'A Better Life's' Demian Bichir: Time for his moment in Oscar spotlight
In the fabled old days of showbiz, Hollywood was America’s great melting pot, a land of opportunity for generations of expatriate actors and filmmakers, including Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. The very first best lead actor Oscar went to the German actor Emil Jannings in 1929 for “The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh.” German-born actress Luise Rainer won lead actress for 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld” and 1937’s “The Good Earth.”
But today, if you want to win the biggest acting awards, you’d better come from a country where English is the primary language. In the last 50 years, only one best lead actor winner — Italy’s Roberto Benigni in 1999— has hailed from a non-English-speaking country. The same goes for the best lead actress statuette, which has only gone to only one actress from a non-English-speaking country — France’s Marion Cotillard in 2007 — in the last 50 years.
Why am I so worked up about this? Because if there is any justice in Award Land, the 2011 Oscar for lead actor Oscar for 2011 should go to the terrific Mexican actor Demián Bichir, who gives what I’d argue is the year’s best performance in the Chris Weitz-directed film “A Better Life.”
A star in his native country, Bichir earned a ton of accolades for his role as a gardener in East L.A. trying to keep his son from falling under the sway of the local gangs. But Bichir, who speaks both English and Spanish in the film, is almost nowhere to be seen on the current prediction lists from the leading Oscar fortunetellers.
Part of this is understandable. Made on a shoestring budget by Summit Entertainment as gratitude to Weitz for directing the box-office smash “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” “A Better Life” earned just $1.8 million at the box office, hurting its chances for any big award buzz. But now that the film is available on DVD, it’s worth taking the time to see it.
Bichir gives a soulful, remarkably understated performance, his serene, expressive face quietly conveying his emotions. In the film, Bichir’s character, Carlos, keeps a low profile, wary of bumping into any trouble. As an illegal immigrant, Carlos is always one false step away from deportation. Weitz says that Bichir stayed in character even away from the set, driving to work in a battered white pickup truck he bought on impulse from a man he saw at a red light.
After watching Bichir in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” in which the actor played Fidel Castro, Weitz couldn’t imagine anyone else for “A Better Life.” To get to know the actor, Weitz had Bichir read for one of the vampire roles in “New Moon.” “I never really wanted to cast him in ‘New Moon,’ it was just a way to spend more time with him,” Weitz told me. “As far as I was concerned, no one else was going to play the character in ‘A Better Life.’”
For Weitz, the best part of Bichir’s performance is its stoicism. “It’s a counterintuitive role for a leading man, since he’s playing someone who doesn’t want to be noticed,” the director says. “But because of his political circumstances, he needs to remain invisible. He represents the people the Republican candidates for president are defaming — hard-working, religious, family-oriented people who just want a better life.”
An outspoken opponent of conservatives who advocate building bigger barriers to stop illegal immigration, Weitz is also critical of the ghettoization of Oscar-worthy films with foreign-born actors. “In American films, when we deal with ethnic subjects, the film usually has an Anglo proxy — a white person trying to help the situation. The films eventually become about the proxies, so it’s the American actors who traditionally get nominated.”
Every so often, the academy recognizes foreign-born actors operating at the top of their game; Weitz cites the recent supporting actor victories for Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” and Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.” But the lead acting Oscars are the big enchilada. And outside of the occasional notice for their foreign-language films, it’s rare for actors from non-English-speaking countries to be cast in much-coveted leading roles. But after Bichir got the opportunity, he knocked it out of the park. Now the ball is in the academy’s court: It’s time to give Bichir a long overdue moment in the spotlight.
Photo: Demian Bichir in a scene from "A Better Life." Credit: Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment