Best Actress: Can Both French Actresses Get In?

By  · Published on December 21st, 2012

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves the French. The nation has racked up 36 nominations for Best Foreign Language Film over the years, which is more than half the number of times the Academy has given the award. French-language films regularly appear outside of that category as well – the very first nomination for a foreign film was a nod for Best Art Direction to À Nous la Liberté in 1932. Oscar has been a Francophile since the very beginning, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get sick of them any time soon.

As far as I’m concerned, this leaves a single burning question about this year’s race. Yes, I suppose one could wonder in great detail about Amour’s Best Picture and Best Director chances, but at this point I think it definitely gets both. The real fun is in the Best Actress category. (Isn’t it always?) Both Emmanuelle Riva and Marion Cotillard are serious contenders, enormously talented actors who have delivered some of their best work in some this year’s most-lauded French-language films. However, is it possible for two French actresses to make it in the same category? How much cachet do they really have?

First, some history! Five French actresses have been nominated over the years for six French-language performances. Only Isabelle Adjani has pulled off multiple nominations, her first in 1976 for The Story of Adèle H. and her second in 1990 for Camille Claudel. Both of these films, along with Catherine Deneuve’s Indochine and Cotillard’s La Vie en Rose, are period-set films. A French performance in a contemporary-set film hasn’t gotten a nomination since 1977.

Moreover, all six of those nominations happened in different years. If both Riva and Cotillard make it, it will only be the fourth time in history that two actresses get nominated for foreign-language performances in the same year. And that’s only if you count Carol Kane’s 1976 nomination for speaking Yiddish in Hester Street, which you really shouldn’t.

However, all of this historical precedent might mean nothing. Things are very, very different today. If anything, it is much harder for foreign films to get nominations than it was in the ’70s. Let’s look at each actress’s chances one at a time.

Many pundits are treating Riva’s nomination for Amour as a fait accompli. I’m not so sure. On the one hand, there’s so much support for the film, considered perhaps the most accessible ever by Europe’s leading auteur. Riva’s deeply affecting turn as a woman in the last days of her life is certainly one of the best performances of the year, if not the best. Yet that much was often said about Tilda Swinton in Julia, and that was in English, and only a year after Swinton’s win for Michael Clayton. Don’t get me wrong, she absolutely deserves the nod. But will the Academy, which traditionally goes for much younger actresses, give Riva her début nomination this late in her career? They did it for Jessica Tandy, but Driving Miss Daisy is a much, much easier film to watch.

Cotillard’s chances, on the other hand, seem to be on their way up. She’s three for three with the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice Awards. Rust and Bone also turns up alongside Amour with both SAG and the Globes for Best Foreign Film. Since her win for La Vie en Rose, Cotillard has become a star in Hollywood working in English, and very nearly got a nomination for the absolutely wretched Nine. The performance itself, a struggle with disability in a rough and tumble love story, is right up their alley. It’s just visceral enough, while Amour just might be a little too much for the Academy. Cotillard will also certainly be able to campaign in Hollywood, while the octogenarian Riva has been unable to travel.

And so, come the eventual dénouement on Oscar nomination morning, I think there might be a bit of a shocker. (A coup de foudre, if you will…ok, fine, I’ll stop.) Emmanuelle Riva may have given the best performance of the year that doesn’t actually end up with a nomination. Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence are safe bets, but having Cotillard, Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis might be asking for too much. This year’s one major omission, the one that makes people mad, may very well be in Best Actress.

Now, Cotillard and Riva both absolutely deserve to be nominated. I would argue they probably deserve to be nominated over both Lawrence and Wallis. (Then again, I also think Keira Knightley should be in the mix and she’s going nowhere fast, so what do I know?) No matter what happens, this is a fascinating race simply in the possibilities we’re working with. Can you say that about this year’s Best Supporting Actor category, or even Best Actor? Every year people claim that Best Actress is a weak field, and every year they’re wrong. Just look harder, and maybe read a subtitle or two.

P.S. A nerdy word on Jean-Louis Trintignant. Of course he should be in the Best Actor conversation, but he doesn’t have nearly as much of a shot as his co-star. This is more than a little ironic, because he was the male lead in another Oscar-nominated tale of love: 1966’s A Man and a Woman. The film’s leading lady, Anouk Aimée, picked up the first ever French-language Best Actress nomination. Trintignant didn’t make it that year, either.

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