Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Universal Language

Last weekend my wife and I had time to watch movies together, something that doesn't happen as often as we'd like. After working, making dinner, cleaning up and waiting for everything and everyone to settle down, we usually have but a couple of hours of free time with which to paint and write, and we do. But on Memorial Day weekend we found time for not one but two movies together. We chose La Ceremonie and Topsy-Turvy and were, of course, more than happy with both choices as both are exceptional films. But what I kept asking myself, again and again, after watching them was, "Why didn't these get any acting nominations?"

I'm not going to go off (again) on how awful the selections are for the Oscars, year in and year out, or bemoan the fact that not one film nominated for Best Picture in 1999 can hold a candle to Topsy-Turvy, which wasn't nominated for the top award at all. I just want to say, quickly and cleanly, that the Academy members really need to start appreciating foreign language performances and films more often, as well as english language films from outside the United States, especially now that we are finally entering into a stage where practically everything is available to practically anyone who wants to see it.

They've done better by Britain over the years (you know, they use the same language and all, not that weird foreign stuff you have to read on the screen) but still, how any informed voting body can watch Topsy-Turvy and not find it in them to nominate anyone/everyone from the film is beyond me. Still, British film, on the whole, does fairly well, as witnessed by last year's winner, The King's Speech, for Best Actor, Director and Picture.

However, when it comes to foreign language, it's not just worse, it's downright soul-crushing. There are three winners in the history of the award: Sophia Loren for Two Women, Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose and [cringe] Roberto Benigni for [major cringe] Life is Beautiful. That's it. That's the sum total for foreign language performances taking home the Oscar. Okay, there are actually some others but they come from American films in which the performance is in another language (Robert de Niro for The Godfather, Part II, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, and so on - the complete list here). That's different than being in a movie made and released in another part of the world.

So after watching these two films, Topsy-Turvy and La Ceremonie, I kept asking, "Why no acting nods? Why?" Because I'm here to tell you that everyone in Topsy-Turvy is superb and that Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire delivered the two finest performances of 1995 (date of European release) or 1996 (date of American release) in La Ceremonie and to not be nominated is a crime. But this has been happening and will continue to happen.

Back in 2006 Carice van Houten was stellar in Black Book and yet managed to evade the notice of the voting members of the Academy. And if you think it's a current trend (after all, Sophia won back in the sixties, remember?) then how about Giulietta Masina? She should have been nominated for La Strada, should have won for Nights of Cabiria and given a lifetime achievement award for everything else. But it was not to be. She was never nominated. Ever.

Or Anna Karina, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Anderson, Isabelle Adjani or Chieko Higashiyama. Oh, there are some nominations in there but no wins. Or how about Norma Aleandro for The Official Story? She wasn't even nominated!

Ah, hell, what's the point? I suppose now I could list all the male actors ignored but this isn't about ticking off each individual snub. You know it happens and that it will continue to happen and, really, it's time for it to stop. Foreign films used to be pretty damn inaccessible outside of big cities but now, even if it doesn't hit the local multi-mega-plex, it can be sent to your home or streamed directly to your television for a small fee.

It's time for Oscar to adapt. It already has the prestige of being the biggest award for film out there. Now, it could become (possibly) respectable by nominating from the world instead of just what played in Peoria. Drop the Foreign Language Oscar and start nominating those films alongside the Best Picture nominees. I'd love to see a non-English language film win once in a while. It would announce the Oscars were about the best in film from all over the world, not just the states. But even if that doesn't happen soon, and it won't, can we at least start acknowledging the great work of so many great actors who have the "misfortune" of not portraying characters who speak english? Personally, I don't care what language they speak as long as the performance is good and when it is, everyone understands anyway. The language of a great performance is universal.


Ed Howard said...

As a longtime Oscar hater, I totally agree. They're painfully out of touch in so many ways, and this is a big one. But I don't think there's much chance of the trend improving. The Oscars are already obsessed with making themselves more "relevant" to a wider audience, meaning focusing on big celebrities who people have heard of, so shifting the focus to more non-American actors, performing in those artsy movies you have to read, would be exactly the opposite of the direction they want to head. Remember the year when No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were the big favorites and everyone who doesn't watch many movies complained about the "obscure" choices? Imagine how much worse it would be if lots of non-American actors and actresses were being nominated for performances in non-English languages.

