The Frustrating Language Bias of This Year's Best Actress Oscar

Sandra, Meryl, and Judi are all-but-certain nominees, yet the best female performances this year were in foreign-language films that will likely go unrecognized by the Academy.

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color. (Sundance Selects)

The 86th Academy Awards may be four months away, but Oscar pundits have spoken—and one category appears all but closed.

If the predictions from Indiewire, Vulture, and numerous other sources are accurate, the Best Actress race will come down to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock for Gravity, Judi Dench for Philomena, and Meryl Streep for August: Osage County, with a sole slot up for grabs.

As film historian Mark Harris recently assessed in a Grantland article, such a scenario would be “pretty terrible news,” not because those ladies are unworthy, but because they make for a distinctly unadventurous group of nominees: an Australian thespian who has conquered Hollywood, a hardworking star alternately known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and two highly decorated grand dames (one of them actually a Dame). All prior Oscar winners, these actresses are essentially the awards-season equivalent of the popular girls in high school.

Most frustratingly of all, that Best Actress line-up would obscure an important truth: The majority of the truly exciting female lead performances in 2013 were delivered in foreign tongues and accompanied by subtitles. Unfortunately, a glance at Academy history suggests that even the strongest among them faces unduly long odds at ending up in the final five; none quite fit the mold for the kind of foreign-language turn that Oscar tends to reward.

Newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos and rising star Léa Seydoux did the most fearless, emotionally rich, body-and-soul acting of the year as a French teenager and the slightly older woman who steals her heart in Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial masterpiece Blue Is the Warmest Color. Bringing their characters’ cycles of lust, affection, hurt, and loneliness to aching, authentic life, the two are so integral to the film’s power that Cannes jury head Steven Spielberg named them winners of the top Palme d’Or prize along with Kechiche—a first in the festival’s 66-year history (the award is usually handed to the director alone).

Bérénice Bejo, meanwhile, took home Best Actress at Cannes for her diva-like turn as a Parisian woman divorcing her Iranian husband—while juggling a new lover and a seething teenage daughter—in Asghar Farhadi’s French-language The Past (hitting U.S. theaters December 20). After an unremarkable career in France, and a lovely, Oscar-nominated performance in 2011’s The Artist, Bejo rose mightily to the challenge of investing a shrew-like character with sensuality and sympathy while never downplaying her essential unpleasantness.

Since they headline buzzed-about foreign releases, Exarchopoulos, Seydoux, and Bejo will have at least modest Oscar “campaigns” launched for them by the studios distributing the movies.

No such luck for the actresses who did superb work in lower-profile non-Anglophone films this year: the volcanic Suzanne Clément as the increasingly despairing girlfriend of a cross-dresser in French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s under-sung Laurence Anyways; Belgian actress Emilie Dequenne, who goes from vibrant to fragile and then comes terrifyingly undone as a wife and mother in Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children; Hadas Yaron, Best Actress winner at the 2012 Venice Film Festival for her subtle performance as a young Israeli Orthodox woman navigating painful choices of love and family in Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void; and Veerle Baetens, whose magnetic portrait of a free spirit grounded by tragedy is the best thing about Flemish director Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (out in the US November 1).

Oscar buffs know it’s hard for performances in foreign-language films to land in Academy members’ sights. Today, homegrown indies and auteurs like David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson claim much of the space that Fellini, Godard, or Kurosawa, to name a few, occupied in 1960s America. Back then, foreign films accounted for 10 percent of the US box office; today, they make up less than one percent, with those that arrive stateside ghettoized in specialty venues where they often come and go with little notice.

Academy members do get foreign-film “screeners,” DVDs the studios send in hopes of selling voters on a particular film or performance. But if anything, subtitles are even harder to read on a smaller screen—as are facial expressions and physical nuances that can help someone connect with a performance given in a language he or she doesn’t understand.

Given the distancing effect foreign languages can have on viewers, it’s unsurprising that the three performers who actually won Oscars for fully non-Anglophone films delivered the kind of larger-than-life turns that barely require translation: Sophia Loren in Two Women (1962), Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful (1999), and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2008).

As for the other actors and actresses from foreign-language movies who managed to eke out nominations over the years, the key seems to have been not pushing the Academy (in this case, the actors’ branch, which determines the nominees in the acting categories) too far afield of what’s familiar.

