Oscar Statistics: Foreign Language Films, Part 1

Every month, we’re going to be looking at the Oscars in a different way. While most of our content deals with predictions and precursors and reviews and previews and everything in between, the facts and statistics surrounding the Oscars are seldom referenced but in passing. These articles will change that. Every monthly (ideally), we’ll take a narrow look at statistics about and surrounding the Oscars.

When putting together this month’s look at Foreign Language Films at the Oscars, I came across a lot of interesting data that would make for a very long post. As such, I’m going to break it down into two different posts, finishing Foreign Language Films up in June. This month, we look solely at the Foreign Language Film category. Next month, we will dig into foreign language films outside of the Foreign Language Film category. There will, of course, be some overlap between the two articles, but I’ll do my best to limit data to the most appropriate place.

Through the first two decades of the Academy Awards, foreign language films accounted for a relatively small portion of the honored films each year. The first such film ever nominated was A Nous La Liberte, nominated at the 1931/32 awards (the 5th) for Best Art Direction. Six years later, the second film not in English received a nomination, this time it was Grand Illusion, which was nominated for Best Picture. Three more films would earn nominations prior to the awarding of the first awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

Presented as an honorary award, Vittioro De Sica’s Italian Neorealist drama Shoe-shine was the first named Best Foreign Language Film at the 20th Academy Awards for films from 1947. Over the next seven years, seven additional films would earn the honorary award. Maurice Cloche’s French drama Monsieur Vincent won at the 21st awards, De Sica was again crowned in 1949 (all years cited here will be the year for which the awards celebrated, not the actual year the award was presented) for The Bicycle Thief. The subsequent five winners, in order, were The Walls of Malapaga, directed by Rene Clement; Rashomon from Akira Kurosawa; Clement again with Forbidden Games; Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell in 1954; and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi from director Hiroshi Inagaki. 1953 was the only year not to see an award handed out.

For the 1956 Academy Awards, the Academy chose to create a brand new category for foreign language films, establishing a limit of one submission per country. These were viewed and a list of five nominees were announced. That first year, the producer of the film was cited along with the country of origin, but the producers’ names would be dropped from subsequent announcements. That first competitive winner was Federico Fellini’s La Strada, the first of his four films to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, all of which won the Oscar.

Unfortunately, the film directors, who accept the awards at the Oscars, don’t get to take them home (unless their country of origin permits them). The Awards are presented to the director, but in recognition of the country’s achievement, thus the director is not considered an Oscar winner as a result and their name does not appear in the records as being an Oscar winner, nor is it inscribed on the Oscar’s plate. When I speak of directors, it may sound like I’m saying they won, but it is merely their film that won.

Excluding the first eight winners, none of whom competed for the prize directly, six directors have helmed four nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Andrzej Wadjda, Ettore Scola (who shared directing credit on Viva Italia! nominated in 1978), Federico Fellini, Istvan Szabo, Jose Luis Garci, and Mario Monicelli (sharing the Viva Italia! directing credit in 1978 with Scola).

Below is list of all directors who’ve directed more than one Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (in alphabetical order). This list includes 52 directors and their nominations account for 130 out of the category’s total 308 nominations.

4 nominations

Federico Fellini
José Luis Garci
Mario Monicelli
Ettore Scola
István Szabó
Andrzej Wajda

3 Nominations

Denys Arcand
Ingmar Bergman
Rachid Bouchareb
Luis Buñuel
Vittorio De Sica
Akira Kurosawa
Ang Lee
Nikita Mikhalkov
Moshé Mizrahi
Carlos Saura
Jan Troell
François Truffaut
Bo Widerberg
Yimou Zhang

2 Nominations

Hany Abu-Assad
Pedro Almodóvar
Francisco Rovira Beleta
Susanne Bier
Sergei Bodrov
Juan José Campanella
Joseph Cedar
Gérard Corbiau
Jaime de Armiñán
Zoltán Fábri
Asghar Farhadi
Milos Forman
Vasilis Georgiadis
Michael Haneke
Agnieszka Holland
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Mihalis Kakogiannis
Ephraim Kishon
Claude Lelouch
Caroline Link
Miguel Littin
Jirí Menzel
Noboru Nakamura
Aleksandar Petrovic
Gillo Pontecorvo
Fons Rademakers
Dino Risi
Stanislav Rostotskiy
Maximilian Schell
Jan Sverák
Giuseppe Tornatore
Régis Wargnier

