Wednesday 11 December 2019

Why Oscars night is a kid-free zone

Ahead of his time: Nine-year-old 'Room' actor Jacob Tremblay.
Ahead of his time: Nine-year-old 'Room' actor Jacob Tremblay.
Macauley Culkin
Saoirse Ronan aged 13.
'Beasts of the Southern Wild' star Quvenzhane Wallis.
Haley Joel Osment at 11.
Tatum O'Neal holds her Oscar statuette at the 46th Annual Academy Awards in 1974

Robbie Collin

Child actors are getting better and better. So why are Academy Awards voters determined to ignore them, even the fantastic Jacob Tremblay?

Awards-season buzz is a valuable thing, and Room has been blessed with a beehiveful. Lenny Abrahamson's film, about a young mother and her five-year-old son being held prisoner in a shed, is often hard to watch, but if its four Oscar nominations are anything to go by, it's proving easy to vote for.

The film's 26-year-old lead actress, Brie Larson, already has Golden Globe and Screen Actors' Guild awards in the bag, and has been working the pre-Oscars circuit like a pro: photographs of her looking fabulous holding trophies have not been hard to come by.

Irish director Abrahamson, meanwhile, beat legendary talents like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott to a Best Director nomination - while the film itself, with a budget of $6million, is by some distance the cheapest Best Picture nominee.

Room's awards campaign has been masterminded by Lisa Taback, one of Harvey Weinstein's wiliest protegees, and there's almost no imaginable way in which it could have been better received. Almost.

One name has been largely absent from Room's avalanche of awards - and if you've seen the film, you're probably wondering if some kind of conspiracy is afoot.

Jacob Tremblay is the nine-year-old actor who plays Jack, Larson's character's son, and he's been singled out for special praise in every review of the film that I've read. Yet the Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes have ignored him completely. (He'll be appearing at the Academy Awards later this month, but as a presenter.)

He won the Critics' Choice Award for Best Young Actor or Actress, and was nominated for a Screen Actors' Guild award - but in the supporting actor category, which makes no sense. Jack is unquestionably Room's lead character: even Larson's character disappears for two stretches of screen time, but Tremblay's searching eyes and painfully vulnerable frame appear in almost every shot. If the film works - and despite some reservations, I think it really does - it's because of him.

So what's going on? We're all aware of the Oscars' entrenched hang-ups when it comes to race and gender, but does the Academy have it in for children too? Tremblay wasn't just unlucky: only a handful of the great child performances of the last few decades have been so much as nominated for an Oscar, and even then, almost exclusively in the supporting category.

Take Tatum O'Neal, the youngest ever winner of a competitive Academy Award.

She played the co-lead in Paper Moon when she was 10-years-old, alongside her father Ryan. But at the 1974 ceremony, the plaque on her statuette read "supporting". Then there's Mary Badham: also 10 when she played Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and also crazily nominated in the supporting category. Considering Scout is the film's narrator, and every second of the story is seen through her eyes, that's a hell of a demotion. Or try 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, or 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Each won a supporting nomination for what are clearly co-lead roles.

Our own Saoirse Ronan was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2008 for Atonement, but missed out to Tilda Swinton for her role in Michael Clayton. And these are the lucky ones.

ET: The Extra Terrestrial was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, but nine-year-old Henry Thomas, who played Elliott, didn't get his name on any of them. Ditto 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin and Home Alone's two nominations.

The Academy doesn't have any concrete rules about what differentiates a lead performance from a supporting one. Screen time doesn't come into it: Anthony Hopkins notoriously won Best Actor in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs despite appearing in the film for only 16 minutes. (Admittedly, they were 16 very decent minutes.)

Instead, campaigners can promote performers in whatever category they choose, and Room's distributor chose to promote Tremblay as a supporting actor. That decision doesn't remotely reflect reality, but that's awards season for you.

