Here’s a fact of which not all awards-watchers are entirely aware: Michael Haneke hasn’t won an Oscar. Neither has Francois Truffaut, nor Luis Bunuel. Pedro Almodovar has one for writing, but that’s it. Ang Lee has two for directing, but nothing for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa each won honorary Oscars, but no competitive ones between them.
At this point, some of you might be crying foul. You expressly remember Haneke accepting his Oscar only a few months ago. You’ve definitely seen Almodovar give two acceptance speeches. And you know your Oscar history: Fellini has four of the damn things. What gives?
The connecting factor, of course, is that all these filmmakers have directed winners of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; in most cases, they took the stage, gladly accepted the golden statuette and promptly took it home with them for keeps. The award is, to all intents and purposes, theirs: unlike the producer-oriented Best Picture category, the Academy recognizes the director as the chief creative force behind a foreign-language winner, so they get to claim the credit.
Officially, however, the director is merely a proxy recipient. That Oscar isn’t in their name, but that of the country they represent – or, at least, the one they represented in that particular race. Austria was an Oscar winner this year, but Michael Haneke was not. Italy has been one many times over; directors from Fellini to Benigni were only accepting on her behalf. In an institution otherwise dedicated to rewarding individual artistry, it may sound ungainly to hand an award to an entire country, but that’s the reality: the director gets to hold the award because, well, someone has to. We attribute it to them for reasons of both convenience and fairness – it’s simply easier to say “Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier” than “Denmark’s Oscar enabler Susanne Bier” – but official Academy records won’t reflect that reasonable deduction.
At best, this can be viewed as a minor, quirky technicality of a faintly communist persuasion, an anti-auteurist stance that dates back to a time when films were scene less as the creations of individual imaginations than as the team-built products of national industries. It’s an opportunity for some innocuous flag-waving, and the director still gets to keep the gold at the end of the day; why not let the semantic issue lie?
On the one hand, the existing notion of the foreign-language Oscar race as a kind of cinematic Olympic Games is cute enough: as a South African who well remembers the eight-year-old win for Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi,” I know there’s much to be said for the surge of national goodwill that such a victory prompts. (Hell, even more patriotic mania surrounded Charlize Theron’s Best Actress win two years before, and the country couldn’t take any credit for that at all.) But it’s a dated and dishonest conception that’s frankly out of step with the growing realities of global film production, where an ever-dwindling number of films can legitimately claim to be the product of a single nation.
It’s an incongruity that has already resulted in some technically wonky wins. Michael Haneke may have richly deserved the Oscar for “Amour,” but whether Austria was equally deserving of an undivided award for a French-set, significantly French-financed co-production that most viewers would casually identify as “French” is open to question – it’s a peculiar irony that their claim to the Oscar lies principally in the director, yet the director doesn’t win the award himself.
The fragile system will look especially farcical if Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, director of 2011’s winner “A Separation,” accepts this year’s award for his acclaimed domestic melodrama “The Past” – as many think he might. The French-set film’s producing countries are France and Italy, yet it’s Iran that would officially receive the award for a film in which they had no production input, beyond being the motherland of its gifted, globe-trotting creator. Farhadi’s personal Oscar count, meanwhile, would remain stuck at zero. This is hardly ideal.
A nomination for Iran and “The Past” is a possibility that would have been barred by the Academy only a few years ago, when rules dictated that films had to be in the official language of the submitting country to be eligible. Changing the rule was a good move, allowing a wider range of notable films to be considered, and at least acknowledging the existence of co-productions in the first place. (As it happens, it was the disqualification in 2005 of another Franco-Austrian Haneke film, “Cache” that proved the final straw.) But it’s left the category with the ill-fitting exoskeleton of a submissions system that is no longer fit for purpose: contender identities are being confusingly fudged, while outstanding co-productions too splintered to be claimed by any one country aren’t getting in on the race at all.
Meanwhile, even the Academy has started vocally doubting the unreliable national submissions process: following controversially counter-intuitive selections this year from such countries as India and Japan, and the date-dictated ineligibility for France’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” committee chairman Mark Johnson admitted the time may have come to “radically look at” allowing wild-card entrants into the race. That’s all well and good, but we get to the stage where a film can compete without being submitted by any country, who or what will officially claim its award? Won’t it then be time to drop the silly pretense of a national competition altogether, and have the Best Foreign Language Film longlist compiled from within the Academy?
Alternatively, just bring the Best Picture competition in line with the foreign-language category, and have producers accept on behalf of the winner’s country of origin. Perhaps it’d take Britain and the United States coming bitterly to blows over “12 Years a Slave” for the Academy to see that something here’s not working.
Check out my updated predictions here.