On the winning end, 69 films, including honorary awards, have taken home the prize for Best Foreign Language Film. Topping that list are Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, both of whose films won four prizes. While De Sica picked up two of those as honorary citations, Fellini won all four of his in competition with other directors, giving him a strong claim to the most honored. Ingmar Bergman received three trophies, all of them in competitive races. Meanwhile, three other directors have managed to see their films take home two awards: Akira Kurosawa, one of which was an honorary citation; Rene Clement with one competitive and one honorary award; and Asghar Farhadi, who became only the fourth director to win two or more Oscars in direct competition, an accomplishment he made just this past year.

Women directors represent a much larger portion of the Foreign Language Film nominees than is typical for the Academy. The Best Director Oscar nominees have included only four women to date: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, also a Best Foreign Language Film nominee in 1976; Jane Campion in 1993 for The Piano; Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003; and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, the first woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Director. Three women have seen two of their films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film: Susanne Bier (2006 and 2010), Agnieszka Holland (1985 and 2011), and Caroline Link (1997 and 2002). Link was the first woman to accomplish this particular feat.

Below is a list of women who have had films nominated for Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. There are 19 female directors on this list representing 22 Oscar nominations. That’s a 7.21% ratio of women directors to men. Although Lina Wertmuller was the first woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, her film was the second helmed by a woman to get a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. The first was Astrid Henning-Jensen’s Danish film Paw in 1959, the fourth year the category was presented in competition.

Female Directors with Best Foreign Language Film Nominations

Maren Ade
María Luisa Bemberg
Susanne Bier (x2)
Cristina Comencini
Nana Dzhordzhadze
Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Marleen Gorris
Astrid Henning-Jensen
Agnieszka Holland (x2)
Agnès Jaoui
Diane Kurys
Caroline Link (x2)
Claudia Llosa
Deepa Mehta
Mira Nair
Berit Nesheim
Coline Serreau
Paula van der Oest
Lina Wertmüller

Of these 19 women, only three have seen their films win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The first was Marleen Gorris who saw her film from The Netherlands, Antonia’s Line, win in 1995. The second was in 2002 when Caroline Link’s German film Nowhere in Africa took the Oscar. The third went to Susanne Bier in 2010 for In a Better World from Denmark.

In terms of national representation, France is the most nominated with 37 formal nominations, or 12.1% of all nominations in the category. Following a bit behind is Italy with 28 nominations, 9.2% of the total. The top ten is rounded out by Spain with 19; Sweden with 15; Denmark and Japan with 12 each; Germany, Israel, and Poland with 11 each; and tied for 10th place, Hungary and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with 9 nominations apiece.

Reversing the top two on the nominations list, Italy represents 14 wins (including three honorary Oscars) at the Oscars while France has a mere 11 (including two honorary). This accounts for 20.3% and 15.9% of wins in this category for each nation. Following far behind in a tie for third place are Japan and Spain with four wins apiece. It should be noted that three of Japan’s four wins were honorary Oscars, the fourth coming 53 years later in 2008 for Departures. Four nations have received three Oscars each: Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

One of the complaints film enthusiasts have had over the years is the lack of recognition for non-European cinema. While Japan was a huge contributor to world Cinema at the time the awards were created, other nations weren’t given as strong a standing at the Academy. Of the 305 nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, 209 or 66.8% of the nominations have gone to European nations. Asia holds 61 of the nominations resulting in 19.5% of citations (this includes Russia and the USSR even though they both could be considered European because of the location of their capital of Moscow). North America accounts for 18 nominations (5.8%) while South America has 15 (4.8%). Africa has received a scant 9 nominations (2.9%) while Australia and the rest of Oceania have only one, which Australia received just this past year (Tanna).

th America (2, 2.9%), and North America (1, 1.4%). In the last two decades, the representation hasn’t improved with only four winners coming from non-European nations).

