The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences set a precedent in 1938 by nominating the French-language “Grand Illusion,” directed by Jean Renoir, as best picture. After that, Oscar voters’ enthusiasm for foreign-language films in that category was pretty subdued for decades.
Happily, that’s changing.
Last year, two foreign-language films were nominated for best picture, “Roma” and “Cold War.” It could happen this year, with “Pain and Glory” and “Parasite” likely, and “The Farewell” also possible; three in one year would be an Oscar record. And don’t overlook France’s “Les Miserables.”
As the world has gotten smaller, the role of foreign-language films has gotten bigger. The Academy is increasingly nominating foreign-language reps in other categories, such as the 30 times a director has been nominated, from Federico Fellini in 1961 (“La Dolce Vita”) to Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”) and Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) last year.
Only five foreign-language pics have ever won a screenplay Oscar: “Marie Louise” (1945), “The Red Balloon” (1956), “Divorce — Italian Style” (1962), “A Man and a Woman” (1966) and “Talk to Her” (2002). Interestingly, all were in the original category.
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If the overseas films do well this year, some will attribute it to the Academy’s expansion of non-American voters. That’s certainly one reason, but it’s also due to factors including the internet and streaming services. America is so vast that audiences always had plenty of homemade entertainment and refused to deal with subtitles or dubbing. But thanks to international services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Go, Americans are watching Scandinavian procedurals, Brazilian soaps and French comedies, and listening to the same K-Pop as the rest of the world.
It’s rare for the mainstream media to give much attention to foreign-language winners at awards shows. In the English-speaking world, the headline-grabbers are best pic, actor and actress. However, for much of the world, the most interesting race is what the Golden Globes call foreign-language films, and what the Oscars this year are calling, for the first time, international films.
When a country’s film is chosen as one of the nominated five or gets nominated in other categories, it’s a major event.
Antonio Banderas, who stars in this year’s powerhouse Spanish-language entry “Pain and Glory,” says, “When Jose Luis Garci won the 1982 Oscar with ‘Volver a Empezar,’ that was the first time that Spain won an Academy Award. It was huge news and everybody commented for weeks; it was a big deal.”
Before that, Spain had been nominated for nine foreign-language Oscars, with no winners. Banderas says that in those days, “It was difficult for Spanish cinema for many different reasons. Production was limited and the number of films that had possibility of an Oscar nomination was also limited.”
One reason was the repressive 40-year Francisco Franco regime that put a cap on what could be depicted. When Franco died in 1975, Spain had a creative rebirth, including the debut of “Pain and Glory” director Pedro Almodovar.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which was launched in 1943, naturally has an international outlook: Its L.A.-based members write for publications in other countries. The HFPA created a special category for foreign-language films in 1954, two years before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and it has continued to salute artists in films for other languages, including director Alfonso Cuaron last year for “Roma.”
In the 1980s, the Golden Globes changed the “foreign-film” category title to “foreign-language film,” to differentiate contenders from movies out of the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, etc. such as the 1981 trio of “Chariots of Fire,” “Atlantic City” and “Gallipoli.” All were dominated by non-American talent, but all were in English.