Since premiering at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered great acclaim for its lead, newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays a character called Hushpuppy. With awards season upon us, her name is frequently mentioned as a serious contender for a best actress nod at the Academy Awards, alongside veterans like Jessica Chastain and Marion Cotillard. Not everyone thinks Wallis should have a shot at winning the Academy Award, though. Scott MacDonald in The Atlantic, while conceding that Wallis is “unusually magnetic,” argues that, because she was only six when the southern fantasy was filmed, she was too young to be “acting.” His argument echoes one made previously by Mark Harris at Grantland, who wrote that “what you see onscreen is not a reasoned, thought-through performance by an actress who is using her skills to calibrate the effect of what she does on audiences,” but rather “the result of first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s superb handling of a sweet young child.” Are they right? Is it impossible for a six-year-old to act?
No. MacDonald defines acting as a “conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own.” What audiences have been raving about, he says, is Wallis’s “innocence and lack of self-consciousness. She feels genuine precisely because she’s incapable,” he claims, “of being otherwise.” There are at least two mistakes here. First: Since when did children stop pretending? When a kindergartener says she’s a pirate or a princess or a character she saw on TV, is she not adopting a persona other than her own? Of course she is. And anyone who has seen Wallis in interviews knows that she comes off in person entirely different from the character she portrays. We don’t, of course, know all of the details of her life, but it appears that she has had quite a nice one—which can’t be said for the neglected, abused character of Hushpuppy. Her off-screen persona could very well be an act, but if so, she plays that part well, too.
MacDonald’s second mistake is subtler, and perhaps more important. The lack of inhibition that MacDonald rightly sees in Wallis, even when it is not a form of pretense, is one of the essential qualities for any actor, whatever his or her age—Wallis’s performance is great in part because she was unafraid to reveal aspects of herself on screen, regardless of how she went about doing it. This is a crucial part of acting, one that is sometimes overlooked, especially during awards season. Consider the Academy’s frequently mocked preference for “transformative” roles: Actors who play historical figures, characters in unusual and dire situations, or people with physical disabilities that they do not themselves possess are often given the nod over quieter roles. But, as has been said before, the award is for the best acting, not the most acting.
MacDonald acknowledges that there are adult actors who are assumed to be “playing themselves,” but argues that even those performers are “engaged in a series of more or less conscious decisions about how best to be themselves onscreen.” This echoes Harris’s comment about “reasoned, thought-through” performances. But do we reward the performance, or the decisions that went into creating it? Surely the former. Or should best picture go to the movie that was most thoroughly planned, regardless of how it turned out? And can we really assume we know what cognitive work went into a role? Of course not.
There is an entirely separate matter that both MacDonald and Harris take up and on which we are in complete agreement: No child should have to go through an Oscar campaign. The publicity required to really compete for the award is grueling, and Wallis, now 9, is too young to be caught up in that whirlwind. And I like MacDonald’s suggestion that the Academy reinstate the old award for juvenile performances (though that wouldn’t solve the campaigning problem). I would love to see Oscar acknowledge more performances by young actors—without having to put them up against their more experienced peers.