Ingenues have tradition of landing lead actress nom

Award Season Talent Preview

It’s no great shock that youth is prized in Hollywood, but for the last few years, youth and talent have made for an especially esteemed combination during awards season.

For three years running, fresh-faced femmes have come out of nowhere to capture moviegoers’ attention, earn critics’ laurels and move their peers to nominate them for lead actress honors.

First there was Ellen Page in “Juno” (2007) then Carey Mulligan in “An Education” (2009) and, last year, Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.”

It could happen again, and if not with the Oscars, then possibly an acknowledgement by the Indie Spirits, Screen Actors Guild or Golden Globes.

There has been much praise for Elizabeth Olsen’s magnetic turn as a cult victim in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” British actress Felicity Jones’ perf as a lovestruck writer in “Like Crazy” and Adepero Oduye’s work as an emotionally confused gay Brooklyn teenager in “Pariah.”

“If this is a trend, I welcome it and applaud it,” says casting director Deborah Aquila, “because the level of work is so incredible.”

It’s worth noting that the films in which these young women came to the fore are independently made, says Aquila.

“These are the kinds of movies we look to as casting directors, where they have the luxury of casting an unknown,” she explains. “You don’t need a megastar to get the financing going, so it gives you the fantastic opportunity to search and audition and then introduce a wonderful talent like Lizzie Olsen or Jennifer Lawrence.”

“Martha” director Sean Durkin admits it was important to him to cast an unknown when he was looking for his female lead, and what struck him about Olsen in her audition was “an ability to give so much feeling with just her eyes.”

When shooting started last fall, Mulligan had already received her Oscar nom and “Winter’s Bone” had turned Lawrence into the sensation of 2010.

“You look at those roles and you say, ‘It’s great that the public got to see their first break,’ ” says Durkin, who admits to wishing for a similar reception for Olsen. “There’s definitely a part of me that wanted that, and then a few weeks into the shoot I could tell there was something special.”

Vogue film critic John Powers suggests that in fanning the hype for these talented newcomers, Hollywood might be correcting a bit of its male-centric moviemaking ethos.

“Somehow the industry may be shifting back toward realizing it needs young women who aren’t just on the arm of the superhero,” Powers says. “It’s almost impossible not to watch Carey Mulligan in ‘An Education’ and think that there’s all sorts of stuff she can do that others can’t. So probably there’s that little bit of pride in the industry at finding people with some talent.”

Of course, there was a time decades ago when the arrival of a glittery, popular ingenue was bolstered by a studio machine ready to protect the brand by showcasing her in tailor-made parts and quality projects. One need only look at the glorious runs of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly in the 1950s after their Oscar wins.

There’s no studio icon-developing system in place today, but a smart young actress riding a wave of acclaim can certainly create her own career path, Aquila and Powers believe.

“They’ll do their studio films and their independents,” says Aquila, who cites Mulligan’s varied roster since “An Education,” which includes titles big (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “The Great Gatsby”), edgy and small (“Shame,” “Never Let Me Go”) and even theater (“The Seagull”). “The need is to do great work all the time, and that’s refreshing.”

“It’s harder for women because there are fewer roles,” says Powers, “but now actresses have a lot more freedom.”

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