There are plenty of experienced hands nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, yet the countertrend to youth is striking and refreshing. Look just at the top categories, and you can’t help being impressed by the quality, innovation, daring and diversity of work that the 2013 Oscar nominees junior auxiliary has produced.
Of all this season’s young nominees, the likeliest winner is 30-year-old Anne Hathaway. The best supporting actress nominee for “Les Misérables” sings her heart out in the sweepingly sentimental aria “I Dreamed a Dream.” Eyes wet with tears, mouth quivering with despair, humiliation and fury, she sings live, delivering the entire song in a monumentally tight close-up. Hathaway, who is on her second nomination, is widely considered to have a lock on the prize. Perhaps it helps that her own mother played the role on Broadway.
Benh Zeitlin, 30, has directed just one feature, but what a debut it was. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a visionary indie made far outside the Hollywood system, received a best picture nomination.
Zeitlin’s visual storytelling virtuosity and skill in guiding nonprofessionals to unforgettable performances also earned him a best director nomination. Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, accomplished directors in their own right, were snubbed, even though the films they helmed are among this year’s best picture finalists.
“Beasts,” one of the best-reviewed films of the year, scored top honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, among other awards. Zeitlin isn’t expected to best fellow directing nominees David O. Russell, 54; Ang Lee, 58; Steven Spielberg, 66, or Michael Haneke, 70. But if he does take the stage at the Dolby Theatre, he’ll be the youngest best director in Oscars history.
With its creative team of newcomers, “Beasts” was a one-film youthquake. Zeitlin shares the nomination for best adapted screenplay with playwright Lucy Alibar, also 30. Producers Dan Janvey, 28, Michael Gottwald, 28, and Josh Penn, 29, spent 3 ½ years making the movie in a stormy southern Louisiana bayou, with a budget under $1.5 million, astoundingly low.
The “Beasts” trio aren’t the youngest producers in the race, however. That distinction goes to “Zero Dark Thirty’s” Megan Ellison, the 27-year-old daughter of America’s third-richest person, Oracle software CEO Larry Ellison. She has used her Silicon Valley fortune to produce films such as “The Master” and “True Grit.”
If either of those films should win, the victors will have a place in the record books. The only Oscar-winning producer under 30 was also the first woman to win a best picture, 29-year-old Julia Phillips, who won for 1973’s “The Sting” (with husband Michael Phillips, 30, and Tony Bill, 33).
Nine-year-old “Beasts” star Quvenzhané Wallis made headlines as the youngest-ever best actress nominee, bringing electric energy and humanity to the role of a scrappy tomboy flood survivor. Wallis was 5 when she auditioned, and her impressive tryout convinced Zeitlin and Alibar to rethink their central character, originally conceived as an 11-year-old boy. She was 6 when the film was shot. (Shirley Temple was the youngest actor ever to receive an Oscar at age 6, but that was an honorary award. Tatum O’Neal is the youngest winner in any category, earning the supporting-actress Oscar for 1973’s “Paper Moon” at age 10.)
Competing against Wallis in the best actress slot is Jennifer Lawrence, a comparatively old hand and full-fledged star at 22. As an unbalanced recent widow in “Silver Linings Playbook,” she’s funny and sexy and irresistibly magnetic. She also holds her own in a scene where she goes toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro, a challenge that would daunt even Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence is already on her second best actress nomination, having wowed academy voters at age 20 with her work in the backwoods crime drama “Winter’s Bone.”
Rounding out the field are Jessica Chastain, 35 (“Zero Dark Thirty”); Naomi Watts, 44 (“The Impossible”), and Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”). The 85-year-old French veteran, in an honest, harrowing performance as a Parisian stroke victim, is the oldest actress ever to compete in the category. Don’t count her out, though. Riva took best leading actress at this month’s British Academy Film Awards.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186