Once richly, regularly rewarded, non-English-speaking roles now fight for noms

The mere mention of subtitles tends to cause some moviegoers to immediately eliminate certain pics from their must-see list. In fact, foreign-language films in general have a tougher road en route to mainstream acceptance at the U.S. box office these days, and also sometimes with Academy voters.

As a result, actors in those films are having a more difficult time breaking through, although it still happens. Witness the Academy’s recognition of newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno last year. She received a nomination for actress for her remarkable turn in “Maria Full of Grace.”

Still, it’s far from the golden age of foreign cinema in the 1960s and ’70s, when actors in non-English-speaking roles were in relative abundance on Oscar night. In 1976, for example, Giancarlo Giannini, Marie-Christine Barrault and Liv Ullmann each received an acting nomination for their roles in foreign-language films.

In 1966, two of the five noms in the actress category went to thesps in foreign-language films, Anouk Aimee for “A Man and a Woman” and Ida Kaminska for “The Shop on Main Street.” In 1961, Sophia Loren won an Oscar for “Two Women” and was nominated again three years later for “Marriage Italian Style.”

By contrast, before Moreno broke through last year, you have to go back to 1998 to find any actors nominated for roles in foreign-language films. That year Roberto Benigni won for actor in “Life is Beautiful,” while Fernanda Montenegro was nominated for actress for “Central Station.”

Why is it so difficult for foreign thesps to break through lately?

“It’s all a matter of how much promotion the films get and how many ads are taken out,” opines Jerry Pam, who runs Pam Public Relations and has been a member of the Academy’s foreign language committee for 40 years. “Even stars get forgotten if they don’t get a campaign, no ads are taken out and no stories written.”

One of the most notable snubs of an actor in a foreign-language film in recent years was Javier Bardem’s performance in “The Sea Inside” as Spaniard Ramon Sanpedro, who was paralyzed in a diving accident and fought a long campaign for the right to die. While the film itself was honored as best foreign-language pic, Bardem was ignored.

“Bardem probably should have been nominated last year,” says John Hartl, film critic for MSNBC.com. “Johnny Depp for ‘Finding Neverland’ seemed like a weak candidate compared to Bardem.”

One of the theories for why Bardem was passed over for that particular role is that the subject matter of a man trying to kill himself was too depressing for Acad voters to sit through, especially with subtitles. Also, since voting totals aren’t released, it is conceivable Bardem finished close to the top five.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” may be a unique case. Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), based on a popular novel by Arthur Golden and released by a major studio, the picture is in English, yet it boasts some actors who have had little experience in English-language films.

Ziyi Zhang, best known to audiences in the U.S. for her work in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” has only had one English-speaking part before in “Rush Hour 2.” Co-star Michelle Yeoh has been in “The Touch” in 2002 and the 1997 Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” but the bulk of her work has been done in Asia.

Ken Watanabe, who also plays a major role in “Geisha,” has a long list of credits. But this is only his third appearance in an English-language film; he had previously appeared in “The Last Samurai,” for which he earned a supporting nom, and “Batman Begins.”

“I feel the same as I did at the beginning of my career,” says Watanabe about the transition into more English-speaking roles. “Because I’m going into (English), it feels like my acting is more simple and clear and fresh.”

“Geisha” may raise the profile of its actors, which may translate into more attention by Academy voters in future foreign-language roles. Or it may not. Case in point: Bardem received an actor nomination in 2001 for his English-speaking role in “Before Night Falls,” yet was shut out for “The Sea Inside.”

Ziggy Kozlowski, publicity director at Block-Korenbrot, says the declining fortunes of foreign-language thesps at Oscar time may be part of an overall trend in the industry.

“I think audiences for foreign-language films are diminishing,” he says. “I think audiences in general are diminishing. Every once in a while something comes along like ‘Crouching Tiger’ that makes money. But there seems to be less and less of a market for foreign films these days.

“Young people don’t seem to have a lot of interest in seeing films from different cultures. But I don’t want to place it at the seat of young people. There’s more foreign films being made, but the attention paid to them is not equal to the attention paid to them in years past.”

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