We only have a few more days to wait before we’ll see if any film or person can pull off a major upset (in any category) and beat out “La La Land” which, last time we checked, was tracking to pick up more Oscars on Sunday than there are categories. It seems mathematically impossible, but that’s the magic of the movies for you. One of the most hotly contested, though, is Best Actress — a category which Emma Stone seems to be steamrolling her way through to victory. However, there’s a late showing by Isabelle Huppert, with unexpected energetic campaigning from the French superstar. The Best Actress In The World™ has cast a tiny shade of doubt.
It’s still tiny, mind you, and not just because of the unstoppable juggernaut of “La La Land”. A Huppert win for the French-language “Elle“, would make her only the fifth actor to win an Oscar for a performance (lead or supporting) in a foreign-language film. With the Academy, for fairly obvious reasons, biased toward English-language performances, we’ve taken a moment to run through the best of the times they got out of that silo, and nominated a subtitled performance. We’ve excluded actors who speak a foreign language in a largely English-language/American-made movie (Robert De Niro in “The Godfather Part II,” Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds“), and instances where one actor was nominated multiple times – thus confining ourselves to one choice. Here are our 15 favorite Oscar-nominated performances in foreign-language films:
Isabelle Huppert — “Elle” (2016)
There are a few things that make La Huppert the critics’, if not the bookies’, favorite in this year’s Best Actress race. Chief among them: she’s Isabelle fucking Huppert, have a little goddamn respect. But this is about as far from a legacy nod as you can imagine. Not only have both she and director Paul Verhoeven publicly spoken about how completely impossible it would have been to make this film in Hollywood with an American actor, watching the mischievous, provocative, questionable taste of the final product, it’s very possible that no other actor of any nationality aside from Huppert could have quite managed the role. Playing a consummately un-victim-like rape victim, Huppert gives one of the boldest and most effortlessly inhabited performances of her stellar career. She somehow creates a coherent character out of a collection of near-impossible twists, kinks and weird gothic revelations, making it look as easy as falling off a log. As much as we love many of the performances in the Best Actress running, this is the only one in which we consider the performer to be irreplaceable. Huppert’s turn could not be more confidently contradictory — embodying light and dark, sweet and salty, delicious and repulsive — if it were made of licorice.
Isabelle Adjani — “The Story of Adele H” (1975)
A love story of such severity, ferocity and single-mindedness that it’s possible to watch the whole thing enraptured and not understand until it’s long over what makes it so unusual: it’s a love story with only one participant. And as that sole participant, Isabelle Adjani, then just 19 years old, has to be able to command the whole world of the film as the tragic Adele Hugo, daughter of celebrated novelist Victor, whose unrequited, obsessive love for an army officer drives her to the delusional extremes of madness. It’s the kind of wildly emotive melodrama that is anything but François Truffaut‘s stock in trade, and yet Adjani commands it effortlessly. Her performance of a script that is unsparing in its detailing of Adele’s disintegrating sanity, it manages to treat her with respect, even admiration, and turns a character who could so easily be a pathetic hysteric into a grandly tragic heroine. Portraying Adele as a vessel for a love so enormous that it obliterates everything, including its own object (she fails to recognize her lover at the end), Adjani is so good here that she even manages to convince us that there’s a human on earth who would reject the advances of a woman this shatteringly beautiful.
Javier Bardem — “Biutiful” (2010)
The immensely charismatic Bardem was the first Spanish actor to be nominated for an Oscar, for 2000’s “Before Night Falls“; the first Spanish actor to win an Oscar when he picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue in 2007 for his indelible Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men“; and is now the only Spanish actor, apart from his wife Penélope Cruz, to have earned three Oscar nominations. His most recent came for Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Spanish-language “Biutiful,” which might be our least favorite of the three films for which he was Academy-recognized. Still, he absolutely towers in it, giving its relentlessly miserable story some humanity and depth. He is also remarkable in Julian Schnabel‘s “Before Night Falls,” playing gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. But his work in the most somber of pre-Oscar-win-somber Iñárritu’s films is transformative: it takes a rather simplistic and depressing tale of illness, poverty, guilt and mortality and turns it into something grand and desperately real. His performance makes tragedy out of pathos.
Liv Ullmann — “Face To Face” (1976)
Its logline — a psychiatrist married to another psychiatrist experiences a slow psychiatric breakdown — feels a little like a Ingmar Bergman parody. But even those critics who felt that “Face To Face,” originally shot as a much longer TV project and then edited down to under two hours for theatrical release, was just too overwrought a chamber piece, were impressed by Ullmann’s performance. Roger Ebert called it “one of the greatest performances in an Ingmar Bergman film.” High praise indeed, even if you consider that about eight of the other contenders would also be Liv Ullmann’s. In fact, Ullmann was also nominated for “The Emigrants” in 1971, and is wonderful there too, but she is so indelibly associated with Bergman that it had to be for his film that we mentioned her here. Even within the canon of Ullmann/Bergman collaborations, “Face To Face” is exceptional, and exceptionally hers. While frequent co-star Erland Josephson and a cast of patients, co-workers, grandparents and so on do feature, this is a film rooted on Ullmann in an almost intrusive way – the way therapy can be intrusive. Throughout, she is incredible: riveting and sure in her performance, even as her character loses all sense of herself.
Gérard Depardieu — “Cyrano De Bergerac” (1990)
Jean-Paul Rappeneau‘s lavish French-language costume drama feels a little unfashionable now, seeming like the apex of that craze when everyone in the English-speaking world briefly lost their shit for picturesque French heritage movies like “Jean De Florette,” “Manon Des Sources” and Rappeneau’s subsequent “The Horseman On The Roof.” But “Cyrano De Bergerac” is everything about that rather dull starchy genre done right: a classic text (the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand); a no-expense-spared attitude to locations, costume and set design; and a lead actor so suited to his role it gives life to the dull cliche of being “born to play” it. Depardieu’s grandiloquent bon vivant persona wasn’t even as fully formed back then, but still the conflation of the star with his role, as the quick-witted, stout-hearted, big-nosed reticent lover, who woos the fair Roxane through the proxy of a better-looking stand-in (Vincent Perez), seems to fit him like glove. Only a personality as expansive as Depardieu could fill all the corners of one of fiction’s great tragicomic heroes, and here he gets to be funny, self-sacrificing, yearningly in love, crippled with guilt and self-doubt and finally, oh-so-satisfyingly yet oh-so-tragically, affirmed. Perhaps we’re just suckers, but this movie rules.