In the history of the Academy Awards, there have been 52 acting nominations for non-English-language roles. That pool is further reduced to under three dozen, when we exclude nods — like Robert De Niro in “Godfather Part II,” Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and all nine nominated sign-language performances — where the films were otherwise mostly in English. Still, it might not seem like too bad a showing, until you consider that there have been over 1,600 acting nominations in total since 1937, when the supporting categories were introduced.
The reasons for this bias are manifold and not all to do with the inherent U.S.-centrism of an award ceremony that is, after all, adjudicated by the American Academy — at least not directly. It’s striking that among those 30-something nominations, 13 are repeats: Marion Cotillard, Liv Ullmann, Javier Bardem and Isabelle Adjani have two apiece, and if, as she was at one point tipped to do, Sophia Loren nabs a best actress nod this year for Italian weepie “The Life Ahead,” she would equal Marcello Mastroianni’s three. So form definitely plays a role, but if you are not staggeringly famous, or not popping up on U.S. multiplex screens with some regularity, there are fewer opportunities to build up that kind of familiarity.
Which is perhaps why there have been only three acting winners for non-English-language films: Loren for 1961’s “Two Women”; 37 years later Roberto Benigni won best actor for “Life Is Beautiful”; and most recently Cotillard took best actress for 2007’s “La Vie en Rose.” (Whether you include Jean Dujardin’s win for “The Artist” largely depends on whether you think the mostly silent film is not in French or not in English, a matter perhaps best left to the philosophers.)
But interest in the awards-season potential of films not in English is at an all-time high, given “Parasite’s” unprecedented best picture win in 2020. And trends do seem to be drifting favorably: Almost every year for the last decade has seen one or more such film yield an acting nod, and this year Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” a U.S. film that features a lot of spoken Korean and was wrongly sidelined into the “foreign film” category at the Golden Globes, looks very likely to figure in best actor (Steven Yeun), and best supporting actress (Yuh-jung Youn). However, if that’s the size of it, it will leave a lot of highly deserving players out in the cold. And so, given the hopefully broadened movie horizons that have resulted from this mad, shut-in year, which were somewhat reflected in the expansion of the international film Oscar shortlist to 15 titles, maybe now’s the time to celebrate some of the standout performers we’d all be expecting to see mounting podiums, were it not for what reigning best director Bong Joon Ho so memorably described as “the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.”
There’s no better place to start than with the actor who, aside from Loren, is highest on most predicted “close but no cigar” lists: Mads Mikkelsen in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round.” Well-known and well-liked, he has a profile that encompasses “Star Wars,” the Marvel universe and James Bond, as well as an iconic U.S. TV role as “Hannibal” and even an unforgettable appearance in a Rihanna video. Yet he still comes with a fine European arthouse pedigree, and where Hollywood tends to see him as an evil mastermind or a mythic hero, “Another Round” casts him as an ordinary man whose career and marriage are crumbling under midlife apathy. Still, Mikkelsen imbues him with the kind of fading charisma that makes his hare-brained day-drinking experiment with his buddies seem easily believable, culminating in a transcendent dance sequence, as Mikkelsen bounces around in boozy euphoria that also has encoded within it all the sadness and disappointments of disappeared youth.
At vastly the other end of the experience scale, newcomer Koné Bakary turns in an equally striking performance in Philippe Lacôte’s muscular and mysterious “Night of the Kings,” Ivory Coast’s third-ever submission. As a young gang member swiftly inducted into the violent and surreal demi-monde of an Ivorian prison, Bakary is as riveting as his character — a modern day Scheherazade forced to weave an increasingly spellbinding story to save his skin. Another notable debut comes from the uniquely coiffed Juan Daniel García in Fernando Frías’ “I’m No Longer Here” (Mexico); much of the film’s authenticity in its exploration of Mexico’s cumbia subculture comes from its unaffected street-casting.
In Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin” (Tunisia), Yahya Mahayni, another first-time feature actor, is impressive in navigating the film’s sometimes uncomfortable tonal shifts between European artworld satire and Syrian refugee drama with charm and sly humor. And another familiar Scandinavian face, the eternally watchable Stellan Skarsgard, delivers one of his most nuanced performances in Norway’s shortlisted “Hope,” from Maria Sødahl. In the alternate universe we’re contemplating, Skarsgard’s minutely detailed characterization of an inarticulate man dealing with his partner’s terminal diagnosis might be considered a supporting role, though that’s less due to its size than to the truly dazzling and devastating adjacent performance by Andrea Braein Hovig as the dying woman. That Hovig makes such an empathetic character out of a complex, not always likeable, woman, contending not only with mortality, motherhood and the mood swings caused by her treatment, but also with suddenly apparent fractures in her relationship, is exactly the stuff that best actress awards are made of. Together Skarsgard and Hovig make “Hope,” one of the less buzzy shortlist entries, a masterful acting showcase, as well as a stunningly rewarding film.
Hovig is only one of a fantasy-cast best actress lineup culled from the shortlist, that is arguably even stronger than its best actor roster. Two of the year’s most remarkable female turns come from notionally similar but actually vividly disparate historical-reclamation dramas, for example. Jasmila Zbanic’s gritty, urgent “Quo Vadis Aida” (Bosnia and Herzegovina) revisits the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and Andrei Konchalovsky’s monochrome, icily composed “Dear Comrades!” (Russia) investigates a shamefully covered-up 1962 Soviet bloodbath, but both are told through startlingly commanding performances, from Jasna Đuričić and Yuliya Vysotskaya, respectively, who each play steely yet vulnerable and conflicted women caught up in tragedies external and internal too, as they try to come to terms with their own complicity.
In no less ferocious a register, Zhou Dongyu is the revelation of Derek Tsang’s Hong Kong hit “Better Days,” an exposé of bullying within the cutthroat Chinese education system that morphs into a love story dipped in doomy desperation, with Zhou its utterly magnetic heart. And if Filippo Meneghetti’s “Two of Us” (France) is much softer, its acting is no less outstanding, with its two stars, Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier, embodying a late-life lesbian relationship marred by disease, with unassuming but profoundly moving grace.
That all of these performances are selected from a relatively arbitrary shortlist of just 15 non-English language films — and other entries like Taiwan’s “A Sun” and Guatemala’s “La Llorona” only go unmentioned because they are more ensemble pieces than individual showcases — should prove the strength of the acting field outside the performances that will get the shine in the lead-up to Oscar night. And off the shortlist there is, naturally, even more to be discovered: A fine starter set would be Ia Sukhitashvili’s extraordinarily dense and deep performance in Dea Kulumbegashvili’s provocative “Beginning”; Natasa Stork’s slinky slow-wink in Lili Horvát’s delicious “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time”; and Luca Marinelli’s astonishing, epoch-spanning embodiment of the title character in Pietro Marcello’s “Martin Eden.” If the Academy Awards have some way to go before truly recognizing the wealth of world cinema in their acting categories, it is not because that wealth is not there, and, in many cases, right at their fingertips.