When I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” back in May at Cannes — in the early stages of a festival that, for all its cinematic riches, hadn’t offered awards pundits much to chew on — I felt emboldened to make my first confident Oscar prediction of the year: that, whatever the film’s fate elsewhere, 8 year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was poised to become the youngest Best Actress nominee in history, on the beguiling strength of her onscreen presence and off-screen charm.
I stand by that call, even if the category has got slightly more competitive than it seemed prior to Toronto. But if/when the young dynamo gets the nod, it’ll be without any help from that prime Oscar bellwether, the Screen Actors’ Guild — which has ruled Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance sensation ineligible in their 2012 awards. In addition to freeing up a Best Actress spot, that also takes the film out of the running for SAG’s ensemble prize.
The Hollywood Reporter reports that the unusual call has been made because the film was made outside the terms of the SAG Low Budget Feature Agreement, which requires that professional actors be used. With its vibrantly non-pro cast led by screen debutante Wallis and baker-turned-thesp Dwight Henry, “Beasts” proudly and purposely falls foul of that clause — the untrained quality of the performances is part and parcel of the film’s appeal. Feinberg writes that the film could reverse its ineligibility only if Fox Searchlight, along with all the film’s international distributors, offers further payment to the actors involved to bring matters in line with SAG standards — an unlikely scenario.
We’re used to seeing such Guild politics elsewhere — notably in the Writers’ Guild Awards, which annually disqualify legions of worthy screenplays for not meeting certain WGA signatory stipulations — but this is a far rarer occurrence with SAG. And, frankly, I think it’s all rather silly: how does one draw such an emphatic line between a professional and non-professional actor, and why would paying more money after the fact alter that status? (If 13 year-old newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes could nab a SAG nod in 2003 for “Whale Rider,” what made her particularly more professional than Wallis?)
Should a film be penalized for not featuring so-called professional actors if the director’s vision dictates otherwise? A performance caught on camera is a performance, whatever the actor’s method — we’re only in a position to evaluate the onscreen effect, not the off-screen process. (I have similar qualms with those suggesting Wallis shouldn’t be considered for awards because she’s supposedly not “acting”; perhaps she isn’t, but then, some professional actors are coached by their directors more than others. Who’s to know?)
Some will argue that this represents a setback in the Oscar campaigns of Wallis, Supporting Actor dark horse Henry and the film itself — and yes, given that “Beasts” isn’t likely Golden Globe fodder either, they’ll be more reliant on the critics’ awards to build their buzz than other contenders. (Ironically, it could be Wallis’s Searclight stablemate, Helen Mirren in “Hitchcock,” who fills her spot on the Guild ballot.) But the SAG roadblock is such an exceptional circumstance that I can’t see how it counts for much, particularly given this season’s compressed timeframe.
As Kris so often points out, the Oscars don’t mirror certain precursors because Academy voters are slavishly paying attention to them; it’s because the precursors themselves are picking up on what the community at large is thinking and seeing. My hunch is that the film and its pint-sized star will have enough champions at the year’s end that SAG will be the one missing out, not the other way round.