Anyway, I like your examples. La ceremonie is such a gem, and the two lead performances are a big reason why. And of course I adore Carice van Houten in Black Book, and wish she'd been recognized for it. I still really need to see Topsy Turvy, but Leigh in general gets stellar performances from almost everyone in his films. While we're mentioning omissions, how could David Thewlis not win an acting award for Naked in 1993? That's one of my all-time favorite performances right there.

Andrew said...

I am very cautious about disagreeing with Greg on movies and the Oscars in particular but...

Seems to me the Oscars are run by mainstream Hollywood companies to recognize the best of mainstream Hollywood movies. In that light they do a pretty good job.

Sort of like all the college football awards. They are given to the best COLLEGE athlete. The fact that there are better players in the NFL is irrelevant.

I think that if you look at the Oscars as simply a small pond, life is much less aggravating.

Don't quote me text about how they claim to recognize the best in movies blah blah blah. I teach my 6 year old to not believe advertising copy.

Greg said...

Ed, you make a lot of good points. It's hard to believe that No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood could be considered obscure choices but that's how depressing the movie-going population is, I guess. And I agree, none of this will happen anytime soon as they strive for "relevancy" among the 18 to 24 year old demographic.

Once they went to 10 noms for Best Picture two years ago that would have been the perfect moment to announce they were dropping the Foreign Language film award and making Best Picture about all of them, but it turns out the 10 nominees was just a way to get five more movies nominated that were more commercial and popular.

I imagine too many Oscars going to too many non-English language films would cause a problem. If you're going to separate out the films, as they do now with "Best Picture" and "Best Foreign Language Picture", I've always preferred the British method at the British Academy Awards. There, it is "Best British Film" and "Best Film." So, there's always a British winner and "Best Film" is for every movie from any country.

Greg said...

Andrew, their purpose has always been tied closely to self-promotion, certainly. And the fact that they have a "Best Foreign Language Picture" Oscar is a no-nonsense statement that is clearly saying, "We are here to recognize English language films which is why we have a special category for those other movies from other countries."

So, really, I can't disagree with your sentiment. They do a good job at what they promote, mainstream Hollywood. I just think it's time to be more inclusive now that Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand and i-tunes have made the moviegoing experience omnivorous for the movie fan.

It's probably still too early, but I've already heard many an average filmgoer here at work ask about why this foreign film or that (like Dogtooth or The Chaser to pick two specific instances) weren't nominated for more stuff. The times, they are a-changing and more and more young people, the very people the Academy is trying to target, are seeing foreign films. I think the British model, which I mention in my prior comment, is the best way to have the best of both worlds, for starters, at least.

Jandy Stone said...

I'd love to see more foreign films get recognition (goodness knows the deserve it), but I actually agree with Andrew. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is explicitly set up to preserve and promote the American film industry, so even though I may disagree with that goal, I can't argue that that's what they tend to do with the Oscars. It's basically the same as arguing that the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movies lists are too American-centric. Well...yeah, but that's their purpose.

The real problem, I think, is that the Oscars have become the de facto standard of excellence and the awards that most people pay attention to. The Oscars are pretty much doing their job, but their job has been given far greater weight in the public consciousness than it deserves. If it were clear that they were celebrating American film and there was another award that celebrated worldwide film and THAT award became the most widely recognized symbol of excellence, that would be the best situation. Unfortunely, in a world where No Country for Old Men is obscure, that's unlikely to happen. The closest thing is probably the Palme d'or or some such, and Cannes' choices have their own politics as well.

Greg said...

But Jandy, the AFI specifically states "100 Best American..." while the Oscars don't. Like I said before with the British Oscars model, if they did "Best American Picture" and then "Best Picture" it would be a lot clearer and invite some opening up. Also, the Palme d'Or seems almost entirely political most of the time. They've had some good selections but, wow, are those things politicized.

bill r. said...

