For actors whose role is in a language other than English, the Oscar has always been more than a bit elusive for myriad reasons, but a pair from this year’s contenders could break through.
Foreign-language films traditionally lack the marketing and promotional clout of those from U.S. studios, which have long shied away from anything not in English. Those films also represent a sliver of the total number of domestic releases, a sliver that’s steadily shrinking. Moreover, they’re regularly struggling at the box office, a critical factor for Oscar and general awards viability at the end of the year.
It’s why only Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”), Juliette Binoche (“Chocolat”) and Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) have been the foreign-language performers nominated for a lead acting Oscar in the past decade. And it’s why, this year, only two, Bardem (for Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s late-year release “Biutiful”) and Tilda Swinton (for the surprise success “I Am Love”) are serious foreign-lingo contenders.
Going back further, no foreign actors were nominated or awarded before 1960, when Melina Mercouri earned a lead actress nom for “Never on Sunday,” and only two since have won: Sophia Loren for “Two Women” in 1961 and Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful” in 1998.
Should Swinton — already an Oscar champ in 2007 for her supporting perf in “Michael Clayton” — reach the lead actress finals for her mysterious and passionate turn as the Russian-born wife of an Italian capitalist in “I Am Love,” it would mark the first time a native English-speaking actor would be nominated for a non-English role. A Bardem nom would make him a two-time nominee, landing him in the august company of just two other multi-nominees and arguably the two most famous and beloved Italian movie stars of the past five decades: two-time contender Loren and Marcello Mastroianni (nominated three times: 1962’s “Divorce — Italian Style,” 1977’s “A Special Day” and 1987’s “Dark Eyes”).
Swinton devised the role of Emma, who’s swept up in a torrid affair that tears apart her life, with her director-collaborator Luca Guadagnino.
“With cinema artists like Luca, Sally Potter or Derek Jarman (the late British filmmaker who first put Swinton in front of the camera), I’ve always helped create the person I play,” Swinton says. “Emma is inspired by figures like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Alida Valli’s woman in Visconti’s ‘Senso,’ women at a certain age who suddenly experience a depth charge that revolutionizes their lives.
“We wanted her to be in something like a silent film,” adds Swinton, “because she isn’t verbal,” although she notably speaks Italian with a Russian accent, a factor that may greatly impress Academy voters. “Most of my roles tend to be in this mode, although this may be a revelation to American audiences who know me only from my more verbal American characters, as in ‘Michael Clayton.’ ”
Bardem, unlike Swinton, received the script of “Biutiful” and was confronted with the prospect of a huge role that has him almost continuously onscreen. Uxmal, a broker in trafficking undocumented workers in Barcelona who learns that he’s dying of cancer, proved almost overwhelming to Bardem.
“I had to read the script three times,” he recalls. “I finally told Alejandro, ‘I don’t know if I’ll survive this. I’m not sure if I can achieve all the demands of this role. What you’re proposing isn’t a role, it’s a life journey.’ ”
Bardem says he and his longtime acting coach Juan Carlos Corazza spent three weeks going scene by scene, line by line, working with different behavior, with images, sounds, music, everything needed to help be present and bring all of the weight the character needed to have.
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