The 25 Greatest Performances by English Speaking Actors in Non-English Speaking Films
It’s a proven and well known fact that Hollywood and English speaking cinema in general attracts actors, directors and screenwriters alike. It’s like a giant honey pot that draws in the best of what the rest of the world has to offer. Everybody comes to this world in order to „make it” and become successful.
Directors and screenwriters usually have to tone down their style for the English-speaking audience and actors have to take parts that are race related – at least in the beginning, until they get the accent right. But what happens when it’s the other way around? What happens when English speaking actors take roles in world cinema films?
In the 60’s and 70’s this was a common practice as most European films at the time were dubbed so the native tongue didn’t really matter. Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Robert De Niro, Terence Stamp and many more delivered great performances in Italian and French films, mostly. For them it was a way to showcase their great talent outside the Hollywood rat race and for the European directors, that got to work with them, it was a sure way to secure funding for the film.
Nowadays American and English actors that appear in “foreign” productions are labeled as risk-takers, elitists, snobs etc. Since voice dubbing is a thing of the past most of them are required to speak the language that the film is made in or they are given English characters that suit the story. Fewer and fewer actors do it but when they do it still turns out great.
Of course there is a flip side to this; Burt Lancaster, for example, was never a box office hit again after making the transition to European art films and actors like Vincent Gallo or Viggo Mortensen are considered snobs after making the same choices. But for movie fans there is nothing more refreshing and exciting that watching an actor step out of his comfort zone and show the world what he is really made of. Some of the best performances in world cinema are done by American and English actors.
Here are some of the performances (25 in number) of English speaking actors in non-English speaking films that blew us away over the years and made us give standing ovations in front of the silver screen or the TV set. The list is chronologically.
1. Anthony Quinn & Richard Basehart in “La Strada” (Federico Fellini, 1954)
The Film: “La Strada” is a realist fairytale of unrequited love and innocence lost. It follows the life of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), a care free girl who is sold by her mother to a traveling showman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Young and naive Gelsomina hopes that this change in her life will reward her with love and fame. Unfortunately she seeks love in the brutish strongman Zampano who only sees her as a way to make money.
That is until another showman, simply known as the fool (Richard Basehart), enters their life. It is then that Zampano realizes that something might go on in his heart at the sight of the helpless Gelsomina – still, those feelings hardly surface. Drawing influences from Chaplin (Gelsomina’s persona) and the world of the circus (which Fellini loved so much) “La Strada” still holds up as a masterpiece that goes straight to the heart of the viewer.
The Performance: Of course Anthony Quinn is magnificent as the unlikely love interest of Gelsomina – the ignorant, drunken brute whose sole purpose is survival. The mixture of madness, sadness and happiness (that can be found in all of Anthony Quinn’s performances) is there but only a master like Fellini could have managed to bring out other aspects of the actor’s range that many may have been unaware of.
The few moments that Zampano shows compassion are priceless and as regret starts to take over the character, Anthony Quinn really starts to shine in this Italian classic. And then there is Richard Basehart. A lesser known actor than Anthony Quinn but, nonetheless, an actor who manages to live up to the expectations of a Fellini film. Richard Basehart shines as the fool, a chaplinian character, who lives his life as one big show. Basehart makes his character’s easy going nature look effortless.
Fellini liked Basehart so much that he would go on to cast him in his next film “Il Bidone”. Quinn and Basehart were universally praised as the brute and the fool that compete for the better man. Both flawed, both perfect, both seeking happiness in life, each in his own manner.
2. Steve Cochran in “Il Grido” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957)
The Film: In the typical Antonioni fashion “Il Grido” follows the life of an aimless character who drifts through life without really understanding it. This is before his famous bourgeois trilogy so no Monica Vitti in this film. Considered his first great film “Il Grido” touches many subjects that will be revisited by Antonioni in the glory years of his career: alienation, depression, ennui, boredom with modern life.
After his mistress of seven years announces him that her husband is dead but, in spite of this, she will not marry him, Aldo (Steve Cochran) begins a journey without a destination in order to forget and escape from his own life. He takes his baby daughter with him. Aldo cannot get over the fact that his life is a failure and descents into an emotional tail spin that prevents him from making good choices.
