Oscars: Golden boy embraces young actors

Feb. 24, 2011 at 11:03 a.m.
Updated Feb. 23, 2011 at 8:24 p.m.

Sunday 2-27 release () -


By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer


As some aging men take trophy wives in order to feel young, Hollywood embraces generational change by changing partners - in its case, Oscar hosts.

On Sunday night, when James Franco, 32, and Anne Hathaway, 28, take the Kodak Theatre stage at the 83d annual Academy Awards, they will be the youngest emcees since since 1975. That year, Goldie Hawn, 30, performed ceremonial duties.

Yet when organizers tapped Franco and Hathaway to be the new faces of Oscar, little did they know that there would be so many other fresh faces among the 2010 nominees - whose numbers include Franco himself for his role in "127 Hours."

"You'd probably have to go back to 1977 to see this infusion of young blood," says Len Klady, veteran entertainment reporter for moviecitynews.com. He refers to the year that Richard Dreyfuss, 30, became the youngest best actor winner (to that date, for "The Goodbye Girl") and thirtyish George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were among the director nominees.

Or, says "Inside Oscar" author Damien Bona, you'd have to go back to 1974, when younglings Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges and Robert De Niro competed for actor honors (De Niro took best supporting) and Francis Ford Coppola walked off with a best director statuette (for "The Godfather, Part II").

This year, the pool of contenders looks more like a fountain of youth.

Nine of the 20 acting nominees are 40 or younger. Among them: supporting actress hopeful Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit"), 14; Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"); 20, Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network"), 27, likely lead actress winner Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"), 29, and probable supporting actor recipient Christian Bale, 37.

And this year, "True Grit" directors Joel and Ethan Coen (respectively, 56 and 53) are the graybeards among the best director nominees. Exclude them and the average age of this year's director contenders is 40. When the Coens, long the class clowns of the academy, look like its elder statesmen, something is happening, right?

"I'm hesitant to pigeonhole a year on a demographic basis," says Leonard Maltin, host of "Maltin on Movies" for Reelzchannel. "I think it's a roll of the dice. The academy can only nominate people who are in movies."

And a lot of people in the acclaimed movies of 2010 are young.

They are the college-aged Facebook founders of "The Social Network" building the better mousetrap. Or the ballerinas in "Black Swan" praying that the principal dancer will bow out and make way for their rise.

They are the driven teenagers in "True Grit" and "Winter's Bone," one hellbent on seeking justice for her father's killer, the other on settling scores with her absent father.

They are the doomed lovers of "Blue Valentine," the scrapping boxers of "The Fighter," the feuding bank robbers of "The Town."

"The irony," says Tim Appelo, who writes the Oscar blog for the industry trade paper the Hollywood Reporter, "is that this is the year of the grown-up movie."

From his perspective, "The studios are trying to pack ... young buns into theater seats by packing the parts with young 'uns."

Pundits play up the generational angle of this year's nominees, noting that best-picture front-runners "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech" are a clear-cut contest between young and old, future-looking and backwards-looking, bleeding-edge filmmaking and conventional storytelling. Their respective directors, David Fincher and Tom Hooper, both happen to be 38.

It's too early to tell whether this year's fountain of youth signals a genuine generational shift or is just a fluke (like the absence of people of color among the nominees - which hasn't happened since 1996).

Klady, for one, is wary of reading a trend in this year's youthquake.

"I'm not sure it tells us anything apart from the fact that we have a lot of people nominated this year who have never been nominated before."

Yet these younger Oscar nominees will be invited to join the Academy, thereby "seeding its ranks with younger voters," Maltin observes.

If this year does mark a generational shift, it does not resemble those of Oscar past, says Bona. It's nothing like the 1974 event (held in 1975), when young actors held the Academy in obvious contempt and politically progressive and reactionary forces literally duked it out backstage.

That year, Bona recalls, "Dustin Hoffman really did speak for many of his contemporaries when he derided the Academy Awards as being 'obscene, dirty, and no better than a beauty contest.' Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (who won) were among the A-list nominees who didn't deign to show up."

Presenter Frank Sinatra chided Hoffman from the stage and then took aim at Bert Schneider, producer of the winning Vietnam documentary "Hearts and Minds," for using his acceptance speech to deliver a message from the Viet Cong.

Such generation-gap blowback is unlikely at Sunday night's event, which is shaping up to be more of an inter-generational love-in.


Carrie Rickey: crickey@phillynews.com


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