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Growing up with Oscar

Tyros turn heads in front of and behind the camera

Oscar rarely rewards rookies with a statuette, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is age-blind when it comes to certain categories.

More than 200 actors and actresses under 30 have scored an Oscar nomination since 1929, but breaking the age barrier as a writer or director is much tougher. Only a handful of helmers has done so, but many who did, including Orson Welles, John Singleton and M. Night Shyamalan, scored a writing nomination at the same time.

At 26, Welles shared the original screenplay Oscar for “Citizen Kane.” Two guys who penned their way to the same award, Matt Damon, 27, and Ben Affleck, 25, won for “Good Will Hunting.” (Damon was also an actor contender.)

In 1990, Steven Soderbergh was given a screenplay nod by the Academy for “sex, lies, and videotape,” but he fared better at the Independent Spirit Awards, who handed him the director award for the film — a full 10 years before he took home an Oscar for directing “Traffic.”

The Oscars have routinely recognized young actors: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine, Leonardo DiCaprio and River Phoenix all landed Oscar nominations at a young age. Several winners have even been under 20, including Tatum O’Neal, Anna Paquin and Patty Duke.

Among the more than 20 women to win the actress statuette before hitting the 30 are Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Jodie Foster.

Adrien Brody, at 29, set the record in 2002 for youngest best actor winner. Timothy Hutton, at 20, nabbed a supporting actor trophy for “Ordinary People.” Just getting a nomination is quite a feat for men under 30: The ratio of female to male nominees under 30 is approximately 4-to-1. Among the men rating a rare early nom are Gregory Peck, Albert Finney, Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton.

Still, other awards shows have often beaten the Academy to the punch. Tom Cruise was nominated for a 1983 Golden Globe for “Risky Business,” six years before his first Oscar mention, for “Born on the Fourth of July.” A year before getting an Oscar nom for 1989’s “Steel Magnolias,” Julia Roberts received an Indie Spirit mention for “Mystic Pizza.”

The Independent Spirit Awards, which were founded in 1985, have always been perceived as hipper and edgier than the Oscars. They were the first to recognize future Oscar winners Renee Zellweger, Nicolas Cage and Benicio Del Toro and such future Oscar nominees as Queen Latifah, Laura Dern and Chloe Sevigny.

If the Spirit Awards are on the edge, the Golden Globes are right in the mainstream, honoring such talent as Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman long before they received attention from the Academy.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards occasionally single out actors who aren’t rewarded elsewhere, such as Dakota Fanning, Hayden Christensen and Noah Taylor. Kate Winslet won a SAG Actor for “Sense and Sensibility,” but is so far 0-for-3 at the Oscars.

Young thesps who’ve won at the BAFTA Awards but struck out elsewhere include Jamie Bell, who beat out such heavyweights as Russell Crowe to win for 2000’s “Billy Elliott,” and Scarlett Johansson, a double nominee in 2003 who took home the BAFTA for “Lost in Translation” (she also was nominated for “Girl With a Pearl Earring”).

Sometimes fresh young faces like Audrey Hepburn are rewarded right off the bat (1954’s “Roman Holiday”). But when it comes to taking home the awards, you usually have to pay your dues — even if your name is Steven Spielberg or Julia Roberts.

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