The performances in TOPSY TURVY, in terms of how many are outstanding, with so much variety of character and screentime, are absolutely astonishing. And you see what some of those people have been given to do in the US (and hell, probably in the UK, too), and you realize that it's absolutely criminal.

Also, Huppert is never bad in anything.

Greg said...

Bill, the cast of Topsy-Turvy really is one of the great ensemble casts in film history. There's not a weak performer in the lot. And Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner do an exemplary job of holding all together.

On your Huppert point: Agreed.

bill r. said...

Broadbent is fucking aces in TOPSY TURVY! An astonishing performance. I could go on and on about his work there, but I feel like I've done that before, even on this very blog, so I won't do it again. Suffice it to say, I think it's one of the great, most criminally unheralded performances of all time.

On your point about my Huppert point: agreed.

Arbogast said...

You watch Isabelle Huppert in anything and wonder why we apply the word "actress" to anybody else.

Jandy Stone said...

The Academy was created in 1927, when there weren't a lot of imports coming in from other countries, so they probably didn't feel the need to make it explicit. All of their non-Oscar work is in preserving, restoring, and promoting American film. You're right, they don't make it as helpfully explicit as AFI, nor do they keep it nice and distinct the way the BAFTAs do, but it's implicit in their history and mission that they're going to favor American film.

I still think the problem is the way the Oscar has been valorized in the press and culture as a whole, which of course the Academy feeds on, because it helps promote the films from the studios that support the Academy. It's self-aggrandizing back patting, to be sure, but it's not inconsistent with the Academy's purpose.

I'm playing a bit of devil's advocate, though only a bit. :)

Jandy Stone said...

Also, I totally agree with you all re:Huppert.

Greg said...

Suffice it to say, I think it's one of the great, most criminally unheralded performances of all time.

Yeah, his not getting a nomination for that really hurts. Every day since Saturday I've been walking around the house saying in Jim Broadbent's voice, "I'm the king of topsy-turvydom." It's a performance and a movie to treasure.

Greg said...

The Academy was created in 1927, when there weren't a lot of imports coming in from other countries, so they probably didn't feel the need to make it explicit.

This is true. In fact, they didn't even have a regular award for foreign film until the fifties. The winners before that were "Special" Oscars of the Honorary variety. It wasn't until 1956 that it was made a separate category.

And here's the thing: I not only get what you and Andrew are saying but agree with both of you that that's what is going on. I'm not disputing any of that. I'm simply saying that now, in the 21st century, maybe it's time to change that. That's what I'm saying.

The cinematic landscape is expanding and the global cinema is available to everyone now for the first time in history. In 1956, as Fellini and Bergman started making inroads and foreign film starting getting noticed in L.A. and New York, they introduced a new category for it. They adapted to the times. Now, 55 years later, it's time for another change.

Greg said...

And as to all the Huppert love, I agree with everyone that we all agree that Huppert is awesome.

And Arbo, that was a great way to put it.

Pat said...

Amen to everything here. Isabelle Huppert is spectacular in everything she does, and the "Topsy Turvy" cast is brilliant (but especially Jim Broadbent, who I think did win some Critic's Association award, and if weren't so damn lazy, I'd go look that up on IMDB).

And the Oscars can't be taken seriously, yet I still watch them year after year.

Greg said...

Pat, in La Ceremonie Huppert has not only a direct way of speaking but a direct, kind of staccato way of using her body movements that really reinforces her character's sociopathy. And Sandrine Bonnaire, I just want to say, is pretty damn impressive too. She keeps her character Sophie so quiet and guarded who just needs a catalyst, in the form of Huppert's character, to release her rage and violence. The great thing about Bonnaire is that even when the bloodbath begins (sorry if I spoiled it for anyone) she keeps a straight face, betraying no emotion.

Pat said...

Greg -

You've sold me - I'll look for "La Ceremonie" on Netflix (although God knows when I'll get to it!)

One thought about the BAFTAs- sounds like a good model in theory, but in reality, their awards end up going to pretty much the same folks who get the Oscars. There are some happy exceptions here and there, though (such as the late German actor Ulrich Muhe's well-deserved win for "The Lives of Others"). The BAFTAs also have an award for the Best Film Not in the English Language.

