Magazine article Variety

Oscar's International Accent

Magazine article Variety

Oscar's International Accent

Article excerpt

Only French films compete for that country's top César award. The Genies recognize Canadian movies, the Goyas spotlight Spanish cinema, and the Lolas celebrate German film. But at the American Academy's annual kudosfest, all countries are eligible for best picture - and have been since the beginning.

Still, unless you count British movies (13 of which have taken home best picture Oscars), foreign cinema seldom competes for the top prize (only eight have been nominated, dating back to Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion" in 1939). And yet, as distribution evolved and domestic audiences' tastes expanded to support the release of international films on U.S. screens, the Academy created a special category to recognize non-English-speaking cinema.

2016 marks 60 years since the launch of the foreign-language Oscar category. Over the past six decades, the honorees have, quite literally, ranged from A ("A Man and a Woman," "Amarcord," "Amour") to "Z" (Costa- Gavras' intense 1969 political thriller). And because the Academy collects prints of every single nominated film, that means 300 of the world's best foreign-language movies have found a permanent place in its vaults - international films that, in many cases, are no longer (or never were) available for home viewing.

Those copies, whether on celluloid or DCP, are just the beginning of the Academy's in-depth efforts to preserve a lasting legacy of cinema history from around the globe. The Academy archives also include movie posters, photographs, scripts, and other rare artifacts related to both the nominees, and international cinema in general. The 60th anniversary of the category offered me a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library to view the collections - and to evaluate just how international they truly are.

Normally, the Margaret Herrick Library is a hushed and hallowed place. Phones are forbidden, and guests may bring only pencils along to take notes. My visit was scheduled for a Wednesday morning, however, when the library is closed to the public. I was greeted by Academy photograph curator Matt Severson, who has laid out 100 or so images spanning the history of the Oscar foreign-language category.

Actually, the earliest image he has pulled - yet hardly the oldest in the collection, which includes frame grabs from 1895's "Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory," the French actualité credited as the first movie ever made - is a press still from Vittorio De Sica's "Shoeshine." The Academy honored "Shoeshine," an early example of Italian neorealism less seen today than De Sica's landmark "The Bicycle Thieves," with a special foreign-language award in 1947, nine years before the category was created.

"The Academy archive has an incredible abundance from classic Hollywood and American film history, from the birth of film through the 1970s," Severson says. "My mission has been to find the pockets that we don't have covered in as great a depth, so my goal has been tracking down materials from all over the world for avant garde and experimental cinema, cult films, and films that focus on marginalized voices or might have been overlooked at the time of their initial release from people like John Waters or Ed Wood or Herschell Gordon Lewis."

Naturally, the collection includes a wealth of photographs and documentation from the Oscar nominees: There are pictures from the telecast itself (such as "Life Is Beautiful" director Roberto Benigni climbing over seatbacks to accept his award), scrapbooks from the mid-'50s to early '70s cataloging the nominated directors' pilgrimages to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony (which traditionally included an excursion to Disneyland), and materials submitted for consideration in other categories (a binder of costume designs for "The Great Beauty," reference shots of the makeup for "Son of Saul"). …

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