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The First Flowering of Foreign Films

March 25, 2001|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a staff writer in The Times' Calendar section

Ang Lee's Mandarin-language action adventure "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has already made Academy Awards history. With 10 Oscar nominations, it has garnered the most nods ever by a foreign language film. One of those is for best movie.

In the last 10 years, only two other foreign films have been nominated for best film--"Il Postino" and "Life Is Beautiful." Two years ago, Roberto Benigni won best actor for "Life Is Beautiful," the first performer in 37 years to win an acting Oscar for a foreign-language film.

The Academy Awards have always been an international competition, but it wasn't until the 1960s that foreign films flowered in the United States. The awards were just 11 years old when the first foreign production was nominated for best film, although Jean Renoir's classic French antiwar drama "Grand Illusion," would lose the 1938 best film Oscar to Frank Capra's feel-good comedy "You Can't Take It With You."

After World War II, the Academy began to increase its recognition of foreign films, nominating such acclaimed pictures as France's "Children of Paradise" and Italy's "The Bicycle Thief" in the screenplay categories. The organization also began to hand out special awards to foreign films, and it had established a foreign-language film category by 1956. Federico Fellini's "La Strada" was the first to win best foreign film.

In the 1960s, cutting-edge international directors, writers and actors took America by storm. Sophia Loren changed the Academy landscape forever when she won best actress of 1961 for the Italian-language drama "Two Women." Loren shed her sex-symbol image for a distinctly non-glamorous turn as a woman who, along with her teenage daughter, is raped by soldiers during World War II. Loren beat out Audrey Hepburn for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Piper Laurie in "The Hustler," Geraldine Page in "Summer and Smoke" and Natalie Wood for "Splendor in the Grass" for the best actress Oscar. (Three years later, Loren was nominated in the same category for the Italian comedy "Marriage Italian Style.")

The same year Loren won, Fellini was nominated for best director and original screenplay for his arthouse hit "La Dolce Vita." Other foreign nominees competing with "La Dolce Vita" in the latter category were "General Della Rovere" from Italy and "Ballad of a Soldier" from the Soviet Union.

The Italians scored several nominations the following year, with Marcello Mastroianni receiving his first Oscar nomination for best actor for the comedy "Divorce-Italian Style." The farce's director, Pietro Germi, lost to David Lean of "Lawrence of Arabia" for best director but won for co-writing the original screenplay. Other nominees in the screenplay category in 1962 included Ingmar Bergman for "Through a Glass Darkly" and Alain Robbe-Grillet for "Last Year at Marienbad."

Fellini picked up best director and original screenplay nominations for 1963's "81/2," which won Oscars for foreign-language film and costume design.

In 1965, Hiroshi Teshigahara became the first Japanese to receive a best director nomination, for his offbeat drama "Woman in the Dunes."

The following year, not one American-born actress was among the best actress nominees. Elizabeth Taylor--who won for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"--was born in England, as were nominees Lynn Redgrave ("Georgy Girl") and her sister, Vanessa ("Morgan!"). Rounding out the five nominees were France's Anouk Aimee for "A Man and a Woman" and veteran performer Ida Kaminska for the Czech film "The Shop on Main Street." Aimee's director, Claude Lelouch, was nominated for best director and screenplay for the hit romance.

The Academy didn't shy away from controversial films. In 1968, Gillo Pontecorvo was nominated for best director and original screenplay for his thought-provoking "The Battle of Algiers," a documentary-style drama about the uprising of the Algerians against the French in the mid-'50s.

The '60s ended with not only the first and only X-rated film--"Midnight Cowboy"--to win the best picture honors, but the first foreign nominee for Best Film in 31 years. Costa-Gavras' intense French political thriller "Z" also scored a nomination for director and adapted screenplay. In the end, "Z" won Oscars for foreign language film and editing.

Tom O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards," believes the influx and acceptance of foreign films in the '60s occurred partly because of the boom in jet travel, which "suddenly made the American public not only more mobile, but more worldly. We discovered not only the rest of the world geographically, but we discovered it artistically. We were eager to bring it back home."

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