With her first Academy Award nomination this year, French actress Isabelle Huppert has joined the crème de la crème.
Rarely do actors earn Oscar nominations for performances in a foreign language. In fact, the academy paid little attention to foreign films at all until the late 1940s, when it began acknowledging them with honorary awards (Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” were early winners). It wasn’t until 1956, when European movies were becoming popular with the American “art-house” market, that the category of best foreign language film was created.
The first actor to break the language barrier and cross over to the “real” Oscar categories was Melina Mercouri, who earned a best actress nod in 1960 for playing a prostitute in the Greek film “Never on Sunday.” The first to win, in 1961, was Sophia Loren (also for best actress) in the Italian World War II drama “Two Women.” All told, only 33 actors have been nominated for performances in a foreign language. One of the more impressive examples is actually an American, Robert De Niro, who learned Italian for 1974’s “The Godfather Part II” and won the best supporting actor Oscar (he spoke a little English in the role, too).
Even counting multilingual performances, only eight actors have won an Oscar for a foreign language role. Penélope Cruz, for instance, won supporting actress for her Spanish and English performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Huppert’s nod for best actress comes for Paul Verhoeven’s French-language thriller, “Elle,” in which she plays a brutalized woman who tracks down her attacker. If Huppert wins the gold, she’ll have scored a major coup.