For the past three years, actresses giving Academy Award acceptance speeches have been sprinkled with a smorgasbord of foreign accents.
Penelope Cruz (“Vicki Cristina Barcelona”) dedicated her win to “Todos los fieles de Espania” while French thesp Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en rose”) charmed the crowd with a mellifluously mismatched verb and noun: “… there is some angels in this city.” And in the moments after her win for her role in “The Reader,” Kate Winslet recounted in a delicious British lilt her girlhood fantasy of pretending a shampoo bottle was an Oscar.
With five of the last six actress winners non-American — add Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) to Cotillard and Winslet for best actress, plus Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”) to Cruz as supporting thesps — it’s as if the United Nations has teamed up with the Academy.
But what does this trend mean for American actresses? Are they not nabbing the best roles? Is the Academy favoring foreign-born female performers while leaving American stars behind?
“I don’t think it has much to do with these actresses being foreign,” suggests “An Education” exec producer James D. Stern. “There are great actors in the United States and great actors in England, France and all over the world. It’s just that these actresses happen to be brilliant at playing the particular roles for which they won. So much of the film business is guided by who’s right for the role.”
Stern further points out that the parts for which Cotillard, Cruz and Winslet won their Oscars are “showier” roles than those regularly featured in big-budget, middle-of-the-road Hollywood studio fare.
“The question to ask,” posits Stern, “is why aren’t more American agents willing to put their talent in smaller movies where they might not get their usual asking fee but will get a far greater opportunity to showcase their acting chops?”
Apparition topper Bob Berney (“Bright Star”) agrees that there has been “a spate of striking performances” by actresses from England, France and Spain, and that the Academy is squarely responding to their work and not their country of origin.
If anything, Berney states, the fact that these actresses are getting recognized is a nod to the smaller character-driven films in which they star: “The Academy loves flawed and exaggerated characters, characters where the actress’s beauty is played down. It’s difficult to find roles of that caliber, and a lot of the original, bold and unique films offering these meatier roles are produced or co-produced outside the mainstream American studio system.”
Jan Chapman, Jane Campion’s longtime producing partner on such films as “The Piano” and “Bright Star,” feels “struck by how generous the Academy has become.” Chapman doesn’t foresee any precedent set affecting the actress categories in this year’s Oscar race.
“They want to award people that are the best,” Chapman says. “They are very open, no matter what country a performer is from. They’re serious voters.”
Meaning that while Oscar has clearly gone global, it’s not to the exclusion of American talent.
“The Academy is open to art from everywhere,” Berney praises. “We’re letting everyone in.”