Inside the Academy Archives: A Priceless Trove of Foreign-Language Nominees

Motion Picture Academy Archives
Jessica Chou for Variety

Only French films compete for that country’s top César award. The Genies recognize Canadian movies, the Goyas spotlight Spanish cinema, and the Lolas celebrate German film. But at the American Academy’s annual kudosfest, all countries are eligible for best picture — and have been since the beginning.

Still, unless you count British movies (13 of which have taken home best picture Oscars), foreign cinema seldom competes for the top prize (only eight have been nominated, dating back to Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” in 1939). And yet, as distribution evolved and domestic audiences’ tastes expanded to support the release of international films on U.S. screens, the Academy created a special category to recognize non-English-speaking cinema.

2016 marks 60 years since the launch of the foreign-language Oscar category. Over the past six decades, the honorees have, quite literally, ranged from A (“A Man and a Woman,” “Amarcord,” “Amour”) to “Z” (Costa-Gavras’ intense 1969 political thriller). And because the Academy collects prints of every single nominated film, that means 300 of the world’s best foreign-language movies have found a permanent place in its vaults — international films that, in many cases, are no longer (or never were) available for home viewing.

Those copies, whether on celluloid or DCP, are just the beginning of the Academy’s in-depth efforts to preserve a lasting legacy of cinema history from around the globe. The Academy archives also include movie posters, photographs, scripts, and other rare artifacts related to both the nominees, and international cinema in general. The 60th anniversary of the category offered me a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library to view the collections — and to evaluate just how international they truly are.

Academy photo curator Matt Severson collects publicity stills while conservationists restore posters on premises. Jessica Chou for Variety

Normally, the Margaret Herrick Library is a hushed and hallowed place. Phones are forbidden, and guests may bring only pencils along to take notes. My visit was scheduled for a Wednesday morning, however, when the library is closed to the public. I was greeted by Academy photograph curator Matt Severson, who has laid out 100 or so images spanning the history of the Oscar foreign-language category.

Actually, the earliest image he has pulled — yet hardly the oldest in the collection, which includes frame grabs from 1895’s “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” the French actualité credited as the first movie ever made — is a press still from Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine.” The Academy honored “Shoeshine,” an early example of Italian neorealism less seen today than De Sica’s landmark “The Bicycle Thieves,” with a special foreign-language award in 1947, nine years before the category was created.

“The Academy archive has an incredible abundance from classic Hollywood and American film history, from the birth of film through the 1970s,” Severson says. “My mission has been to find the pockets that we don’t have covered in as great a depth, so my goal has been tracking down materials from all over the world for avant garde and experimental cinema, cult films, and films that focus on marginalized voices or might have been overlooked at the time of their initial release from people like John Waters or Ed Wood or Herschell Gordon Lewis.”

Naturally, the collection includes a wealth of photographs and documentation from the Oscar nominees: There are pictures from the telecast itself (such as “Life Is Beautiful” director Roberto Benigni climbing over seatbacks to accept his award), scrapbooks from the mid-’50s to early ’70s cataloging the nominated directors’ pilgrimages to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony (which traditionally included an excursion to Disneyland), and materials submitted for consideration in other categories (a binder of costume designs for “The Great Beauty,” reference shots of the makeup for “Son of Saul”).

But the archive also touches on the blind spots in international cinema that Severson alluded to. For example, Satyajit Ray — widely recognized as the director who introduced Indian cinema to the world with his humanist “Apu Trilogy” — finally received an honorary Oscar in 1992, accepting the award on his death bed.

A 1966 photo scrapbook documenting the foreign-language nominees’ visit to L.A., when “The Shop on Main Street” directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos went to Disneyland. Jessica Chou for Variety

The Academy is now custodian of the Ray collection, and has already overseen the preservation of the master’s most important features, with others still to come.
As global film talents bestow their effects to the organization, it sends a message that the Academy — which counts the collections of Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, and Woody Allen among its holdings — is a world-class archive, on par with the British Film Institute and the Cinémathèque Française, yet proactively interested in preserving artifacts from all corners of cinema, not just English-speaking ones.

That’s especially true of the Academy’s extensive poster collection (much of which is searchable at Oscars.org). Graphic arts librarian Anne Coco oversees a team of conservation specialists, who work on site at the Margaret Herrick Library in an atelier decorated with reproductions of Polish posters for American movies (featuring original artwork far different from that used to promote the U.S. releases) and choice one-sheets from producer Stephen Chin’s kung fu poster collection, gifted to the Academy in 2012.

The Academy has come a long way since Linda Harris Mehr, director of the Margaret Herrick Library — and my enthusiastic, Willy Wonka-like guide on this behind-the-scenes tour — joined the organization in 1982. That was before the Academy rescued the gorgeous, Spanish-style building (a former Beverly Hills water treatment plant) that houses the archives from demolition, converting its tanks into study and storage areas.

Though tens of thousands of documents are stored there today, including a massive stockpile of MGM publicity stills (979 boxes that took Mehr and her colleagues 12 years to sort), the Academy is rapidly outgrowing the available space. Posters are housed in a climate-controlled facility across town, and construction is under way for the future Academy Museum, situated in the historic May Co. building on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in L.A.’s Miracle Mile.

All of these endeavors are funded by the industry’s biggest night: the Academy Awards. And yet, everyone who works for the nonprofit stresses that their scope extends far beyond those films recognized by Hollywood’s biggest award show.

“We love the Oscars, and the Oscars allow us to do what we do, but we also want to show filmmakers that we’re interested in the spectrum of filmmaking activity,” Severson says. “We have a more global array of cinema in mind.”

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