By Eve O’Dea
The Oscars may have the term “Best” in front of all of their awards, but the question of what is considered “Best” has been debated longer than the Academy Awards have even existed. After all, how can one declare something “the best” if they’re not considering every contender, not just in America, but across all countries, cultures, and languages? And yet, for the vast majority of the Academy’s history, that is what we’ve seen them mainly recognize: American films, predominantly spoken in English. However, that is slowly changing as international films and performances are making a dent in the Oscar nominations each year. Even though this is happening more frequently, the Academy has rewarded performances not spoken in English before.
The very first actors to ever win Best Actress and Best Actor, the American Janet Gaynor and German Emil Jannings, had no English-speaking lines. That is, of course, because these were silent film roles. After their respective wins in 1929, another actor would not be nominated for a non-English speaking role until 1948: Jane Wyman for “Johnny Belinda.” Still, there’s a loophole, as Wyman’s performance as a mute woman was done completely in American Sign Language.
While Italian icon, Anna Magnani, won her Oscar in 1956 for the Tennessee Williams-written “The Rose Tattoo,” speaking both English and Italian for the role, the first no-strings-attached award given to an actor for a non-English speaking performance was Sophia Loren for Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” in 1962. While a handful of non-English performances received nominations in the following years, it wasn’t until 1974, over two decades later, that this feat was repeated by Robert De Niro, who won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II.” After De Niro, the next foreign language performance to win an Oscar was Roberto Benigni for his self-directed role in “La Vita è Bella” speaking Italian.
Apart from British/American Sign Language, only five other languages have won lead or supporting Oscars in history, those being: Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Korean. Of those nine occasions, five have taken place in the twenty-first century alone:
Benicio Del Toro for “Traffic” in 2000 (Spanish)
Marion Cotillard for “La Vie en Rose” in 2007 (French)
Penélope Cruz for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” in 2008 (Spanish)
Christoph Waltz for “Inglorious Basterds” in 2009 (German/French)
Youn Yuh-jung for “Minari” in 2020 (Korean)
While non-English language films appear to have had a more significant presence at the Oscars over the past few years, only twelve have ever been nominated for Best Picture, with Japan’s “Drive My Car” being the latest, and with Bong-joon Ho’s “Parasite” being the only winner so far. Still, critics typically advocate for at least one, or multiple, foreign performances to receive recognition every year as their taste tends to be more inclusive, which can sometimes influence Academy voters. This year, there was great enthusiasm for Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve’s excellent performance in “The Worst Person In The World,” which earned Reinsve the Best Actress award at this past year’s Cannes Film Festival. Other celebrated performances included Hidetoshi Nishijima in the Best Picture-nominated “Drive My Car” and Vincent Lindon in the Palme d’Or winning “Titane.” Despite the exposure from their studios and the push from critics’ precursors to get voters to see these films, none of these performances were nominated at this year’s Academy Awards amongst the more traditional favorites.
This year, Penéope Cruz was the sole acting nominee from an international feature for her Spanish-speaking performance in “Parallel Mothers,” directed by Cruz’s frequent collaborator Pedro Almodóvar. Cruz’s nomination was far from certain, as this year’s Best Actress race has been as competitive as ever, and Cruz had not been nominated at typical precursors such as the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, or BAFTAs. Aside from Cruz, other actors have been nominated this year who offered terrific performances in other languages. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” featured a significant amount of Spanish dialogue and resulted in a worthy nomination for Golden Globe-winner Ariana DeBose (who has a great chance of winning the Oscar). While performances using American or British Sign Language have a relatively steady nomination and win rate at the Oscars, this year’s Best Supporting Actor nominee, Troy Kotsur for “CODA,” is only the second deaf person to be nominated for an acting Oscar after his co-star, Marlee Matlin, won her award in 1987 for her debut performance in “Children of a Lesser God.” While these nominations should be celebrated, it’s still a far cry from what we could’ve had.
Actors who are nominated for a performance in a foreign language have historically been one-offs whose nominations are often a film’s only representation at the Oscars. There has been valid criticism towards the scarcity of said nominations, such as for the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay winning “Parasite,” whose exceptional cast did not receive a single nomination, even after winning the SAG Award for Outstanding Ensemble. At the same time, the Academy makes no overt declaration of only recognizing American films and filmmakers, which has been the implied focus throughout the association’s history, especially given that the organization started as a means to promote the business of American studio filmmaking. However, we know that with the addition of three thousand new voters since 2014, many of whom are international, we are seeing a shift of the Academy recognizing not just American films but all kinds of cinema worldwide.
Expanding its horizons to the international screen likely won’t garner the Oscars a higher viewership or change much in the habits of filmgoers (even though “Drive My Car” and “The Worst Person In The World” saw a surge at the box office post-Oscar nominations, proving their relevance still in gaining an audience for these underseen films). The Academy may be making desperate and questionable decisions to stay relevant in a 2022 film landscape, such as having Film Twitter vote on what they feel are the best movies of the year. But in the long run, including international films, filmmakers, and performances more often and in more prominent categories will only help create a sense of legitimacy for an organization that wants to celebrate the best of what movies had to offer in a given year and preserve their legacies for all time, when viewed retrospectively.
Do you feel the Academy has done a better job of recognizing international performances with their acting nominations? Which performance not spoken in the English language would you like to have seen get nominated this year? Where do you place Penelope Cruz in your odds to win Best Actress? Do you think “Drive My Car” will win anything outside of Best International Feature Film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Eve and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EveOnFilm