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The Year of the Whippersnappers

We’re still more than a month away from the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations. Many of the top-contending films have not yet been released in most markets. But I’m making a bold prediction: This year’s acting nominations will be notable for the number of young actors given an Oscar nod.

James Franco (age 32) of “127 Hours,” Ryan Gosling of “Blue Valentine” (30) and Jesse Eisenberg of “The Social Network” (27) seem like locks to earn Best Actor nominations. In the Best Actress category, Natalie Portman (29) for “Black Swan,” Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” (20), Michelle Williams (30) of “Blue Valentine” and Carey Mulligan for “Never Let Me Go” — at age 25, it would be her second nomination in two years — all appear to have very strong chances.

And in the supporting categories, more youngsters can be expected to compete: Christian Bale (36) for “The Fighter,” Andrew Garfield for “The Social Network” (27), Hailee Steinfeld (14) of “True Grit,” Amy Adams for “The Fighter” (36) … and maybe Andrew Garfield again for “Never Let Me Go.”

Longer shots out there also lack wrinkled brows or gray hairs: Leonardo DiCaprio (36) for “Inception,” Noomi Rapace from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (31) and maybe even the amazing 13-year-old Chloe Moretz for either of her standout performances of the year: “Kick-Ass” or “Let Me In.”

So, tossing all caution aside, I’m ready to declare 2010 the Year of the Whippersnappers.

To understand how this is a break from regular Oscar trends, consider last year’s winners: Jeff Bridges (age 60), Sandra Bullock (45), Christopher Waltz (53) and Mo’Nique (42). That’s an average age of an even half-century.

The truth is that, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has deigned from time to time to smile upon actors under the age of 40, the broader trend is for its voters to favor veteran thespians with some snow on the roof and a lengthy body of work to cement their reputations.

(In this predilection they would be reflecting … themselves: The Hollywood Reporter says the average age of Oscar voters is 57.)

And even when younger performers do get nominations, they’re usually the exception: One or two youngsters sandwiched between mature actors in their 40s, 50s and beyond.

But what’s notable about 2010 is how performers in their teens, 20s and 30s are expected to make not just token appearances when the nominations are announced, but actually dominate the acting categories.

(For the purposes of this article, I’m using the age actors turned the year their film came out, whether or not the movie had been released by their birthday. Thus Matt Damon, a contender in the supporting actor category for “True Grit,” was excluded because he turned 40 in October.)

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Oscars went youthful in selecting their MCs this year: Franco and Anne Hathaway — at 28, another long-shot nominee for “Love and Other Drugs” — will host the ceremonies on Feb. 27.

It’s true that in addition to the youths listed above, some seasoned names are expected to be read when the nominations are announced Jan. 25. Most notably: Colin Firth, the 50-year-old star of “The King’s Speech” who’s shaping up as the Best Actor front-runner; and Annette Bening (52), who will make a strong showing for her nuanced turn in “The Kids Are All Right.” (Bening’s equally strong work in “Mother and Child” has, alas, been mostly overlooked.)

But consider that if all those names at the top of this article did get nominated: Firth would be competing with a field whose average age is a hair under 30 — while Bening would be surrounded by nominees who, on average, are exactly half her age!

All this is not to disparage the contributions of older actors and actresses. Personally, Hollywood’s bias against actors over 60 and actresses older than 40 is something I continually bemoan. (The discrepancy between the genders is another article.)

As I look back on the year in film, though, what strikes me is the cinematic performances that really bowled me over, the ones that made me stand up and take notice, almost invariably came from someone under 40.

Consider young Hailee Steinfeld, who commands the first 30 minutes or so of “True Grit” with such gumption and fire that some observers are claiming her performance belongs in the leading role category of Best Actress. Or Chloe Moretz, whose incredibly foul-mouthed Hit Girl of “Kick-Ass” was the YouTube sensation of this past spring.

James Franco’s turn in “127 Hours” was the most emotionally vibrant thing I saw on a screen in 2010, and although I’m not a fan of “Black Swan,” even I admit that Natalie Portman gave the performance of her already lengthy career as a fractured ballet dancer.

Jennifer Lawrence, heretofore best known for TV’s “The Bill Engvall Show,” gave her teen character in “Winter’s Bone” a tired inner wisdom that bespoke the maturity of someone in their twilight days.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling offered us a heartbreaking, detailed portrait of a couple falling and and then out of love in “Blue Valentine.” Christian Bale’s screwy, squirrelly bravado as a crack addict ex-boxer stole the show in “The Fighter.” From the same film, who knew fresh-faced Amy Adams could come off so brassy, yet vulnerable?

And Jesse Eisenberg managed to create a character — which may or may not resemble the real “Social Network” founder, Mark Zuckerberg — who was reptilian and mercenary and yet, somehow, charismatic and sympathetic.

Yes, performers nearly always get better as they get older, with the ironic reality that the parts available to them grow correspondingly scarcer. But there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing a new face making an impression for the first time, or a relatively familiar one surprising us with a role we never knew they were capable of pulling off.

In 2010, the youngsters led the parade.

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4 Responses to “The Year of the Whippersnappers”

  1. Carol says:

    I’m pleased to see the younger generation of actors/actresses performing so well and getting recognized for their hard work and ability to be believable in their roles. It’s been a fairly good year for movies with substance.

  2. Helen says:

    The Academy is notorious for giving career achievement awards to older actors (eg, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), not to mention "sorry we ignored you last year" awards (eg, Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love). If this augurs a new trend to recognize great performances in the year they were made, I’m all for it.

  3. Stephen Cross says:

    In my opinion, James Franco and Natalie Portman really stepped it up this year. They were both incredible in their films and showed amazing depths in how far they go to act. Their performances were definitely Oscar worthy and I just enjoyed watching their films. The Social Network impacted the world of cinema when it was released and it is hailed for its performances, directing and script and I am so happy that I have been a part of this year’s cinematic arts.

  4. Lance says:

    I thought this was an awesome post, and I have to agree with almost all of it (not that I have any disagreements, I just haven’t seen some of the films you listed). My personal favorites were James Franco in 127 hours even though I am an all around fan of Franco’s – Chloe Moretz is exactly as you described her: Amazing. I can’t wait to see what else she does in the future – And very much like you, I am not a fan of Black Swan, but Natalie Portman clearly gave her all. I do feel that Mila Kunis was an excellent supporting actress, but I don’t know if she was stronger than any of the other actresses that you have mentioned.

    This was an awesome post Chris.