Wallis’ long list of award nominations from critics’ societies and festivals, the NAACP and the academy begs questions about how film acting is evaluated as a craft. What difference does it make that Wallis was cast for type rather than for acting experience? If Wallis turned in a performance that grew out of her “natural” sense of fearlessness and ethics, does this diminish the impact of her presence on screen or her contribution to Beasts of the Southern Wild as a work of art?
The makers of Beasts defend her talents. But the story the filmmakers consistently tell about choosing Wallis from more than 3,500 children they auditioned for the role contributes to the sense that she already embodied Hushpuppy before the cameras started rolling.
A similar story was told about the casting of Keisha Castle-Hughes, whose record as the youngest actress nominated for an Oscar for a leading role (age 13) was broken by Wallis this year. For the 2003 film Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes was reportedly selected from a pool of 10,000 New Zealand children to play Pai, a Maori girl who fights to become the first female leader of her tribe. The parallels between Wallis/Hushpuppy and Castle-Hughes/Pai are striking. Feisty spirits on and off camera, these girls of color are praised for the refreshing authenticity they bring to their roles (Castle-Hughes was the second Polynesian ever nominated for an Academy Award).
But the question immediately arises: How much of an acting career can these actors have when there are so few roles for outsiders like them, and when the mainstream attention they receive for their debut roles dulls the sparkle of their outsider charm? Is the imprimatur of an Oscar nomination wasted on very young and inexperienced actors, particularly actors of color, whose prospects for future high-profile roles are shaky at best?
When Oprah Winfrey took the stage at the 2010 Academy Awards to describe Gabourey Sidibe’s gut-wrenching performance in her first screen role as Precious, she audaciously proclaimed Sidibe “a true American Cinderella, on the threshold of a brilliant new career.” Significantly, Winfrey took great pains to distinguish Sidibe the actress from her on-screen role as an abused Harlem teen.
“The transformation from your own joyous, positive, radiant, fun self to the heartbreaking despair of that girl Precious — where did you learn how to do that?” Noting that Sidibe’s competition that night included Meryl Streep, Winfrey pointed out to the fans at home and to the media-industry leaders in attendance that Sidibe was acting. She was a college student who summoned skills beyond her physical correspondence with the dark-skinned, 350-pound African-American teenager she was cast to portray.