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.