The age disparities in SAG’s 2007 feature nominees are particularly striking, especially when you consider that an average of 41 years divides the oldest from the youngest contenders. Longtime actors such as “Into the Wild’s” 82- year-old Hal Holbrook will be squaring off against much younger thesps, such as Casey Affleck, who is 50 years Holbrook’s junior.
While Affleck is one of the younger feature nominees, he is already a decade older than this year’s male newcomer, Emile Hirsch, who is nominated for his lead role in “Into the Wild.” The 22-year-old is up against seasoned thesps including 49-year-old Viggo Mortensen and 50-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis.
“When young actors are great, we assume they are that character,” says Patricia Clarkson — a five-time SAG nominee — of Hirsh’s performance. “They couldn’t possibly transform. But Emile did, which is astonishing.”
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Despite his newfound status as a rising star, Hirsch and this year’s “it” girl, 20-year-old Ellen Page, have each been performing for more than a decade. Although Page is the youngest in SAG’s lead category, she’s winning rave reviews from not only critics but actors alike, including “3:10 to Yuma” ensemble nominee Ben Foster, for her fresh approach to acting.
“Lesser actors would rely heavily on the written quirks, whereas Ellen’s Juno fiercely honors the fragility behind them,” Foster says. “It’s the kind of performance where the actor so seamlessly blends into her character, one has to question who came first.”
While the rookie-vs.-veteran battle over award season kudos is nothing new, chances of a relative greenhorn garnering a SAG statuette are slim.
Since its launch in 1995, SAG has handed out only three feature awards to actors under 30, with Kate Winslet being the youngest recipient at age 20 when she won in 1996 for her supporting role in “Sense and Sensibility.”
Comparatively, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has awarded five gold statuettes to actors under the age of 30 in the past 13 years, with Angelina Jolie being the youngest recipient at age 24 when she took home the supporting actress kudo in 2000 for “Girl Interrupted.”
Perhaps the most conspicuous instance in recent years of the Academy being enamored of youth involved Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”) winning out over sentimental favorite Lauren Bacall (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”), who nevertheless took the SAG award for 1996.
“A nomination can be a way of encouragement, a way of saying someone has arrived and is expected to be around for a long time as a major player in Hollywood,” says Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar.” “But I think for someone very young to win, they have to make a huge splash and almost become a phenomenon.”
Despite rave reviews for 66-year-old Julie Christie’s performance in “Away From Her,” it’s Page, according to both Bona and David Thomson, author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” who has a chance at becoming this year’s phenomenon.
“The competition in the leading actress category is a little odd,” Thomson says. “Not that many people have seen Christie’s ‘Away From Her’ or will see it. It’s a subject that upsets people. On the other hand, I think people liked ‘Juno’ very much and (Page) certainly holds the film together. I think she has a chance.”
Page, Bona says, could be this year’s Adrien Brody, who in 2002 copped the Oscar for “The Pianist,” beating out four Oscar-winning vets including Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine. At 29, Brody was the youngest thesp to have taken home the lead actor kudo. If Page wins, she would be the youngest recipient of the leading actress award.
“Through the years, Oscar voters have often been thrilled when newcomers make a splash,” Bona says. “(Christie) won for ‘Darling’ in 1965 when she was that year’s ‘it’ girl.”
Whether or not Christie, Holbrook or “American Gangster’s” 83-year-old Ruby Dee win at the SAG kudofest, each has over a four-decade advantage over both Page and Hirsch, thus having the benefit of lifelong experience and time to develop their craft.
Although Dee “doesn’t want to make a thing about my age because there is no point of comparison,” she does admit that she had the advantage of having not only lived in the neighborhood where “Gangster” was set but also having lived through the era. “I am more than just an actor of the (film), I am familiar with so much of the background of it — that is one advantage … being an elder actress gives you.”
The advantage of age was something “No Country for Old Men” thesp and SAG supporting nominee Javier Bardem saw in Holbrook’s “Into the Wild” performance, which he called “one of the best I’ve ever seen.
“With a mature actor,” 38-year-old Bardem explains, “you see a face totally naked, someone who is just speaking and being in front of the camera, and this is so powerful.”
Despite the age gaps between this SAG year’s nominees, Bona says that when it comes down to it, “Age isn’t actually that important.”
Thomson adds: “I think generally speaking we are getting more and more performances from what you might call juveniles that are of a real top quality. (They) are giving great performances these days and deserve recognition, just as the older people, much further on in their career, who are giving memorable performances deserve recognition.”