Actor is one of few nommed for foreign-language pics

With Javier Bardem’s lead actor nomination for “Biutiful,” in which he plays a dying underworld figure and devoted father, the Spanish star earned his third Oscar nod.

What made it even more noteworthy was that Bardem speaks Spanish in the film, which is his native tongue.

Needless to say, it’s not an easy task for an actor from a foreign-language film to make it to the nominees’ circle, much less bypass invariably more hotly hyped homegrown films and take the big prize. In Oscar’s history, only Sophia Loren (for “Two Women” in 1962), Roberto Benigni (1998’s “Life Is Beautiful”) and Marion Cotillard (for 2007’s “La Vie en Rose”) have won lead acting awards for fully non-English-speaking turns. And although recent supporting Oscars have gone to mostly foreign-tongued performances from Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”), Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”), they’ve been in movies made by American directors with plenty of non-subtitled dialogue.

“Biutiful” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu attributes Bardem’s nom to a certain undeniability about his turn that transcends language.

“A good performance can be seen a thousand miles away,” says Inarritu. “It’s as a painting. You aren’t thinking about which country it’s from. Language shouldn’t be a barrier. I hope Javier’s nomination helps erase that invisible border where people have a different expectation for foreign-language films instead of seeing them as a universal expression.”

It’s also possible that Bardem’s already established stardom in America — not to mention Inarritu’s clout from previous Oscar-nominated movies “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel” — put “Biutiful” on notice for Academy voters, much the way prior recognition did for Sophia Loren, says film historian David Thomson.

“Bardem’s a favored soul,” says Thomson, “and I suspect Sophia got that Oscar because she had made several English-language films and had endeared herself to Hollywood a good deal. It’s a weird matter of chance and promotion.”

Cotillard wasn’t a recognizable name when “La Vie en Rose,” in which she played Edith Piaf, became an arthouse hit in 2007. But what might have got her traction with voters was a willingness to back up the critical acclaim and box office by hitting the campaign trail.

“People were so moved by her performance, but Marion was really out there,” recalls an industry insider who works on Oscar campaigns. “She worked nonstop. Because for the bigger voting body, it’s about getting them to see it.”

It’s a more difficult era now for a foreign film to gain traction than the 1960s or ’70s, when stars such as Liv Ullmann, Marcello Mastroianni and Loren could rack up multiple noms in a career for performances in languages other than English. (The banner year was 1976, when three such turns were nominated: Ullmann in “Face to Face,” Marie-Christine Barrault in “Cousin Cousine” and Giancarlo Giannini in “Seven Beauties.”) Although Thomson bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer foreign-language films are getting released in America each year, he does wonder if the rise in international co-productions, and multilingual casts, means the Academy will change in ways that lead to more nominations like Bardem’s.

“The chances are that the Academy is building a membership of people who did not have English as a first language,” notes Thomson, “and who are more attuned to that type of thing.”

It’s worth remembering cinema’s silent era, when mother tongues made little difference to movie auds who could only judge a performance by what an actor communicated with everything else in his or her arsenal.

“Don’t forget that at the very first Oscars, the German actor Emil Jannings won for ‘The Last Command,'” says Thomson, “and he was not speaking English.”

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