination raises the question: How young is too young to compete for an Oscar, the film industry's highest honor, 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?

Director Benh Zeitlin doesn't think 9 is too young for such an honor. Zeitlin, who is up for a best-director Oscar with just his first feature, praised Quvenzhané for the incredible sense of self she displayed from the beginning. But he also recalled one day when she seemed to be struggling on set and he took her aside to ask what was wrong.

"'I know. I can't snap it today. Normally I can snap it,'" he remembered her saying. "The fact that she had an internal sense of when she's in character, when she's getting the emotions right and feeling it, is really special even in experienced actors."

Justin Henry, who remains the youngest 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 6 years old and had never acted when a casting director came to his Rye, N.Y., school looking for someone to play Billy, the little boy at the center of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep's custody battle. He was 7 when he shot the film and 8 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 Quvenzhané get nominated for the Fox Searchlight indie drama, which he called the best movie of the year. Now 41 with a 7-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."

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