Oh, What a Grand Illusion Separated at Birth

5 Jun

Quick! What was the first foreign language film ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture? If you guessed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Life is Beautiful (1998), go to the back of the class. Oh sure, those movies were major contenders in that they both broke the record for number of nominations doled to foreign language films, what with Life is Beautiful‘s record-breaking 7 nominations bested by Crouching Tiger‘s 10 nominations only two years later; however, before them, there were, among a few scant others, a couple of Swedish entries in the early ’70s: Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1972), followed by Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), the latter of which was distributed in this country by of all people, Roger Corman and his New World Pictures. A stretch of the imagination, that one, given Corman’s usual offerings of cheap thrills squarely aimed at the drive-thru crowd, such as about a half-dozen flicks with the word “nurses” in the titles, Angie Dickinson’s immortal sexy crime sage Big Bad Mama (1974), and Ron Howard’s early car chase/crash spectacles, Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and Eat My Dust (1976).

^ French actor Pierre Fresnay in Jean Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion, the first ever foreign language film to compete for Oscar’s Best Picture award.

As I mentioned in my article on Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, 1969’s Z was the first so-called foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director,  but to find the first ever foreign language film to compete for Oscar’s top prize, one has to go all the way back to 1937’s Grand Illusion (aka La grand illusion), directed by Jean Renoir (which was nominated in 1939 for the 1938 Best Picture award).  Renoir’s classic is not only foreign, it’s also multi-lingual as it is presented in French,  German, and English; the setting is WWI, but the message is anti-war, which is fine by me. It’s often hailed as one of the finest movies ever made, certainly one of the finest anti-war movies ever made. No less a master than Orson Welles once said, “If I had only one film in the world to save, it would be Grand Illusion.”  Guess what? This legendary film is about to be restored and re-released into theatres to mark its 75th anniversary. I can’t wait!

^ Jean Dujardin in The Artist, a silent French film with English subtitles, set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies, that won the recent Best Picture Oscar as well as a golden statuette for its leading man. Am I the only person startled by the resemblance between Dujardin and Pierre Fresnay? Look at the chin, the cheekbones, even something vaguely similar in the eyes.

You know what else? When I saw the trailer for Grand Illusion this afternoon, I was struck–repeatedly–by the resemblance between one of the actors, Pierre Fresnay, and recent Best Actor Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (of The Artist, the French produced silent film set in Hollywood during the end of the silent era; the subtitles are in English).  What do you think? Sure the films were released more than 70 years apart, but the actors positively appear to have been separated at birth. I think the resemblance still holds even sans mustache…and the mustaches aren’t even an exact match.

Okay, while we’re on this foreign film trivia binge, here are a few more: First non-American movie to compete for Best Picture? England’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1932/33), which also earned a Best Actor award for star Charles Laughton.  First non-American movie to actually win Best Picture? Another British import: Laurence Olivier’s self-directed production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1948), which again, also captured Best Actor though Olivier lost the Best Director prize to John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). First foreign language film to win any Oscars?  Switzerland’s Marie-Louise, presented in French, which won Best Original Screenplay (1946). First movie to receive an honorary award for “Best Foreign Film”? Italy’s Shoe-Shine (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1947). First movie to win Best Foreign Language as an annual competitive Oscar? Fellini’s La Strada (1954). First movie to both win an honorary Foreign Film award and a regular competitive Oscar? Japan’s Gate of Hell (1954). Yes, the title leaves much to be desired–it sounds like one of today’s multitudinous zombie flicks–but this is a visually sumptuous medieval epic–directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, not Akira Kurosawa–that blew Michael and me away several years ago when we picked it up at Premiere Video. What are you waiting for, the next Transit of Venus? Anyway, besides being named the year’s Best Foreign Film, Gate of Hell also took home the Oscar for Best Color Costume Design (Sanzo Wada) over such likely candidates as the fab remake of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland. Are you still here? Why aren’t you at Premiere Video already?

^ Not only did Tienosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell earn an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, in addition to a competitive Oscar for its color costume design by Sanzo Wada, it also won “Grand Prize of the Festival” at the 1954 Cannes Film fest. If you get a chance to see this movie, do yourself a favor and turn yourself over to the experience.

By the way, backing up to Renoir and Grand Illusion. The filmmaker is, yes, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He, the younger, is also famous for The Name of the Game, among many others. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy at the 1974/75 ceremonies. Btw: Grand Illusion should hit Dallas, in an exclusive engagement, this weekend (Friday, June 8).

Thanks for your consideration…

Grand Illusion re-release webpage:


Grand Illusion at the Internet Movie Database:


Gate of Hell at the Internet Movie Database:


Bona, Damien. Inside Oscar 2. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.

Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More Than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Wiley Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition.  New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.


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