In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, a dozen of the 44 performers nominated for their work in languages other than English have won. The first to be nominated was “Johnny Belinda” star Jane Wyman who delivered her heartbreaking performance in American Sign Language. She won Best Actress in 1949. Thirteen years later, Sophia Loren won this same award for her work in Italian in “Two Women.”
That screen legend is in contention again this year for her searing portrayal in Italian of a Holocaust survivor who takes care of the children of streetwalkers in “The Life Ahead.” This Netflix drama was directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. He and Ugo Chiti adapted Romain Gary’s 1975 novel “The Life Before Us,” which was also the source of the Oscar-winning 1978 French drama “Madame Rosa,” starring Simone Signoret.
After Loren made Oscar history, there have been two more winners for performances in Italian: Robert De Niro for “The Godfather Part II” (1975) in Best Supporting Actor; and Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful” (1999) in Best Actor. That film also won Best Foreign Language Film, which was presented by Loren.
Four more performers have followed Wyman and won for roles mostly or solely in sign language. Two more also used American Sign Language: Patty Duke for “The Miracle Worker” (1963) in Best Supporting Actress; and Marlee Matlin for “Children of a Lesser God” (1987) in Best Actress. The other two used British Sign Language: John Mills for “Ryan’s Daughter”(1971) in Best Supporting Actor and Holly Hunter for “The Piano” (1994) in Best Actress
Benicio del Toro won Best Supporting Actor in 2001 for his performance in Spanish in “Traffic”; Penelope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for her English and Spanish-language performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
Marion Cotillard won Best Actress in 2008 for her French-language portrayal of chanteuse Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”
And polyglot Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for his role in “Inglourious Basterds” that required him to speak in German, French, Italian and English.
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