The 25 Greatest Performances by English Speaking Actors in Non-English Speaking Films

9. Donald Sutherland in “Il Casanova di Federico Fellini” (Federico Fellini, 1976)

Donald Sutherland in “Il Casanova di Federico Fellini”

The Film: The film is called “Federico Fellini’s Casanova” because it represents the director’s view on the life of the infamous 18th century Venetian adventurer. Fellini was not a fan of Casanova and he deliberately wanted to make the character vulgar, obscene and highly unlikeable. This movie is not a romance or a sex comedy but a grotesque tale of sexual abandonment.

The strange situations that Casanova finds himself in, during the course of the film, borrow from the baroque and the absurd leaving the audience disgusted. Playing Casanova is the unrecognizable Donald Sutherland who moves almost like a puppet in Fellini’s film. Fellini’s narrative presents the sexual adventures of Casanova in a very detached fashion choosing not to get sentimentally involved in the debauchery.

The Performance: It surely seems that Sutherland understood the point Fellini was trying to make with this film as his performance is bleak and cold. You would expect a film about sexual adventures in the 18th century to be warm and sentimental but, apart from the very lively scenery and bright colors of the costume, this one is anything but. This is the merit of Federico Fellini and of Donald Sutherland for creating such a character and deceiving the expectations of the popular opinion.


10. Jodie Foster in “Moi, Fleur Bleue” (Eric Le Hung, 1977)

Jodie Foster in “Moi, Fleur Bleue”

The Film: The film of Vietnamese director Eric Le Hung tells the story of a man who hires a private investigator to find a woman, whom he fell in love with a long time ago. The detective finds the woman in a very strange household.

This mysterious beautiful woman lives with her underage teen sister Isabelle (Jodie Foster) who daydreams of having sex for the first time. This film is more about the mood as there is nothing much going on and the characters are not really fully developed. Still Jodie Foster shines as the sex-eager teenager and her wit on the subject is priceless.

The Performance: Jodie Foster is one of the smart actors in Hollywood and that has always worked to her advantage in terms of elevating her performances. She is fluent in French so no dubbing was necessary. It has been said that this film is strictly for Jodie Foster die-hard fans but the truth is it is quite an enjoyable film with a lot of depth to it. Jodie Foster does a very good job in portraying the worries of a teenage virgin girl and her American-type innocence adds more belief to her character.


11. Dennis Hopper in “Der Amerikanische Freund” (Wim Wenders, 1977)

The American Friend (1977)

The Film: “Der Amerikanische Freund” is the art-house movie version of the Tom Ripley novels written by Patricia Highsmith. This is not a thriller or an action film but a slow paced descent into madness. In this film we find Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) living in Hamburg, Germany. He is involved in artwork forgery business.

After he is introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) and learns of his rare blood disease that is slowly killing him, Ripley starts to hatch up a scheme. After convincing him that his disease is evolving very fast he persuades Zimmermann to kill a local gangster thus giving a meaning to his life.

The Performance: Tom Ripley has been played by several actors through the course of time: Alain Delon, Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Barry Pepper etc. But none played him more frightening and convincing than Dennis Hopper. Hopper may not have the boyish charms of some of the other actors – in fact in this film he has a chubby face and greasy long hair covered with a cowboy hat – but his persona brings a menace much needed to the character.

Hopper’s Ripley is a lonely, desperate man who seems to find joy in the misery of others. Hopper’s performance is probably more close to the way the character was written than anyone. No fancy words, no bag of tricks…just the life of an obscure man.


12. Jeremy Irons in “Un Amour De Swann” (Volker Schlondorff, 1984)

Jeremy Irons in “Un Amour De Swann”

The Film: Based on volume one of Marcel Proust’s groundbreaking novel “In Search Of Lost Time”, examines the life of Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons), an eligible and educated bachelor in late 19th century Paris. In his fashionable intellectual circles Swann meets Odette (Ornella Muti) and he immediately falls in love with her. Alas Odette is a courtesan so Swann must pay for her attention.

In spite of Swann’s efforts to persuade Odette to monogamy she sees herself as a free spirit thus socializing and sleeping with other men. Still Swann’s passion cannot be drained so he marries Odette accepting the social stigma of the husband of a courtesan. Few of his friends remain by his side as Swann is consumed by jealousy and hate.

The Performance: Jeremy Irons is brilliant in the role of the jealous lover hopelessly in love with the wrong person. Although Irons can speak French his dialogue is dubbed. His British charisma helps with the making of this great role as it lends a few tricks to the character’s social persona. Only a skillful actor like Irons can turn from happiness to sadness and from jealousy to resignation. This is one of Irons’s earlier movie roles which helped build the successful career that he has today.


13. Peter Falk in “Der Himmel Uber Berlin” (Wim Wenders, 1987)

Peter Falk in “Der Himmel Uber Berlin”

The Film: A carefully crafted love story between an angel and a circus performer fragmented by thoughts of mortality, lust and suicide. Damiel and Cassiel are two angels whose jobs are to observe and listen to the thoughts of human beings. Their mission is to “assemble, testify and preserve” the reality of human behavior.

In order to do this they roam the city of Berlin, unseen and unheard by anyone except children. This is before the fall of the Berlin Wall so war and the separation of man are two major themes of the film. One day Damiel falls in love with Marion, a circus trapeze artist who contemplates suicide. Damiel wishes to become a mortal in order to be with the woman he loves. Also in Berlin is Peter Falk (as himself), who arrives in the city for a movie shooting.