Although some great opportunities of starting his life all over again are presented to him along the way (a foreman that wants to take him on a job to South America, a lonely widow who offers him comfort, a home and a living), Aldo runs away from it all seeing no point in carrying on his life without his mistress and daughter.
The Performance: Who would have thought that cowboy Steve Cochran would be the perfect lead for an Antonioni film? Certainly not anyone that is familiar with the work of the two artists. Cochran comes from a working class background, having been slowly working his way up the value scale, while Antonioni comes from the intellectual side of town, having always been associated with the elites.
In Hollywood Cochran has made cowboy and gangster pictures being a perfect sidekick to stars like James Cagney. Throughout his entire career Antonioni made intellectual art-house films that, too many, seem too pretentious. In spite all of this Steve Cochran delivers what may be the performance of his lifetime as the irrational Aldo. There is no real explanation for Aldo’s behavior and Cochran does a great job in creating that ambiguity that makes a character very hard to read.
3. Jack Palance in “Le Mepris” (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
The Film: This film is Godard’s only big budget production. After establishing himself as a brilliant director with his debut film “A Bout de Souffle” (which was a low budget film), Godard was curious as to working on a film with proper finance and budget (after the completion of the film he would go on to declare his complete dissatisfaction with this kind of work). And so he got to work on this adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel “A Ghost At Noon”.
With Carlo Ponti on as producer Godard got international superstar Brigitte Bardot as his female lead and the movie was on its way. “Le Mepris” tells the story of an ambitious screenwriter named Paul (Michel Piccoli) who is hired to rewrite the script of a Fritz Lang film interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. Paralleling with Ulysses’s life and journey, the screenwriter is caught between his artistic expression and the commercial opportunity that could be the big break he’s been waiting for.
In the process of dealing with his moral dilemma Paul deliberately leaves his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) alone with the movie’s American producer, an ignorant money hungry archetype by the name of Jeremy Prokosch. Godard wanted an American actor for this part; not just any actor but someone who just screams Hollywood the minute you see him.
After many long discussions, the French director convinced Hollywood legend Jack Palance to take the part which suited him like a glove. The love triangle in “Le Mepris” is not your usual ordeal but one created from reluctance and contempt.
The Performance: At one point, early in the movie, Palance’s character says: “I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel – exactly”. This sums up perfectly not only Jack Palance’s character in the film but the actor’s persona in general. And this is exactly what Godard wanted from the character: arrogance and illusion of immortality.
Coming from a cowboy movie background Jack Palance brings his all American persona to a European art film creating the disorder that is needed to shake things up. Palance is loud, aggressive, and rude – exactly the kind of behavior you would expect from a character like that. And it’s all under the close supervision of Jean-Luc Godard. Yet another unlikely pairing of director and actor that not only works but remains one of the best in cinema history.
4. Burt Lancaster in “Il Gattopardo” (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
The Film: Visconti’s most ambitious film and his first breakaway from Italian neorealism cinema (a movement he helped to create), “Il Gattopardo” will always be remembered as a world masterpiece and just may be Alain Delon’s, Burt Lancaster’s and Claudia Cardinale’s finest performances.
The movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. From the first frame to the very last, the film leaves a huge impression on the viewer with its lavish decors and costumes, epic battle scenes and greatly detailed dance scenes. It deals with the changing of the political scenery in Sicily at the end of the 19th century and how these changes are perceived by the members of the aristocracy.
Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) seems to accept the changing times with grace but is, nonetheless, sometimes overwhelmed by the nostalgia of the old days. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) is the one that adapts the best – first fighting for Garibaldi then quickly switching sides. Tancredi seeks a wealthy wife in order to save his family’s estate and create a name for himself in Sicilian politics. Visconti doesn’t judge his characters but presents them with their virtues and flaws in an equal manner.
The Performance: Visconti was totally against casting Burt Lancaster as Prince Salina, famously saying “Oh, no! A cowboy!”. Because Lancaster was a bankable star at the time he was cast but Visconti treated him harshly in hope that the American will quit. Not only that this didn’t happen but the two became, and remained, close friends by the end of the shoot.
Lancaster impressed Visconti with the passion and dedication that he put into the role. This passion and dedication goes beyond the screen and can be felt by the audience while watching this terrific film. The sadness and nostalgia of Prince Salina, hidden behind false laughs and noblemen dignity, is perfectly captured by the Hollywood actor.
Lancaster would go on to work with Visconti again in the movie “Conversation Piece”. He would also do a couple of more European films, including “Novecento” and “Atlantic City”. But it is in this film that critics and viewers alike will always praise his performance. The all-American image of the 50’s took a chance by coming to Italy to enter the art house film world but Lancaster never regretted it and neither did the world.
5. Richard Harris in “Il Deserto Rosso” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)
The Film: A film critic once observed that “Il Deserto Rosso” has a typical theme for an Antonioni film starring Monica Vitti: “a beautiful woman looks for love but finds sex”. In a broader sense this pretty much explains Antonioni’s films about the boredom of the bourgeois done in early 60’s. “Il Deserto Rosso” is seen as a continuation of the alienation trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) thus making it a tetralogy.
It deals with the same themes as the first three; one might say that it deepens the feeling of alienation, frustration and chronic boredom with its use of intense colors. This is Antonioni’s first color film and it shows; he really wanted to make an artistic statement out of this fact. He famously had the natural landscape painted bright green and the factory smoke tinted yellow.
The major theme of the film is the alienation of man and the rapid dissapearing of nature’s beauty because of greed and industrialization. The phrase quoted earlier also applies to the plot of this film on simpler terms. The lead role is played, of course, by Monica Vitti and for the male lead role we have British bad boy Richard Harris; a quiet, mysterious version of himself perfectly fitting the film’s atmosphere. The two play wonderfully opposite each other as the dysfunctional couple they never got to be.
The Performance: Richard Harris is mostly known for his bad boy persona (both on and off the screen) and the films he will probably be most remembered for (for the first half of his career) are the kitchen sink realism angry British films of the 60’s such as “This Sporting Life”.
An Antonioni film seems like an odd choice for him but it works. The two famously clashed on the set of this film, forcing Harris to leave the production before its completion – a stunt double filmed from behind was used for the remaining shots.
But, strange enough, the tension between him and the director helped as it’s exactly the kind of tension his character must convey. He plays business man Corrado Zeller, a lonely but aggressive man who hopes that the love of Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is exactly the remedy for his anxiety and sense of alienation. Corrado is sweet but sometimes harsh, a gentleman but sometimes a brute. Corrado is Richard Harris.
6. Terence Stamp in “Teorema” (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)
The Film: A strange visitor with an angelic figure (Terence Stamp) arrives in Milan where he pays a visit to your average bourgeois Italian family. The film is structured like a mathematical formula. Every member of the family (the father, the mother, the son, the daughter and the maid) interacts with this strange visitor by a having a small conversation (more of a confession as the visitor hardly speaks) which ultimately ends with a sexual encounter.
The visitor seduces every one of them and then leaves inexplicably. Before he leaves every member of the family expresses their sadness through a confession, in the same formula as before. After his leave the visitor gains mythical proportions as each of member of the family struggles to fill the void of his absence by breaking out of the trappings of their bourgeois life.
The father strips himself of all material effects giving his factory and his fortunes to his workers, the mother begins to seek sexual encounters with young men, the son leaves home to become an artist, the daughter sinks into a catatonic state and the maid returns to her home village where she becomes a messianic healer (curing the illnesses of everyone who touches her) and beings to fast and levitate.
The screenplay for the film was written by Pasolini as shootings progressed so none of the actors knew what the story was about. Pasolini also wrote a book of the same name during the filming of “Teorema”; unfortunately the book doesn’t explain a lot more than the film.
The Performance: Terence Stamp said in an interview that he didn’t receive any money for making this film and that he never really understood what the film was about because Pasolini had them read nonsense dialogue in English and then, in post-production, he dubbed their dialogue in Italian in order to say what he wanted to say. But the truth is that Stamp’s character has very little dialogue to begin with so it doesn’t really matter. His character is supposed to be enigmatic and almost messianic.