Most of the child actors above, including Tremblay, have something in common: in the films in which their work was undervalued, they often share the screen with a widely admired adult co-star. Larson in Room, Gregory Peck in Mockingbird, Jeff Bridges in True Grit, Keira Knightley in Atonement, and so on. Perhaps nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, nominated as a lead actress for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2013, slipped through the net because there simply weren't any adults in the film whom you could argue were carrying her along.

The problem is simple: almost no one in the film industry seems to know what child acting is, or how to recognise it when it's done well. Are the kids working, or having fun? Are they innately talented, or just well-coached?

And if training is important, why are so many of the great child performances the result of open auditions, or street casting?

In 1934, the Academy came up with a stopgap solution that ran on and off for 26 years: an honorary Juvenile Oscar, that recognised "outstanding contributions to screen entertainment" by performers under the age of 18.

The first recipient was Shirley Temple, aged six; the eldest was Mickey Rooney, in 1938, at the age of 18.

Temple and Rooney were superstars of their day, but to modern audiences their performances feel creepy and precocious - like winking parodies of childhood. In his review of John Ford's Wee Willie Winkie for Night and Day magazine, Graham Greene nailed down his unease, writing that the then-nine-year-old Temple's biggest admirers were "middle-aged men and clergymen", who responded "to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire".

As a result of that review, Twentieth Century Fox sued Greene for libel, and won. But even if he overstated the matter, Greene was on to something. It's notable that, for the entirety of Rooney's 91-year career in the movies, he played an adult version of a kid.

That style of performance has long since fallen from favour - and what Tremblay does in Room would have made 30s' cinemagoers' hair fall out.

In one of the film's showpiece scenes, Jack's mother tries to tell him the truth about their lives: she was kidnapped seven years ago, and a whole world exists outside their four walls. But Jack, who's come to believe that all he has is all there is, becomes furious with incomprehension. "I want a different story!" he yells at his mother. "No," she yells back. "This is the story that you get."

In a recent interview, Abrahamson described how tricky it was to convince the young actor to shout at his co-star. After a few halting takes, Tremblay whispered to the director that he didn't want to shout at Larson because he liked her and, what's more, it was rude.

Abrahamson's solution was to stop filming and stage a shouting competition.

"We got the whole crew in and... made it into a game, and at that point he lost any immediate self-consciousness," the director said.

In a sense, that makes Tremblay's performance the opposite of acting as we normally think of it: to express an emotion convincingly, he had to forget why his character actually felt it.

Many of the best directors working with children today deploy similar tactics. When Barry Guiler finds aliens in his mother's kitchen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg needed a very specific set of expressions from his three-year-old actor Cary Guffey - first fear, then puzzlement, then a melting into pure delight.

So unbeknown to the kid, Spielberg dressed up as the Easter bunny, and convinced a make-up artist to pull on a gorilla suit for good measure. When filming began, both men hid behind sheets of cardboard - which were dropped, one after the other, catching young Cary's eye, and creating the totally convincing reaction we see on screen.

Then there's Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda, the director of many extraordinarily moving child performances in films such as Nobody Knows and I Wish. He shoots young actors like they're wildlife - not with tranquilliser darts in a paddock, but - quietly and at a distance, so the behaviour he captures is as real and unmediated as possible.

Beforehand, Kore-eda briefly explains what they're supposed to do, then films the result and works the script around it. While shooting Like Father, Like Son, eight-year-old Shogen Hwang kept blurting out "Oh my God" in English: rather than tell the kid to watch his mouth, Kore-eda turned it into a character trait.

These tricks are only possible in cinema because there's no need for a child actor to maintain the same level of energy for two hours on the trot as they'd have to on stage, where more obviously coached performances are still the norm. Perhaps that's why few child actors are able to parlay one extraordinary performance into a sustainable adult career: they're just different jobs, requiring very different skill sets. Make-believe is anything but child's play. © Daily Telegraph

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