Falk questions his abilities as an actor and seems to be worn down by his busy life and the heritage of Colombo (the TV character that made him famous). It is implied that Falk was also an angel once but has become a mortal in order to experience life. This subplot somehow finds a way to fit perfectly into the story of this truly magnificent film.

The Performance: Although Peter Falk does his lines in English this is still a German film. They say the best character you can ever play is yourself and it’s certainly proven with Peter Falk who does a terrific job in portraying the struggles and doubts of an actor. He even goes into mocking himself with all the Colombo references he inserts in his inner monologues.

Gentle and kind Falk wanders around Berlin thinking of peace, tranquility and the joys that make life worth living. Still, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and does his best in living his life as a normal person.


14. Richard Gere in “Rhapsody in August” (Akira Kurosawa, 1991)

Richard Gere in “Rhapsody in August”

The Film: This is one of Akira Kurosawa’s later films. It’s also one of his smaller films (in comparison to “Ran” or “Kagemusha”). It is a loose adaption of Kyoko Murata’s novella “In The Stew”.

It follows the story of grandma Kane, her children and her grandchildren. Kane’s husband was killed in the bombing of Nagasaki. In spite of all this her grief isn’t shared by her children, who grew up in postwar Japan, and is certainly not shared by her grandchildren, who have all the comfort in the world but they are bored out of their minds.

The four grandchildren find new respect for their grandmother after they visit Nagasaki and the spot their grandfather was killed in. Furthermore and visit from their American uncle Clark (Richard Gere) complicates things as he belongs to the enemy and grandma Kane just cannot accept or live with this.

The Performance: Richard Gere’s Buddhist faith has certainly been helpful in creating this quiet role. Gere plays Clark, the American nephew of grandma Kane, who comes to Japan in order to bring peace within the family and the two nations. Gere’s pacifist nature transpires in this role and the calmness he brings to the table is exactly what Kurosawa needed in his old age.

Gere does his dialogue in English and the Japanese speech he does at the dinner table was memorize phonetically; he refused to be dubbed. Gere was very impressed with the wisdom of his lines and that comes off very strong on the screen.


15. Ben Kingsley in “L’Amore Necessario” (Fabio Carpi, 1991)

Ben Kingsley in “L’Amore Necessario”

The Film: Out of boredom, an aging couple, of a seemingly strange nature, decides to have some fun. Their idea of fun turns out to be that of manipulating and ultimately seducing a young couple of newlyweds. The story takes place in 19th century Europe. A sharp little comedy of lust and sexual awakening with two great leading actors: Ben Kingsley and Marie-Christine Barrault. The tricks they use to manipulate the youngsters range from funny to grotesque giving this little film exactly the quirkiness it needs.

The Performance: Although Kingsley was dubbed his performance in this film remains a very interesting one. Not being afraid to explore sexuality and nudity Kingsley embarks on this journey with no prejudice what so ever. Funny, absurd…whatever you want to call it this is a Ben Kingsley role that you definitely should check out.


16. Peter Coyote in “Kika” (Pedro Almodovar, 1993)

Peter Coyote in “Kika”

The Film: “Kika” is essentially a comedy Almodovar style. It is about the life of young woman named Kika (Veronica Foque) who works in a beauty salon. One day she is offered a job by an American writer named Nicholas (Peter Coyote). The job requires her to make-up the body of Nicholas’s stepson Ramon.

While performing her job she discovers that Ramon is not actually dead but catatonic and that her tenderness somehow brought him back to life. The two fall in love but let’s not forget that this is an Almodovar film; things don’t go on that smoothly. Kika also has an affair with Nicholas and the circumstances of the death of Ramon’s mother remain unclear. Add, to all this, a couple of quirky characters taken from the universe of Pedro Almodovar and then you’ll have a proper film from the Spanish master.

The Performance: This is the only film, to date, in which Pedro Almodovar has worked with an American actor. Peter Coyote actually took too learning Spanish for the part. Nevertheless his voice was dubbed for the film – Almodovar considering that the accent is not quite there – but if you look carefully you will see that his lips are moving according to sound; proof that he actually spoke Spanish on the film. Coyote does a very good job in playing his part in the strange universe of Almodovar and has received universal praise for the role.


17. John Malkovich in “Le Temps Retrouve” (Raul Ruiz, 1999)

John Malkovich in “Le Temps Retrouve”

The Film: This is the adaptation of the last volume of Marcel Proust’s celebrated book “In Search Of Lost Time”. Because Ruiz’s film concentrates of the last volume, it allows to story to reference stories and characters present in the previous volumes.

The flip side of this advantage is that it is pretty difficult, for someone who hasn’t read the novel, to make connections between the characters and their background. In a nutshell the film represents the anonymous narrator’s remembrance of his life and his past experiences, while on his deathbed. Like the novel the film moves pretty slow and takes its time in developing the characters.

The Performance: John Malkovich plays the Baron of Charlus, a licentious and unsympathetic member of the upper class who talks a lot but accomplishes nothing. In the late 90’s Malkovich turned his back on American Cinema appearing in films by Michelangelo Antonioni (“Beyond the Clouds”), Manoel De Oliveira (“O Convento”) and many other European productions. He also lived for a number of years in France where he made a couple of films.

This is probably his most important work in France as he was universally applauded for this particular performance. Malkovich, who speaks a very fluent French, steals every scene that he is in with his hypnotizing performance.