Bob Turnbull said...

I'll watch anything, anything that Huppert is in. She's by far one of the most fearless actors I've ever watched.

I agree with what you hope to see happen Greg, but I don't know how you "sell" that to the Oscars (or, more importantly, "Hollywood"). What they currently have set up presumes from the get go that the "best" film will be an English film and, typically, a Hollywood one. As much access as everyone has to just about everything these days, they don't really want their mainstream crowds starting to think that these other country's films stack up as well against the juggernaut of Hollywood. I would think that they want to keep the assumption that:

"Best English Language Film" = "Best Film"

They want to be like the World Series - there are other leagues in the world, but only the MLB's champions are "world champions" (of course, the MLB also has players from around the world that, typically, work towards getting to the MLB because it is considered as the best). The Oscars just wants to keep everyone thinking that Hollywood films are, by default, the best in the world.

The interesting thing is when a Miramax or some other distributor starts having influence - they don't care about Hollywood per se, they care about their properties. I wonder if they may be the direction the pressure eventually comes from...

Greg said...

The pressure will always come from the money and I acknowledge, the money will always be in the hands of Hollywood.

Look, as I've said, I doubt any of the big changes are going to happen, as in foreign films taking Best Picture, but I don't see why they can't start encouraging the membership to please take foreign language performances into consideration when voting. Let's not forget, every Academy member gets a screener of every eligible film released that year. The first step should simply be encouraging them to watch the foreign films and think about nominating some of those performances as well.

Jandy Stone said...

Greg, do they? The foreign film nominations are chosen by a cross-discipline committee. Do the Academy members not on that committee get screeners of foreign films? I honestly don't know. It would be cool if they did.

Bob, exactly. They've got no interest in it, unfortunately. Not to mention, as Ed pointed out earlier, they need to appeal to a mainstream movie crowd that barely knows about major American indies, much less foreign films, especially since the foreign films rarely get theatrically released here in time to see them before the Oscars. I forget the ratings data, but in general the years with indie frontrunners for Best Picture tend to get much lower viewership on Oscar night. People don't care, and unless mainstream America cares, Hollywood won't either.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hey, I'd love to see that too Greg. No debate there.

That brings up another interesting point - I've had people ask me how I know that a foreign language actor is "good" when I can't understand what they're saying. I've always felt that was a particularly silly thing to ask. I suppose I might not be able to pick out really bad performances since I may not notice poor intonation, etc., but acting is so much more than just talking. Reacting to situations, subtle physical actions, etc. Could people really not tell that Toshiro Mifune is giving a towering performance in Red Beard?

Oh, and I love Sandrine Bonnaire too (though I haven't seen Le Ceremonie - it's been on my list for awhile and I've bumped it up).

Greg said...

Jandy, don't go by me, I'm just making an assumption. Your version sounds correct, though. The foreign film is voted on by a committee so I bet they don't get those screeners. Of course, that's an easy thing for the Academy to correct.

I fear everyone commenting here is essentially correct: This kind of change will likely never occur, or at least, no time soon.

Greg said...

I've had people ask me how I know that a foreign language actor is "good" when I can't understand what they're saying.

Jesus that's sad. Acting is one hell of a lot more than speaking but with a good or great performance you can tell if the intonations are right without knowing the language. Isabelle Huppert spoke in such a way that I can hear her lines in english in my head the way she said them in french. People don't understand that, for the most part, watching a foreign language film is almost exactly the same experience as watching an english language one.

Gustavo said...

"the fact that not one film nominated for Best Picture in 1999 can hold a candle to Topsy-Turvy"

With all due respect, that is just your opinion, not a fact.

Greg said...

Gustavo, everything here is my opinion. It's a blog. "the fact that..." is just a figure of speech. I'm not actually trying to provide mathematical proofs for any of this.

Jandy Stone said...

Greg, when you start providing mathematical proofs, please remember to show your work.

Greg said...

Oh man, can't I just give the answer?! I hate having to show my work.

Anyway... [kicks the chair in front of him and begrudgingly mumbles] Yes, Ms. Stone.