Oscars: The history of non-Americans winning Hollywood's biggest acting award
Although most Best Actor and Actress Oscars have since generally been awarded to US-born performers, there’s been a long tradition in Hollywood of giving out Academy Awards indiscriminately when it comes to nationality.
Born Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz, German-born actor Emil Jannings was famously the first recipient of the best actor prize at the very first Academy Awards in 1929.
Janning won the Oscar for his role in the 1928 film The Last Command, while American-born Janet Gaynor won the best female lead prize for three separate pictures: Street Angel, 7th Heaven and Sunrise.
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Unsurprisingly, given that it shares the same language as the host country, Britain has remained at the top of the leaderboard of international winners with no less than 43 wins, three of them won by Daniel Day-Lewis, for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln.
The 1934 ceremony saw the first non-North American winner in the female category, when French actor Claudette Colbert won the coveted prize for her role in It Happened One Night.
British-born star Vivien Leigh triumphed in the category twice: for her Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and for her Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Meanwhile another Brit, Audrey Hepburn, won for Roman Holiday in 1953.
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While Colbert might have been the first non-American female winner, it took until 1955 for a second non-English speaking female winner, when Italian actor Anna Magnani won for her role in Hal Kanter’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
Magnani had gained a huge following thanks to her starring role in a number of Roberto Rossellini’s acclaimed Italian neorealist films such as Volcano, Rome, Open City and L'Amore: The Human Voice and The Miracle.
Some might say that the popularity of the Italian neorealist wave was the inspiration for the increase in Academy Award nominations for non-English speaking nations during the 1960s.
But while the likes of Melina Mercouri (Greece), Marcello Mastroianni (Italy), Anouk Aimée (France) and Ida Kamińska (Poland) were rightly nominated, Italian superstar Sophia Loren was the only foreign winner during those years.
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In contrast, the Brits once again fared better with wins from Julie Christie, Dame Julie Andrews, Dame Maggie Smith and Elizabeth Taylor, and this run of British victories would extend into the 1970s: the acclaimed Shakespearean actor Glenda Jackson would win twice, for her roles in Ken Russell’s Women in Love and Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class, while Peter Finch won (posthumously) for Network.
The very end of the 80s saw the first win from Daniel Day-Lewis, for My Left Foot, while the 90s saw wins from Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush, British star Jeremy Irons and Italian actor Roberto Benigni, who was the very first male actor to win in a non-English speaking role for his part in Life is Beautiful, a critically acclaimed Italian production he wrote, directed and starred in.
But widespread recognition for international acting talent at the Oscars only truly increased in the early 21st century. Marion Cotillard from France won the big acting prize for her role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, while Penélope Cruz and Christoph Waltz would triumph in the best supporting actress and actor categories for, respectively, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Elsewhere, from Australia, Russell Crowe won for Gladiator (2000) and five years later Cate Blanchett scored her first of two Oscars for her part in The Aviator.
Meanwhile, after Kate Winslet took the Best Actress gong for The Reader in 2008, the next decade ushered in a real British invasion of Hollywood cinema: Daniel Day-Lewis (for Lincoln, his third Oscar win), Colin Firth, Eddie Redmayne and Gary Oldman.
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But it was Jean Dujardin who made history in 2012 by becoming the first Frenchman to win as Best Actor, for his role in Michel Hazanavicius’ silent French black and white film The Artist. The film also won Best Picture that same year.
In recent years there have been Oscar wins for Brits – for Olivia Colman (The Favourite in 2018) and for Sir Anthony Hopkins for his brilliant depiction of a man suffering from dementia (The Father in 2021).
But what of this year? 2022 boasts another promising crop of nominees, including Best Actor and Actress inclusions for Spain’s real-life couple Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) and Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), 14 years after Bardem won Best Actor for his contribution to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.
As for the Brits, both Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Garfield will be eyeing up the big prize in the Best Actor category, while Olivia Colman could make it two wins as Best Actress with her nomination for The Lost Daughter.
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