As you might have noted, I am referring to USSR and Russia separately, as am I referring to Germany, East Germany, and West Germany separately. There’s a historical and geographical reason for this. The only other nations I refer to separately are the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia and its former states. What’s interesting is that all of the German counterparts (united, and separated East-West) have earned Oscar nominations. This isn’t true of the broken-up Czechoslovkia and USSR. Czechoslovika and the Czech Republic have been nominated, but Slovakia, to date, has not. Of the former Soviet Republics that were a part of the USSR, Russia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan have been nominated, but the myriad others have not. For Yugoslavia, of the segments of that nation that splintered off, only Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia have secured nominations.

Before I wrap up this post, there’s one other set of data that I think needs some examination, namely directorial representation. When you think of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawwa is the one name that gets the most attention even if there were many other prominent figures in that nation’s cinematic legacy. Ingmar Bergman isn’t the only face of Swedish cinema. The same can be said of Federico Fellini of Italy. What’s most fascinating is how these figures as well as the other directors whose films were submitted for and nominated by the Academy stand in comparison to their national totals.

On the nominations side, of the 52 directors whose films have received two or more nominations, the most representative of their nation in terms of Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations, with 100% representation each: Ang Lee holds all three of Taiwan’s Oscar nominations; Zhang Yimou received both of China’s nominations and he picked up a third nomination for Hong Kong, though his was one of that nation’s two; and Hany Abu-Assad is Palestine’s lone director, with two citations. Others with greater than 50% representation: Rachid Bouchareb holds 3 of Algeria’s 5 Oscar nominations; Nikita Mikhalkov received 3 of the 6 nominations Russia has received; and Asghar Farhadi can claim 2 nominations for Iran out of their total 3.

As noted above with Zhang’s two-nation representation, eleven other directors have had films nominated representing different countries. Ettore Scola holds 3 of Italy’s nominations and 1 of Algeria’s; Moshe Mizrahi gave Isreal 2 of its nominations and picked up a third for France; Akira Kurosawa, in addition to his honorary Oscar, got nominations for both homeland Japan and for the USSR; Carlos Saura has 2 for Spain and 1 for Argentina; Luis Bunuel represented Spain twice and France once; Representing both Kazakhstan and Russia once apiece is director Sergei Bodrov; Michael Haneke’s films have been nominated for Germany and Austria, one apiece; Oscar-winning actor Maximilian Schell gave Switzerland 1 film nomination and West Germany 1; Jan Sverak is the only director to send films to the Oscars both before and after his nation broke up, thus he gave Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic one nomination each; Mexico and Nicaragua are represented once each thanks to Miguel Littin’s filmography; and the lone woman on this list, Agnieszka Holland, represented both Poland and West Germany.

With only six directors to have won more than one Oscar, the differences between them in terms of country representation are extreme. On the low end, you have Federico Fellini and Vittoria De Sica with four wins each, both directors for Italy. That’s 28.57% for each, though combined they represent 57.14% of Italy’s 14 Oscars. Two directors sit at the extreme other end of the representation spectrum, both claiming 100% of their nations’ Oscar wins. As referenced above, Asghar Farhadi has won two Oscars for Iran, both of which are that country’s only Oscars. Just above him is Ingmar Bergman with three wins, all for Sweden, and the only ones the nation ever received.

That leaves two directors: Akira Kurosawa and Rene Clement. These directors, as you may have read above in the case of Kurosawa, represented multiple nations at the Oscars. Kurosawa won his honorary Oscar for Japan (Rashomon), but his competitive Oscar was given to him for his film for the USSR, Dersu Uzala. Clement on the other hand got both of his awards as honorary Oscars, one for Italy (The Walls of Malapaga, though this was ostensibly a join Italian-French production) and one for France (Forbidden Games).

Next month, we’ll take a look at how foreign language films perform outside the Best Foreign Language Film category and also discuss the once-common, but now forbidden, occurrences where a film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film one year and nominated at the Oscars in a completely different year. That and much more in Part 2 in June.


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  1. This was great. Nice work… thanks for this post. May I suggest to include captions for The images?

    All in all, a most enjoyed reading.

    1. Thanks. I have the ability to add captions, but not sure I can style them to look OK in this backdrop. They are difficult to see/read when I do use them.

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