It’s all about the expression on his face, the movement and the stillness. The suave look of Terence Stamp as a young man is perfect for what Pasolini wanted for this character. Stamp does his acting job very well and gives this movie exactly the charisma it needs.
7. Richard Crenna in “Un Flic” (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)
The Film: “Un Flic” (translated as “A Cop”) is Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film and his third collaboration with Alain Delon. In the previous films they did together (“Le Samourai” and “Le Cercle Rouge”) Delon played the role of the criminal. In this film he plays the cop, Edouard, trying to catch a gang of bank robbers. He also tried to hold on to his girlfriend Cahty (Catherine Deneuve), whom he shares with his friend Simon (Richard Crenna), a nightclub owner.
Edouard sees an opportunity to eliminate his competition for the love of Cathy when he finds out that his friend Simon might be involved in the series of bank robberies he is investigating. Like all Melville films “Un Flic” is slow with little dialogue, concentrating on repetitive moves and formulas. The film is probably best known for the elaborate heist scene in which no word is spoken or music heard.
The Performance: Richard Crenna will probably be best remembered as John Rambo’s mentor in the Rambo franchise. But few people knew that he was actually fluent in French and that his lines in this film are not dubbed.
Crenna plays the shy but devious nightclub owner very well. When he is first introduced to the audience you would never paint him as a skillful bank robber and a possessive lover. But he is all those things and as the film unveils you come to realize it. Richard Crenna is all those things (in this movie) but most importantly he is a great, great actor.
8. Robert De Niro, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland and Sterling Hayden in “Novecento” (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976)
The Film: Running over 5 hours “Novecento” is Bertloucci’s lovechild. Originally conceived as television miniseries, Bertolucci changed his mind after realizing that the political message of this film is far too important not to be shared on the silver screen. With a cast, budget and scenery of epic proportions this film takes us through the life of two men from the beginning to the end.
At the turn of the 20th century two boys are born in the idyllic Italian countryside. One is born in a noblemen family and the other in a peasant family. Although childhood friends their lives shape up to be very different. When the communist revolution comes the Italy Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), the peasant boy, joins the movement believing it is the poor man’s turn to rule. Alfredo (Robert De Niro), the noblemen boy, has enjoyed a very care free life so far but is now face with poverty as his lands are taken away by the communists and his wealth is nationalized.
The film follows the life of the boys becoming men becoming old men. Along the way (317 minutes) we meet very different characters ranging from the skeptical grandfather of Olmo (played brilliantly by Sterling Hayden) to the sadistic fascist leader Attila (Donald Sutherland). “Novecento” requires all of the audience’s patience but fully rewards every minute dedicated to it with truly great cinema.
The Performances: “Novecento” has an Italian, American and French cast and Bertolucci handles all of them very good. There are two versions: one in Italian, one in English. De Niro is great as the laid back rich young man who seems to have his future all worked out. He plays a great contrast to Depardieu’s character, a frustrated peasant who must fight to survive.
As the film progresses and the balance of power is shifted Alfredo begins to find out what real life is and the desperation in his eyes and gestures floods the screen. Burt Lancaster plays the grandfather of Alfredo, a firm but fair landowner who cannot cope with the changes in his life (communism and old age).
Lancaster has the figure and the voice to play just such a character. Donald Sutherland is terrific as the sadistic fascist leader Atilla. Reportedly Sutherland got very upset when he saw his villainous performance on screen and cannot watch the film to this day. His tall figure and his pale evil eyes make him the perfect character you love to hate. You almost fear his presence on screen. However the cherry on the cake is Sterling Hayden.
Hayden plays the sympathetic but skeptical peasant grandfather Leo Dalco. Leo has that peasant wisdom and wit that make him an unforgettable character. When landowner Alfredo suggests that the fact that the boys were born on the same day must mean something Leo says “probably means they’ll die on the same day too” adding that “mine was born first. It’s only natural.
First came the peasants in this world then came the padrone”. Leo is skeptical of all of this joy surrounding the coming of the communists but indulges the young by playing along. The American actors transform this film from an Italian film to a film with an international message.