A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Oscars

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl sails across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa raft named Kon-Tiki.

By Leonard Doyle

“I am overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed. I would like to thank the Academy for inviting me here tonight. I am honored, honored to be here with … my immigrant mom and dad.” That was Renée Zellweger, accepting her Oscar for best supporting actress in Cold Mountain.


Thanks to the Academy’s new online database of every winner’s speech since 1971 we now know that Zellweger’s emotional outpouring to her Norwegian and Swiss parents was one of the rare occasions that the word ‘migrant’, ‘immigrant’ or even ‘refugee’ has been uttered at an Academy Awards ceremony. With audiences estimated at 40 million worldwide, this is something of a lost opportunity.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to this year’s Oscars, so long a celebration of exclusively American talent. Many of this year’s nominations for acting and directing went to non-Americans; in fact three out of four acting categories could be won by foreign born nominees.

It’s not like Hollywood has changed overnight. But incremental shifts over the years have brought the Academy to a new starting place and today it is far more accepting of the reality of the world’s shifting cultures and populations.

That was already clear last year when Demián Bichir, the Mexican-born lead actor of A Better Life, got the Oscar nod for his role as an undocumented migrant, (he didn’t win; the award went to French-born Jean Dujardin in The Artist instead).

What has changed in Hollywood is that the movie industry, not always known for its accurate portrayal of complex social issues, or controversial subjects is taking the issue of undocumented migrants seriously. Three years before A Better Life there was another Oscar nomination for The Visitor, the story of a professor whose life is transformed by his encounter with a Middle Eastern immigrant threatened with deportation. 

For this year’s Oscars actors and director born outside of the US may sweep the boards. Many have been nominated, including  Jacki Weaver (Australian) for best supporting Actress in the film Silver Lining’s Playbook. A nomination for best supporting actor has gone to Christopher Waltz (Austrian) for Django Unchained; best actress nomination has gone to Naomi Watts (English born, now Australian) for her role in The Impossible and the 85-year old Emmanuelle Riva (French) has been nominated for Amour while Michael Haneke the German-born director of the same film has also been nominated. Meanwhile a Best Actor nomination has gone to Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables and to Daniel Day Lewis (Irish-English) for his tour de force in Lincoln. The Taiwanese Ang Lee has been nominated for The Life of Pi.

The foreign film category is always worth watching and this year there were a record 71 submissions with “Kon-Tiki,” from Norway, telling the story of Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 trip across the Pacific on a small raft with five other men. It was all to test the theory of Heyerdahl, then a 32-year-old ethnologist, that the Pacific islands were originally settled by migrating peoples from prehistoric America.


A Better Lifew as as raw a treatment of the issue of undocumented migrants as Hollywood has ever produced. It won plenty of praise from the critics last year (though it was not a box office success). “A haunting movie that gets under your skin,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who talked up the “raw emotional power” of Bichir’s “monumental” performance.

Bichir plays Carlos Galindo an undocumented Mexican gardener in the film. It was a life he was already familiar with because he too had worked as an undocumented worker in the US. At 21 or 22 (he’s not sure) Bichir left Mexico to start his acting career and worked like so many other would–be actors in a New York restaurant. He cleaned tables at the Rosa Mexicana and says it was the hardest work he has ever done. The U.S. amnesty program of 1986 enabled him to get the dreamed of Green Card. Galindo, his character is not so lucky as he moves from casual day laborer to owner of a gardening business all the while keeping his American-born teenager away from street gangs. The experience enabled him to capture the invisible life of the undocumented immigrant with considerable dignity.

“It was important for me to relate to that time when I arrived in New York,” Bichir said in a widely published interview last year. “Carlos Galindo’s dignity is similar to all those 11 million undocumented workers in U.S. They live their lives with … that power and that passion, and they never give up.”

“A Better Life” was among the first major Hollywood studio treatment of the plight of undocumented immigrants, a breakthrough for a subject typically relegated to art-house treatment like the 1983 film El Norte that unfortunately never won a wide audience but remains a cult film. Bichir’s hope is that the film could start to change attitudes toward illegal immigrants the way Tom Hank’s Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia altered perceptions around homosexuality and AIDS.

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM