Why the Academy should Acknowledge more non-English Language Performances
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was initially set-up by Louis B. Mayer in 1927 to resolve a labour dispute. Wary of his studio workers unionising, Mayer decided to placate his employees by holding an awards ceremony that would instead offer prestige, clout and a career boost to any lucky enough to win. The Academy Awards were born from these slightly shady origins and, for a time, were further used to promote the pictures put out by Mayer and his cronies – AKA the Academy itself. Over its 94-year history the Academy Awards have transformed, gaining an international reputation and respect which finally brought a legitimacy to the Oscars’ prestige; far-removed from its self-serving and biased beginnings. The Academy remains far from perfect and despite these changes it is still frustratingly focused on rewarding English-language performances.
Of course, plenty of sceptics argue that the Oscars remain irrelevant. In many ways they’re not wrong: a good film and a good performance will be recognised and remembered regardless of how it fares at the Oscars. However, what’s undeniable is that the Academy Awards hold an emotional position in the heart of the movie-goer. Otherwise, they wouldn’t produce such delight when the ‘right’ film is nominated, or scorn when the ‘wrong’ one wins. Similarly, for every list of nominees, we produce a list of snubs. This makes sense because, after all, these are our movies and we want them to get the recognition they deserve. Furthermore, the Oscars carry an influence that other ceremonies don’t. Just being nominated can fundamentally change an individual’s career. The Academy, because of its reputation and its power, should be – and frequently has been – challenged whenever it, shows signs of bias. Campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite directly led to the Academy diversifying its membership, inviting thousands of voters to bring new perspectives to the Awards. However, despite these developments little has changed. As of 2020 the Academy is still 84% White, 68% Male and the majority remain over 60.
Last year, Parasite made history by becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. So unprecedented was its win it may be evidence the changes in membership are producing some results. However, Parasite also failed to receive any nominations for its cast. It’s almost as unprecedented for a film to win Best Picture without any acting nods, and one of the most accessible elements of cinema are the actors. The average moviegoer may know nothing about lighting or camera technique but will always be able to recognise empathy, emotion, and charisma regardless of language. Why then have there been staggeringly few international actors nominated for their performances?
The Academy nominates 20 performances every year and in its entire history has only nominated 44 non-English speaking performances of which twelve have won (and of these, only five were entirely non-English speaking, with five more composed of BSL and ASL performances.) All of these winners are White, and the seven non-English speaking actors have been exclusively European. Furthermore, the seven winners each come from either Italy, France or Spain, a direct correlation with the three countries most celebrated – by quite some margin – in the Best International Feature category. The same results can be found amongst the rest of the nominees.
The word American appears nowhere in its nomenclature, and as long as a film is released in the state of California (where the AMPAS is based) it can compete equally for every category. Yet what the Academy purports to be is not reflective of its Awards history, neither is it reflective of global cinema. According to the UNESCO Institute For Statistics the U.S has only the fifth largest film industry in the world. More films on average are produced every year in India, Nigeria, China and Japan respectively. Not only has Nigeria received no nomination in any category, no actor from the entire Asian continent has been nominated for a performance primarily in their own language (with the exception of Rinko Kikuchi performing in Japanese sign language for Babel – and, at the time of writing, the recent nominations for Minari). By the law of averages, this makes no sense. There is an undeniable American, or at least Western-centric, bias in the Academy’s nominations and, with a few exceptions, there always has been.
Untangling itself from this history is still proving difficult for the Academy. While the Board of Governors try to act with good intentions, as they (not the membership) write the Oscars’ ‘rules’, there will always be an element of gate-keeping. Consider for example Steven Spielberg’s plan to ban Netflix from ever winning, which is a very likely explanation as to why in 2019 the membership awarded the Best Picture statue to Green Book over Roma. Moves like this perpetuate the unspoken truth that there are films which by their very nature are more likely to win than others, something that simply shouldn’t be the case in honest competition. Similarly, it makes you wonder how this attitude towards a streaming company affected Yalitza Aparicio’s chances of winning for her fantastic performance in Roma. While Spielberg’s intention may have been in the name of saving cinema, his attitude will impact the Academy’s international representation even more negatively. Nearly 50% of Netflix’s content is non-English, and every year more people are watching it. More frustratingly, using the Academy as a tool to determine what is and isn’t cinema, rather than throwing open its doors as widely as possible, will only serve to limit its reputation.
Martin Scorsese recently lambasted the idea that so much of what we watch nowadays is determined by an algorithm. To a budding young cinephile, movies are shared through lists or recommendations and the Academy Award’s nominees and winners provide a list of the ‘best’ films and performances from the past hundred years. Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai are two of the most important leading men of the twentieth century, especially for their work with Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi respectively; yet both are excluded from the list. Federico Fellini was a highly celebrated international director at the Oscars, yet Giulietta Masina, his most frequent collaborator, was never recognised.
Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh’s work in Hong Kong and China has produced some of the most influential movies of recent history; neither have ever been nominated. Nilbio Torres and Tafillama-Antonio Bolívar Salvador each gave uniquely charismatic performances in Embrace of the Serpent – another big Oscar contender with no acting nominations. A social media campaign was launched to see Leonardo DiCaprio finally receive an Oscar. Song Kang-ho, who repeatedly delivers amazing performances had no such campaign, probably because most people hadn’t even heard of him until the Academy recognised Parasite last year. The list of those overlooked by the Academy is massive and it goes to show that, as an institution, it is in danger of remaining as impersonal and predictable as an algorithm.
Non-English language cinema doesn’t require Academy recognition. If anything, the continued success of Oscar-less international films shows how well they can do without its baubles. It’s just a shame that the Academy refuses to acknowledge the strength of non-English language performances, sending the message that while international films can occasionally compete with English-languages, their actors are not in the same class. They have genuine power over what gets seen, and they still only seem interested in a fraction of an artform that the world has to offer.