Oscar Speaks English: Foreign Language Films Fight For Attention at 77th Academy Awards
by Anthony Kaufman
The 77th Academy Awards show will not exactly be remembered for its foreign accents. Don't expect the exoticism of 2001, for example, when the Chinese strands of Tun Dun's epic soundtrack for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" played over and over again as talent and crew repeatedly walked up to the podium, or during 2003, when much to the delight of foreign-film aficionados everywhere, Pedro Almodovar accepted his best screenplay award for "Talk to Her" and dedicated the prize to "all the people that are raising their voices in favor of peace, human rights, democracy and international legality."
Internationalism will be scarce in 2005: this Sunday's Oscar show will be as American as apple pie and "Million Dollar Baby." That last-minute over-rated Hollywood entry in the contest not only sabotaged an easy sweep for "The Aviator," but also killed off the best chances for a number of smaller flicks that should have garnered accolades.
Eastwood, for example, stole a Best Actor nomination spot not only from "Sideways" star Paul Giamatti, but also from Javier Bardem, whose physically demanding performance in "The Sea Inside," nearly all from the neck-up as a paraplegic right-to-die advocate, was more deserving than Clint's. Perhaps as consolation, "The Sea Inside" was nominated in the Best Make Up Category. "It doesn't hurt," says Fine Line's Marion Koltai-Levine. "You can say have two nominations, so it's still another distinction."
The arrival of Hilary Swank's boxer-turned-paraplegic has also complicated matters for what should have been a slam-dunk for Imelda Staunton, who plays the cuddly, naive and teary-eyed protagonist in another Fine Line title, Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake," which is also up for Best Screenplay and Director prizes. But with the night's big contenders Eastwood and Scorsese duking it out for directing honors, the venerable British filmmaker Leigh will also be sitting this one out, and "Vera Drake," like his five-time nominated "Secrets and Lies," will regretfully leave empty-handed.
Likewise, Warner Independent Pictures, which shelled out millions in a Miramax-style marketing push for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's sweeping French WWI romantic drama "A Very Long Engagement" only got two technical nominations for Best Art Direction and Cinematography. And "The Motorcycle Diaries," Focus Features' big foreign-lingo picture didn't do much better: although playwright Jose Rivera did garner a nomination for his adapted screenplay, the prize in this category is nearly locked for "Sideways."
But Fine Line's Koltai-Levine, for one, isn't complaining. "A nomination is a wonderful achievement and we're thrilled to be in that position. If we have an opportunity to win, that's really the gravy." And the widespread presence of "Million Dollar Baby," according to Koltai-Levine may have come as a "surprise," she says, "but there are still more smaller films than usual."
For instance, "Maria Full of Grace" star Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for Best Actress, a first-time nom for an ecstatic HBO Films and the first Best Actress nomination ever for a performance in Spanish. "We're incredibly proud of Catalina's nomination," says HBO Films' Dennis O'Connor, who also notes the film has seen "a nice very uptick in both rentals and sales of the DVD." According to Rentrak, home video rental activity increased by 22% for "Maria Full of Grace" one week after the nominations were announced. But will audiences get to see the lovely Moreno accept a prize on Oscar night? HBO is still holding hope, but the odds are heavily against her.
If there's one area where foreign language pictures made unprecedented inroads, it was in the Best Original Song category where two foreign-lingo imports "The Motorcycle Diaries" (for "Al Otro Lado Del Rio") and "The Chorus" (for "Look to your Path") will compete against three English-language songs. What this says about the state of the category or songwriting for major American motion pictures, I'm not sure. But it can't be good for Randy Newman.
With films like "The Motorcycle Diaries," "A Very Long Engagement," and "Maria Full of Grace" ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Film prize, distributors pushed hard for nominations in the broader categories. But this year's results show just how difficult it is to cross over. "You do have an extra hurdle to go through because you do have to get voters to see these films," says Koltai-Levine. "But I always believe if they sit and watch the movies, the best films rise to the top."
And even one or two minor Oscar noms can make an impact for foreign films at the box office. "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "A Very Long Engagement" are still hanging on in dozens of theaters, and this year's leading contenders for the Best Foreign Language film category got a substantial boost from their Oscar nominations. After the honors were announced, Miramax's "The Chorus," their family-friendly French film about a teacher and his singing flock, leapt a whopping 785% percent in box office receipts. And Fine Line's "The Sea Inside," after beginning to slide in late January, nearly quadrupled its screen count and more than doubled its ticket receipts.
"This is a game of patience," says Koltai-Levine. Also hoping to generate some heat from its foreign-lingo Oscar nomination, Newmarket has released Oliver Hirschbiegel's last days of Hitler picture "Downfall" in U.S. theaters and found success in its opening weekend, earning more than $24,000 on one screen in its opening weekend.
But the big wildcard in this year's foreign language Oscar race is the Swedish entry "As It is In Heaven," directed by Kay Pollak, one of those left-field contenders that came out of nowhere, usurping the potential chances of such high-profile films as China's "House of Flying Daggers" and Italy's "The House Keys." It's the only narrative feature film in this year's Oscar race that doesn't have a U.S. distributor. (The remaining foreign language nominee, South Africa's "Yesterday," is an HBO original movie.) And judging from the reception of Pollak's film by the acquisition community, it will stay that way. "It was generally perceived as bad," one exec told indieWIRE. "It was just a reminder of how bad the Academy is with foreign films."