Have the Oscars Become the Olympics of Cinema?

Westside Story Dune Power of the
Westside Story: 20th Century Studios; Dune: Warner Bros.; Power of the Dog: Netflix

In April 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences board of governors decided to change the name of the foreign-language-film category, saying it was “outdated within the global film community.” So they renamed it “international film.” It’s better, but still not precise: All films are international, whether they’re in English or not. This year’s Academy Awards race provides many reminders of that fact.

Several 2021 Oscar contenders seem like all-American films, such as “West Side Story,” though the cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski, from Poland; “Nightmare Alley” boasts DP Dan Laustsen (Denmark), editor Cam McLauchlin and production designer Tamara Deverell (both Canada), not to mention director Guillermo del Toro (Mexico) and stars Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette (both from Australia).

“CODA,” the great funny/poignant comedy about a U.S. family, includes producer Philippe Rousselet (France) and DP Paula Huidobro (Mexico City), in addition to stars Emilia Jones (the U.K.) and Eugenio Derbez (Mexico).

There’s not enough space to list all the non-U.S.-born workers in the 2021 films.

Some attribute Oscar’s global outlook to the Academy’s expanded membership in the past few years, including more voters who live outside the U.S. Actually, the reasons are more subtle and more extensive.

The factors include:
• Non-U.S. festivals are creating momentum for international films and talent in the awards season. Cannes, Toronto and Venice have often been part of the Oscar buildup, and they have been joined by specialist festivals including Camerimage for cinematography and Annecy for animation.

• Hollywood agents are increasingly drawing in talent from outside America, especially below-the-line artisans. Though many U.S. distributors attend film festivals looking to acquire films, that’s not the only motive. A huge number of U.S. execs and reps go to scout directors, writers and behind-the-camera artisans.

• More countries are submitting to various Oscar categories, including animation, documentary and below-the-line work. The world has been aware of “money” categories like best picture and international film since the 1950s. But international studio executives have realized that Oscar attention is good in every field.

• Follow the money. When Hollywood goes overseas for productions (usually to a tax rebate-friendly country), a lot of local talent is hired. Plus, international box office became more important as multiplexes proliferated overseas in the 21st century. So studios hired an international cross-section of stars for their potential blockbusters to appeal to local audiences.

• And, of course, there is the wider Acad membership. It’s definitely a factor, but isn’t as new and radical as some imagine.

This year, it would be hard to single out one Oscar contender that boasts the most international artists. A contender for that prize is “Dune,” with director Denis Villeneuve (Canada), DP Greig Fraser (Australia), editor Joe Walker (U.K.), production designer Patrice Vermette (Canada), and stars including Rebecca Ferguson (Sweden), Oscar Isaac (born in Guatemala), Stellan Skarsgard (Sweden) and Javier Bardem (Spain).

Another contender for most globally diverse film is “The Power of the Dog,” a quintessential American tale set in 1925 Montana. It was written and directed by New Zealand’s Jane Campion and stars Britain’s Benedict Cumberbatch. The roster also includes a score by Jonny Greenwood (U.K.), and three from Australia: editor Peter Sciberras, DP Ari Wegner and actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. Production design is by Grant Major and costume design by Kirsty Cameron; both are Kiwis. Even Montana is played by New Zealand.

“Spencer” may have an American star in Kristen Stewart, but the production team includes a Chilean director (Pablo Larraín) and editor (Sebastián Sepúlveda), a British screenwriter (Steven Knight) and production designer (Guy Hendrix Dyas), and a French DP (Claire Mathon).

Other possibilities for the world title include Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” with DP Helene Louvart (France), editor Affonso Goncalves (Brazil), and production designer Inbal Weinberg (born in Israel), plus stars Olivia Colman (U.K.) and Jessie Buckley (Ireland); and Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” with music by Alexandre Desplat (France) and costumes from Milena Canonero (Italy).

“House of Gucci” has DP Dariusz Wolski (Poland), actor Salma Hayek Pinault (Mexico), and a slew of contributors from the U.K., including director Ridley Scott, writer Roberto Bentivegna, composer Harry Gregson-Williams, costume designer Janty Yates, and actors Jeremy Irons and Jack Huston.

Some Oscar categories are brimming with international people, including cinematography. Potential Oscar nominees include Seamus McGarvey (Northern Ireland) for “Cyrano”; Bruno Delbonnel (France), “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; Linus Sandgren (Sweden) for both “Don’t Look Up” and “No Time to Die”; Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Romania), “The Harder They Fall”; Mauro Fiore (Italy), “Spider-Man: No Way Home”; and Eduard Grau (Spain), for “Passing.” Another category with a global outlook: hair/makeup. This year’s roster includes Wakana Yoshihara, hair/makeup designer on both “Spencer” and “Belfast”; and Ana Lozano (Spain), makeup department head on “Being the Ricardos.” Italy’s Jana Carboni was makeup/prosthetics designer on “House of Gucci,” and Giuliano Mariano was the film’s hair designer.

The 2021 crop includes many outstanding movies in non-English languages, which are good possibilities in categories beyond international film. Potential contenders for acting, writing and directing include Spain’s “Parallel Mothers,” Japan’s “Drive My Car,” Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World,” and Iran’s “A Hero.” Denmark’s “Flee” is a contender for writing and directing, as well as documentary and animated film.

In February 2020, South Korea’s “Parasite” won a historic four Oscars, including best picture, the first time an “international film” took the top prize. In an acceptance speech (as translated by his interpreter, Sharon Choi), director Bong Joon Ho gently reprimanded the audience, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Since then, streaming and COVID have combined to create more openness among American audiences as housebound individuals have sampled international fare such as “Squid Game.” Bong’s speech was a good reminder to Academy members. Work from other countries is not a new trend, but it’s an important one.