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
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.