German actress Helena Zengel is enchanging filmgoers, critics and her peers for her captivating performance as an orphan who is kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe in Universal’s Paul Greengrass film “News of the World.” With the Oscar race gathering momentum, Zengel could prove a dark horse entry in the category for Best Supporting Actress, particularly as she was just nominated at the Golden Globes. Only 12 years old, she could join the select company of 21 actors who received their first nomination when they were under the age of 18. It’s a wide-ranging group, including future stars such as Jodie Foster (“Taxi Driver”), Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), Natalie Wood (“Rebel Without a Cause”) and River Phoenix (“Running on Empty”).
To wrest an Oscar nomination away from an adult actor who has name recognition and possibly a big studio publicity budget behind them requires that the performance be not only be memorable but pivotal to the film’s plot. “News of the World” revolves around the attempt of Civil War veteran Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to rescue 10-year-old Johanna Leonburger (Zengel) and deliver her to relatives in southern Texas. With the girl entirely accustomed to tribal life, Kidd, who is a widower, has to win her trust—and teach her to speak English—in order to bring her “home.”
Zengel learned some of the Kiowa language for the role, an extraordinary feat for an actor her age, which will score points with Academy members who especially appreciate technique. If you don’t think so, go home and watch “The Miracle Worker” on TCM. Patty Duke’s performance as blind and deaf Helen Keller, miraculously recreated from the Broadway stage, won her the Best Supporting Actress in 1963 at age 16 and remains the gold standard for child actors. Zengel’s work may not on that level but director Greengrass and film critics have remarked at how Zengel could convey the child’s inner turmoil without dialogue. Two-time Oscar winner Hanks has also lavishly praised Zengel and that will go a long way to persuading voters to consider her. He’s the E.F. Hutton of the Academy: When he talks, people listen.
Holding her own opposite a movie star like Hanks will also help Zengel. Anna Paquin won Best Supporting Actress as Holly Hunter’s daughter in the Jane Campion film “The Piano” 1994 over an impressive field of adults that included Emma Thompson, Winona Ryder and Hunter, double nominated that year for her work opposite Tom Cruise in “The Firm.” Paquin was only 11, the second youngest Oscar winner after Tatum O’Neal (“Paper Moon”).
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