Once upon a time in Hollywood, and to be more precise, in the mid-’60s and ’70s, young Hollywood filmmakers saw what their “auteur director” counterparts around the world were doing with the cinematic arts, and they wanted some of that freedom of expression and fearless boundary-busting for themselves. From Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” to Bergman’s “Persona” to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” the action in creative storytelling was all over the place, except in Hollywood.
So Hollywood’s best and brightest young artists accepted the challenge.
The result was called New Hollywood, and the films that resulted from that impulse to innovate and experiment with forms and subject matter included “The Pawnbroker,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Mean Streets,” “The Conversation,” “French Connection,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Wild Bunch” and myriad other lively, edgy masterpieces of American film.
As you can see from that list of titles, the Oscars were also forever changed by that movement. The filmmakers of that generation essentially replaced the old guard directors of Hollywood’s golden age, back when the studios dictated content and conduct and the Motion Picture Code decreed that all Hollywood filmmakers would paint movie pictures that rigorously stayed inside the lines, drawn as they were, by an army of censors who held firm against any impulse to get too racy, raunchy or raucous.
By the ’80s, multi-national conglomerates owned the studios, and blockbuster cinema, along with the rising power of the uber-agents such as Mike Ovitz, supplanted the director-driven cinema of the previous two decades. The American indie film boom of the ’90s was a short-lived challenge to the commercially driven studio four-quadrant moneymakers, and for most of the 21st century, the pendulum remained pinned to the side of computer-modeled commerce, not creative visionary art.
But today, only four years after film critic Ryan Gibney in his 2018 Guardian piece “The End of the Auteur?” declared “the demise of auteurism may finally be upon us,” the truth, as evidenced by the past few years of the Oscars, may already be completely turning in the opposite direction of that fearless pronouncement.
Thanks to the streamers, along with a growing internationalization of both the industry and the Academy, auteurism is roaring back into mainstream moviemaking and movie watching. But there’s a vast difference between now and the “good old days” of New Hollywood: these filmmakers aren’t aping the approaches and innovations of foreign film artists. They are foreign film artists.
And far from disappearing, auteur filmmakers of all stripes and nationalities are more visible than ever, with foreign filmmakers not limited to an appearance in the best international film category. In fact, the Oscars are closer to the ideal of World’s Best as opposed to America’s Best, for the first time in their nearly 100-year history.
• On the heels of Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 directing Oscar win, in 2018, three foreign directors were nominated: Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón, Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski and Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos. Cuarón took home the gold.
• In 2019, Oscar best picture winner “Parasite” from South Korea marked the first time in Academy Award history that a foreign-language film took the top prize. The film’s Korean helmer, Bong Joon Ho, also won the director prize.
• In 2020 and 2021, the director race was dominated by overseas helmers. Chinese-born Chloé Zhao, U.K.’s Emerald Fennell and Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg were nominated last year, with Zhao taking home the Oscar. This year, New Zealander Jane Campion, U.K.’s Kenneth Branagh and Japanese helmer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi are all nommed, with Campion a heavy favorite to win. Should any of these three triumph on Oscar night, they would become the 15th foreign-born best director winner of the last 20 years. (In the 20 years before that, the proportions were reversed, with 15 Americans taking home the gold.)
• In addition to those directing nominations, this year’s best picture race includes: “Dune,” helmed by acclaimed Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve; “CODA,” a remake that puts French film producer Philippe Rousselet in the race; and “Nightmare Alley,” from Mexico’s Oscar-winning director del Toro.
• This year’s line-up of Oscar-nominated films with foreign-born directors represent dozens of Oscar noms across many categories, including five of the best picture nominees. Eight of the 20 Oscar acting nominees this year were helmed by foreign-born filmmakers. Last year’s lead actor Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins was directed by French helmer Florian Zeller, while Zhao was the helmer of lead actress Oscar winner Frances McDormand.
Of all the forces leading to this surprising turn of events, perhaps none is more impactful than the change in American viewing habits as redrawn by the streamers and amplified by COVID’s binge-inducing stay at home dictates. Whereas the market share of foreign-language entertainment in theaters had declined to a fraction of a point of U.S. box office, the streamers were suddenly launching foreign language hits of all kinds and sizes.
Nothing is equal to the impact of South Korea’s “Squid Game” phenomenon courtesy of Netflix, but rather than an anomaly, that hit show is emblematic of new American appetites for global fare such as Israel’s “Fauda,” France’s “Call My Agent” or the myriad Scandi crime dramas with fervent followings.
That sea change in distribution and newly adventurous popular tastes for diverse cultural viewpoints, along with a 21st century Academy that now includes thousands of new voters from around the world, means the rising tide of global helming talent is unlikely to recede any time soon