Since the first task is getting sufficient exposure, it helps if the film has been seen by a critical mass of voters. Strong box-office returns and subsequent word-of-mouth went a long way toward securing nods for French actresses Anouk Aimée from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1967) and Marie-Christine Barrault from Cousin, Cousine (1970), posthumous Italian nominee Massimo Troisi for The Postman (Il Postino) (1996), and winners Benigni and Cotillard. Meanwhile, their films’ prize-winning runs at major festivals gave long-shot contenders like Central Station’s Brazilian star Fernanda Montenegro (1999), Maria Full of Grace’s Colombian ingénue Catalina Sandino Moreno (2005), and Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva (2012) the visibility boost they needed to grab a nomination.

Subject matter the Academy can relate to has also proven a plus. Italian actress Valentina Cortese’s performance as a past-her-prime star boozing and blubbering her way around a film set in François Truffaut’s Day for Night earned her a spot in the supporting category in 1976. Poland’s Ida Kaminska (The Shop on Main Street in 1967), Italy’s Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties in 1977), and Benigni were all recognized for their work in films dealing with Nazism or the Holocaust, themes known to resonate with voters. Cotillard won for playing Edith Piaf, the tumultuous French singer who was nearly as beloved in the States as in her native country. And Amour’s Riva was nominated for her unflinching portrayal of an elderly woman left paralyzed after a stroke; how could Oscar voters, who skew older, fail to be moved by a film about the indignities and dilemmas that come with aging?

Foreign-language performances hoping for attention from the Academy are also at an advantage if voters already know the performer. Nominations for Sophia Loren for Marriage Italian-Style (1965), Ingrid Bergman and Max von Sydow, speaking their native Swedish in Autumn Sonata (1979) and Pelle the Conqueror (1989), respectively, Penelope Cruz for Volver (2007), and Javier Bardem for Biutiful (2011) came when those actors had already put in considerable time in Hollywood.

If they haven’t actually worked much in America, actors are certainly more likely to be flagged by Academy members if their reputation, or body of work, precedes them. Liv Ullmann (nominated for The Emigrants in 1973 and Face to Face in 1977), Marcello Mastroianni (Divorce, Italian Style in 1963, A Special Day in 1978, and Dark Eyes in 1988), Gerard Depardieu (Cyrano de Bergerac in 1991), and Catherine Deneuve (Indochine in 1993) were all international stars when they scored nods. Amour’s Riva, though less famous stateside, was remembered fondly by older voters as a French New Wave icon (especially for her performance in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour).

And when done right, an extra bit of schmoozing can’t hurt. A 2013 New York Magazine article about surefire “tactics” for winning an Oscar reported that “Marion Cotillard [nominated for La Vie en Rose] moved into [Los Angeles hotel] Chateau Marmont and let everyone know she wanted it.”

The women of Blue Is the Warmest Color likely won’t be hitting the scene that hard. But Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, who apparently is being pushed in the less-competitive supporting category (though she certainly logs enough screen time to be considered a lead), just may have a shot.

With the Cannes triumph, screenings at Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival, much-debated sex scenes, and a recent headline-grabbing spat between Seydoux and Kechiche, the film arrives on a tide of advance press that’s unusual for a foreign film. Moreover, Seydoux, though hardly a household name in the US, has a few high-level contacts in Hollywood (she’s played small parts in films by Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Brad Bird), while Exarchopoulos is the kind of young, unknown stunner Academy members are sometimes keen to honor (Quvenzhané Wallis last year, Gabourey Sidibe in 2010, Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2004, and Hilary Swank in 2000).

And if the film’s three-hour running time and lengthy, spanking-and-saliva-filled lesbian love-making sequences might be a problem for the Academy’s more conventional-minded elders, younger members of the acting branch should be receptive to what is an exceptional display of craft and commitment. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, blossoming—and allegedly suffering—under Kechiche’s relentless methods and searching close-ups, attain a level of deep immersion in their roles that’s rare. They make you feel the bliss of love, as well as its scorching burn, more acutely than any performers since Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, wrestled hungrily and then spent decades choking back their desires in Brokeback Mountain. (What is it about same-sex romances that seems to bring out the best in ostensibly heterosexual actors?)

Exarchopoulos, especially, carries the film from moment to moment, transforming before our eyes from a lost teenager, guileless and frighteningly exposed, into a wounded but resilient young woman unafraid to put herself on the line—and walk alone if she has to. The actress takes us on a journey, pulling us in, making us see the world through her character’s tear-stung eyes, and, finally, burrowing her way into our hearts. If that’s not an “Oscar-worthy” feat, nothing is.