Old white guys.
That’s the reductive description of the body of people who decide who deserves the most prestigious awards in the arts: the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Oscar voters.
That three-word description has been flagged as the root of what many people consider the biggest flaws and most egregious missteps in who has been nominated and won Academy Awards, and, more importantly, who hasn’t.
This make-up of the voting body—which is 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and an average age of 63—is blamed for the kudofest’s historical lack of racial diversity and for the almost pervy obsession with rewarding so-so performances from Hollywood’s hottest sirens and It Girls, typically at the expense of more nuanced or deserving turns by older veterans.
But in a year where the Best Actor category is overflowing with deserving contenders there’s another bias that could possibly be exposed this year. Do these old white guys have a thing against young whippersnappers?
At this juncture, just about six weeks before every film with Oscar aspirations needs to have screened to be considered, Oscarologists and awards pundits have flagged four performances that seem to be shoo-ins for nominations.
There’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s (age 38) turn as British spy hero Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Michael Keaton’s (age 63) turn as a washed-up actor struggling for a comeback might be the frontrunner. Steve Carell (age 52) impressed critics with his terrifying, against type work in Foxcatcher. It’s only the last likely contender who is under age 35, 32-year-old Brit Eddie Redmayne, who is stunning critics with his transformative work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
That’s not surprising given the Academy’s recent history. But it might, when we look back at the stellar performances young Hollywood produced this year, end up being ridiculous.
Why isn’t it surprising? For starters, the average age of the Best Actor Oscar nominees last year was 47. Beyond that, the only Best Actor winner ever to be under age 30 when he took home the trophy was Adrien Brody for The Pianist in 2002. (And he was less than a month from his third decade, to boot.) Only three actors under age 25 ever have been nominated for Best Actor. In the last 10 years, only three under age 30 have been nominated in the category (Ryan Gosling, Heath Ledger, and Jesse Eisenberg).
Redmayne, at 32, certainly isn’t old. And he, like the other men in the quartet of so-called “sure things,” delivers a stunning, awards-worthy performance in his film. But looming over their shoulders is a veritable fraternity of young guns jockeying for that fifth slot—and to perhaps take down one of the foursome—but all of whom have to face the most formidable obstacle: a seeming Academy bias against younger actors.
There’s Miles Teller (age 27), whose performance in Whiplash as a ruthlessly ambitious music student is as a physical and psychological tour de force. There’s the titular “boy” in Boyhood, Ellar Coltrane (age 20), the emotional core of what remains the frontrunner of Best Picture and who delivered his quietly stirring performance over the course of 12 years. And if Jack O’Connell (age 24) is nominated for his lead turn in Angelina Jolie’s WWII epic Unbroken, he’ll be the first male under age 25 to break into the acting races at the Oscars since Jake Gyllenhaal did for Brokeback Mountain, in the supporting category, almost a decade ago.
Speaking of Gyllenhaal, he’s one of the slightly more mature members of the “young guard” in contention this year for his reptilian performance in Nightcrawler. At age 33—still under that 35-year-old benchmark that Redmayne might be the only one to slip under—he’s in the same range as Foxcatcher’s Channing Tatum (34), A Most Violent Year’s Oscar Isaac (35), and The Skeleton Twin’s Bill Hader (36)—all of who are looking to eclipse the veteran actors, who are all pushing 40 or older, who are more likely to sneak in and nab that fifth slot: Bradley Cooper for American Sniper (39), Selma’s David Oyelowo (38), St. Vincent’s Bill Murray (64), Mr. Turner’s Timothy Spall (57), and Love Is Strange’s John Lithgow (69).
The Best Actress category, in contrast, is overflowing with winners under 30, the most recent examples of which were Jennifer Lawrence, who was 22 when she won for Silver Linings Playbook, and Hillary Swank, who was 25 when she took home the trophy for Boys Don't Cry.
And Best Actress nominees? The last decade has seen Keira Knightley (20), Ellen Page (20), Lawrence twice (22 and 20), Quevenzhané Wallis (9), Rooney Mara (26), Natalie Portman (29), Gabourey Sidibe (26), Carey Mulligan (24), Anne Hathaway (25), and Keisha Castle-Hughes (13) score nods. That’s three times the number of under-30 contenders than Best Actor.
But even that category is seeing a bit of shift, though it’s hard to call the shift a bona fide trend.
Last year marked the oldest average age ever for the Best Actress nominees, too, at 55. But this is clearly the exception to the rule—it was the first time since 2006, for example, that no actress in their twenties was a contender. And Amy Adams, who was the youngest nominee for American Hustle, was 39, which just happened to be the average age of the Best Actress nominees the year prior.
There are some stats to explain why the age of nominees is creeping up. Rachel Dodes wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year that the fastest-growing population of moviegoers was the 40-49 demographic, and the average age of voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is 63, likely causing a shift in admiration for older actors and actresses.
But when the industry, particularly indie film, is producing some of the most exciting, ambitious, and progressive cinema—the kind that has an effect on the future of film—and it’s young stars who are largely filling those lead roles and delivering unexpected, thrilling, and provocative performances, it’s as discouraging to see them ignored in favor of veteran actors starring in paint-by-numbers Oscar bait as it is to see minority actors snubbed year after year and Hollywood starlets rewarded as a form of old-white-male sleaze.
Of course, when it comes to grading acting performance, age shouldn't be anything but a number. Except for in the Academy, where a low number seems to be a liability.