[22 January 2013]
What do Michael Haneke and Jean Renoir have in common (besides their deeply humanistic, but vastly different approaches to portraying life you mean?)? They both have directed foreign language films that went on to receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. In 1938, Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was nominated for the big Hollywood prize, becoming the first movie not in the English language to receive this honor. The WWI-set masterpiece lost to a now mostly forgotten Frank Capra comedy and curiously wasn’t nominated for anything other than Best Picture, meanwhile in 2012, Haneke’s Amour, a devastating take on old age, went on to receive a total of five nominations including one for lead actress Emmanuelle Riva.
The achievement of Haneke’s film is slightly more impressive because since the creation of the Best Foreign Language Film award in 1957, only six other movies (we’re not counting Clint Eastwood’s Japanese flick because it remains essentially an American production) have escaped this ghetto and have gone on to be nominated for what is widely regarded as the most famous movie award in the world.
Let’s analyze each of the other cases to see what chances Amour stands historically at the upcoming Oscar ceremony:
1969 - Z (dir. Costa Gavras, Algeria)
Even if the 1960’s represented a breath of fresh air in terms of world cinema recognition in Hollywood, Costa Gavras’ stunning political thriller became the first movie ever to receive nominations for both Best Foreign Language Film - which it won - and Best Picture, also earning nominations for its director and screenplay. It also went on to win the Oscar for Best Editing. As a curious note, Amour leading man, Jean-Louis Trintignant who also starred in Z is one of two actors who has appeared in two foreign language movies nominated for Best Picture, the other is Liv Ullmann.
1971 - The Emigrants (dir. Jan Troell, Sweden)
In 1971 Jan Troell’s epic was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but lost to The Gardens of the Fizi-Continis. The following year, after being released commercially in the United States, the movie earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Ullmann and Best Adapted Screenplay but lost in every category. That same year the film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actress - Drama.
1972 - Cries and Whispers (dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)
Ingmar Bergman was nominated for Best Director on three different occasions - this being the first - but Cries and Whispers was the first, and only, of his films to be nominated as Best Picture. Besides his producer and director nominations, Bergman also received a mention for his screenplay. The film’s costume design and cinematography were also recognized by the Academy with the latter winning Sven Nykvist the first of his two Academy Awards, he won again ten years later for Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
1995 - Il Postino (dir. Michael Radford, Italy)
In what was unarguably one of the weakest years in the Best Picture lineup, the clever Harvey Weinstein managed to sneak in this tiny Italian movie, giving Miramax one of its many Oscar hits of the 90s. The film, which had been snubbed by most awards groups received nominations for Picture, Director, Actor (posthumously for Massimo Troisi), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Score, winning in the latter.
1998 - Life is Beautiful (dir. Roberto Benigni, Italy)
Weinstein was king of the 1998 Oscars when two of his movies received nominations for Best Picture (one of them won), including this surprise sleeper hit which also scored nods for its Director, Editing and Screenplay. The film won the awards for Best Actor (Benigni), Best Original Score and Best Foreign Language Film.
2000 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (dir. Ang Lee, Taiwan)
Ang Lee’s magnificent wuxia romance holds the record for most nominations for a movie not in the English language. The film scored a total of ten nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design and Song, winning the awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Art Direction, Score and Cinematography. The movie became a worldwide phenomenon, with Lee winning the Best Director awards from BAFTA, Independent Spirits, the DGA and the Golden Globes.
All of this brings us back to Amour, which surprised most who expected its success to be limited to the Foreign Language Film category and perhaps a nomination for its leading lady, who had won the European Film Award and Best Actress prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. Haneke’s movie is the second Palme d’Or winner to receive a Best Picture nomination this decade (and only the fourteenth ever) and also marks the first time the Austrian auteur’s work has received such wide recognition by the Academy. Judging from the movie’s critical reaction and its key nominations, we find ourselves in the presence of a throwback to the glorious 70s when actresses like Ullmann and directors like Bergman delivered intellectually stimulating work that touched the mainstream nerve of the Academy.
Based on previous foreign language Best Picture nominees, Amour has a 75% chance of winning Best Foreign Language Film, given that only ¼ of the movies nominated in both categories lost; however its chances are largely increased when you see the competition in the category. There is also the advantage that the only movie that lost the Foreign Language award was nominated and lost the year before it was nominated for Best Picture, therefore considering only movies nominated for both awards in the same year, Haneke’s movie is a lock for the win, especially if you consider how some voters scared to vote for it as the absolute best movie of the year will find it easier to check the Foreign Language Film box.
Oscar odds after all are meant to be shattered and Haneke also has a strong possibility of upsetting in Best Actress and Best Director. Consider a Polanski-like scenario from 2002 when a sophisticated, controversial filmmaker defeated the American icon (Spielberg), the new guy in town (Zeitlin), the established auteur (Lee) and the “light” genre director (Russell). Riva could equally win if Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence split votes and cancel each other.
The film’s Oscar future remains uncertain but it could provide for some great surprises in key categories (Best Original Screenplay certainly sounds weak this year and a Best Picture nominee usually wins…) regardless of the awards the film obtains or loses Amour remains one of the Academy’s most admirable choices in the last twenty years. Here’s hoping surprises like this become a standard and not the exception.