Vive la dif­férence

Not one Amer­i­can ac­tor picked up an Os­car this year, but the road for for­eign stars in Hol­ly­wood is a rocky one, writes Joe Grif­fin

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

WHEN Javier Bar­dem took the podium to col­lect his Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor Os­car last month, it was be­cause he had found what many for­eign stars fail to un­earth in Hol­ly­wood – a role ap­pro­pri­ate to his act­ing style. It’s en­tirely con­ceiv­able that Bar­dem will never land such a part in a US movie again. In­deed, his next film, Love in the Time of Cholera, has been coldly re­ceived.

This is a dif­fer­ent world for the Span­ish ac­tor. A house­hold name in Spain, he has not only cred­i­bil­ity and box-of­fice ap­peal, but also a variety of act­ing jobs to his credit – from the bit­ter­sweet drama of Mon­days in the Sun to The Sea Inside to Pe­dro Almod­ovar’s best film, Live Flesh.

Hol­ly­wood at­tracts the great­est tal­ent from the world of cin­ema, but many ac­tresses and ac­tors fail to repli­cate their home-coun­try suc­cess.

The most fre­quent stum­bling block is lan­guage, though some over­come it. An­to­nio Ban­deras, for ex­am­ple, was a huge star in Spain when he was cast in The Mambo Kings. The fact that Ban­deras couldn’t speak English didn’t de­ter the film­mak­ers. He learned on the job and his per­for­mance is re­mark­ably com­pe­tent, con­sid­er­ing.

On the other hand, Pene­lope Cruz, prac­ti­cally roy­alty in Spain, speaks English in an ac­cent that’s less en­dear­ing than her na­tive tongue. Watch her play the same char­ac­ter in Abres Los Ojos and its re­make, Vanilla Sky. See how the quirky, charm­ing ac­tress loses much of her ap­peal as she yaps in­com­pre­hen­si­bly.

Poor Gong Li was even less lucky. In Mi­ami Vice, the tal­ented per­former strug­gled to wrap her tongue around both the English lan­guage and Michael Mann’s clunky script.

A good com­mand of the English lan­guage cer­tainly helps some per­form­ers: Sophia Loren and In­grid Bergman were ex­otic beau­ties, but also had a flair for English di­a­logue.

What one cul­ture con­sid­ers funny or sexy may not trans­fer to an­other. Con­sider Chow Yun Fat. In Hong Kong he was likened to Cary Grant be­cause of his easy charisma and comic tim­ing. But af­ter a decade of dab­bling in Hol­ly­wood, he’s prob­a­bly still best-known in Amer­ica for a for­eign film – Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon.

Fre­quently the best place for for­eign ac­tors is in ac­tion movies. Jean Claude Van Damme isn’t much for so­lil­o­quies, but his au­di­ence doesn’t mind. And Jackie Chan’s daz­zling gift for phys­i­cal com­edy made his Asian films very ac­ces­si­ble – pair him with a talk­a­tive Amer­i­can – Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, for ex­am­ple – and you’ve got your­self a movie.

Cult direc­tors and au­di­ences also tend to take more chances on out­siders. Jim Jar­musch used Roberto Benigni to won­der­ful ef­fect in Down by Law and Night on Earth, David Lynch gave Isabella Ros­sellini her best role in Blue Vel­vet, and the Coens are happy to use un­usual faces both from Amer­ica and be­yond.

How­ever, even be­ing from the same coun­try as the film’s char­ac­ter doesn’t guar­an­tee work. Stu­dios will usu­ally grav­i­tate to­wards a bet­ter-known ac­tor, even if they’re not the best per­son for the role. Tom Cruise’s cast­ing in Valkyrie, Sean Con­nery as the com­man­der of a Rus­sian sub in The Hunt for Red Oc­to­ber and Brad Pitt as an Aus­trian ex­plorer in Seven Years in Ti­bet are just a hand­ful of ex­am­ples.

Ac­tors might be en­cour­aged, how­ever, to re­mem­ber that the big­gest star of the 1990s hailed from Aus­tria and over­came a thick ac­cent, an awk­ward name and un­usual ap­pear­ance. Whether Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s suc­cess is the re­sult of canny choices, act­ing tal­ent or blind luck is a mat­ter of de­bate, but you’d be hard pushed to find a bet­ter ex­am­ple of the Amer­i­can Dream.

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