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Younger Actresses Get the Parts . . . and Now Awards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper to Patty Duke and Anna Paquin, the movies have given audiences many memorable performances by child actors.

But still the news out of the recently concluded Venice Film Festival was enough to raise some eyebrows: a 4-year-old girl won the best actress award.

A nine-member jury headed by director Roman Polanski voted unanimously to bestow the award on Victoire Thivisol, who plays a little girl whose mother has been killed in a car wreck in the French film “Ponette.”

The actress thus became, according to press reports, possibly the youngest performer ever to win such a major award.

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The vote--taken in secret ballots--was greeted with criticism from some who attended the festival.

Polanski himself was put on the defensive. Speaking over the whistles of people apparently critical of the selection, the director noted that the vote was unanimous. The Associated Press quoted Polanski as answering the critics: “If you have better proposals, next time you can be on the jury.”

Jacques Doillon, who wrote and directed the film, even made reference to boos heard at the screening from some in the audience who disapproved of the use of such a young actress.

“Victoire did not make this film under threats,” Reuters quoted Doillon as saying.

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Doillon, through a spokesman, was traveling and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Actress-director Anjelica Huston, who served on the jury, vigorously defended the vote.

“The performance of this child was so extraordinary, so far over and above anything else we saw, that not to award it to this child would have been a failure,” Huston told The Times. “My feeling is whether you hit this kind of extraordinary moment at 4 or at 40, it was deserving of our full consideration and appreciation.

“One of the jury members likened her to Meryl Streep,” Huston added, noting that she herself would have used Simone Signoret as a comparison. Signoret won the best actress Oscar for 1959’s “Room at the Top.”

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But Huston noted that the Venice competition was thin.

“Quite honestly and plainly, there were three--and I say this with a sense of sorrow--only three really leading female performances in 17 films we saw,” Huston said.

Huston went on to say that there was an “enormous degree” of discussion before the vote was taken on what impact, if any, the best actress award might have on a 4-year-old child.

“There was no question that everyone felt this was undoubtedly the best performance,” Huston said. “The only question that came up was, ‘Is it suitable to give the award to so young a child?’ ”

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Huston said that after returning from Italy, someone approached her at a Long Island party and voiced disagreement with the choice.

“This person was dubious that the vote had been unanimous,” Huston said. “I crossed my heart, looked him in the eye and hoped he would believe me. I say, anyone who has a problem [with the selection] should watch this film.”

Huston said that Polanski was moved by the performance because he himself had been a child of 12 in Warsaw when he won best actor in a play, but the committee making the decision split the money with the rest of the cast.

“Roman didn’t know until much later that he had won the award,” Huston said. “He felt robbed. They decided he was too young, so, instead of giving him the full award that he could happily spend on toys, they decided to spend the rest of the money with the rest of the cast. He had strong feelings about that.”

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Polanski did not respond to requests for an interview. Another panel member, novelist Paul Auster, could not be reached for comment.

Throughout movie history, many child actors have won or been nominated for distinguished awards--but usually they did not take the top prize.

Jackie Cooper was 9 when the Academy Awards nominated him for best actor for “Skippy” in 1931.

Shirley Temple was only 6 when she won a special “mini-statuette” at the 1935 Academy Awards in recognition for the films she made the previous year, but it was not considered a full-blown Oscar.

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Before the custom was abandoned in 1960, other mini-statuettes were bestowed on child stars Margaret O’Brien (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” 1944), Peggy Ann Garner (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” 1945), Claude Jarman Jr. (“The Yearling,” 1946), Ivan Jandl (“The Search,” 1948), Bobby Driscoll (“The Window,” 1949), Jon Whitely and Vincent Winter (“The Little Kidnappers,” 1954), and Hayley Mills, (“Pollyanna,” 1960).

Best supporting Oscars were awarded to 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal for 1973’s “Paper Moon” and 11-year-old Anna Paquin for the 1993 film, “The Piano.” Patty Duke was 16 when she won the best supporting Oscar for the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker.”

Children who have been nominated in the best supporting actor/actress categories were Brandon de Wilde, 11, “Shane” (1953); Patty McCormack, 11, “The Bad Seed” (1956); Mary Badham, 9, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962); Quinn Cummings, 10, “The Goodbye Girl” (1977); and Justin Henry, 8, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” (1979).

As for Thivisol, she did not attend the Venice Film Festival award ceremonies, but she did make an appearance when the film opened.

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“She stood up and received a 10-minute ovation,” Huston recalled. “She then went back and jumped in her seat and threw her legs out in the chair as you would expect a 4-year-old to do.”


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