Oscar’s Foreign Accent Dates Back to the Birth of Cinema

The public considers the Academy Awards as a Hollywood event. True, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is headquartered in Southern California, and most of the best pic contenders are American and/or in the English language. But Oscar history proves they have been an international event from the beginning.

In the first year (1927-28), there were nominations for directors Herbert Brenon (born in Ireland) and Lewis Milestone (born in Moldova), plus a special award to Charlie Chaplin (from the U.K.).

The next five years saw two noms apiece for directors Ernst Lubitsch (Germany) and Josef von Sternberg (Austria). And the second best actress Academy Award was given to Canadian Mary Pickford.

The early years of Oscar featured a slew of non-Americans. Aside from mega-star Chaplin, the list of early Academy Award winners includes Emil Jannings (Germany, the first lead actor honoree), George Arliss (U.K.), Claudette Colbert (raised in the U.S. but born in France) and Norma Shearer (Canada). In 1932- 33, Charles Laughton (U.K.) won for “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” a significant win since the film was from Britain, not Hollywood.

The newly created studios were hungry for talent so they imported directors from other continents, mostly Europe; few came to Hollywood from Africa, Asia, Australia or South America.

Once Hollywood signed the overseas talent, there were two approaches: one was to homogenize the imports and turn them into Hollywood’s version of Americana. That group through 1940s included directors of many Hollywood classics, including Michael Curtiz (Hungary), “Casablanca,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; three-time Oscar winner William Wyler (born in France), “The Best Years of Our Lives”; William Dieterle (Germany), “The Life of Emile Zola”; Alfred Hitchcock (U.K.), “Rebecca,” “Spellbound”; Jean Renoir (France), “The Southerner”; and Otto Preminger (Ukraine), “Laura.”

The other, less-common approach was to emphasize the Old World exoticism of the artists. That includes directors Lubitsch, Von Sternberg and F.W. Murnau, whose “Sunrise” was honored at the first ceremony as the year’s “unique and artistic picture.”

Of course, the studios also recruited below-the-line artists who won Oscar recognition. That list includes cinematographers such as Gaetano Gaudio (Italy, who was soon nicknamed Tony), Karl Freund (Bohemia, now part of Czech Republic) and James Wong Howe (born in China, raised in Southern California).

Freund is an unusual success story. He was cinematographer on dozens of films in Germany such as the classic “Metropolis,” then came to Hollywood, where he was DP on the 1931 “Dracula” and won an Oscar for “The Good Earth.” He eventually moved into TV and was director of photography on more than 100 episodes of “I Love Lucy”; it doesn’t get more Americana than that.

Europe also gave us art directors including Hans Dreier (Germany, won three Oscars), Rochus Gliese (Germany, one nomination) and Anton Grot (Poland, nominated for five Academy Awards).

Plus there were several of the movies’ most noted composers: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Austria, won one Oscar, three noms), Miklos Rozsa (Austria-Hungary, won three Oscars, 17 noms), Dimitri Tiomkin (Ukraine, winner of four Oscars, 22 noms) and Franz Waxman (Poland, two wins, 12 noms).

Many awards pundits assume the international-ization of recent Oscars — such as nominations for directors Pawel Pawlikowski and Thomas Vinterberg and the wins for “Parasite” — is due to Academy membership expansion outside the U.S. It’s an interesting theory, but it shortchanges Academy voters over the years. They’ve always had a global reach.

In the 1960s, foreign-born helmers were nominated seven times for directing a film not in English: Federico Fellini twice, Pietro Germi, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Claude Lelouch, Gillo Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras, one each.

The 1970s topped that, with eight: Fellini twice (again!), Ingmar Bergman twice, Jan Troell, Francois Truffaut, Lina Wertmuller (the first woman ever nominated as director) and Edouard Molinaro.

The 1980s had four, with Wolfgang Petersen, Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Lasse Hallstrom. In the 1990s, there were just two: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roberto Benigni. Things bounced back in the first decade of the 21st century, with six individuals nominated for non-English films. And this was before AMPAS started their membership expansion.

In the 2010s, there were three or four, depending on whether one counts Michel Hazanavicius for the French-made but silent “The Artist.” True, it’s not in the English language, but it’s really not in any language.

And that’s a good metaphor for filmmaking and for the Oscars. It doesn’t matter what language is spoken; the only thing that counts is the artistry.

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