Originally created 02/28/04

This year, Oscar has a distinctly international feel

Shohreh Aghdashloo grew up in Iran, infuriating her mother with the outrageous dream of being a Hollywood star. Djimon Hounsou was an African immigrant in Paris, once so destitute that he slept on the streets.

On Sunday, they both will be walking down the red carpet, soaking in that unique adulation reserved for Oscar nominees on Hollywood's biggest night.

Neither Aghdashloo, nominated for best supporting actress for "House of Sand and Fog," nor Hounsou, a supporting actor nominee for "In America," can quite believe what is happening. But both say it's a happy sign that Oscar is going global, recognizing that real talent comes from all corners of the planet.

"It's what this country stands for, which is the diversity, the different cultures of the world that come together and pursue a dream," says Hounsou (pronounced HAHN-soo), who was born in the African nation of Benin.

For Aghdashloo, who fled Iran on the eve of the revolution in 1978, the Oscars' international flavor "is so nice, because this is what the film industry is saying: No matter how you sound or how you look, if you do your work and do it well, we'll have you aboard. This is real freedom."

In this year's best actress category alone, front-runner Charlize Theron grew up on a farm in South Africa; precocious Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 13-year-old star of "Whale Rider," is an Aussie raised in New Zealand; Samantha Morton is from Britain; and Naomi Watts, also born in Britain, was raised in Australia.

In the best actor category, Jude Law and past Oscar winner Ben Kingsley are British (Kingsley, whose birth name was Krishna Bhanji, is partly of Indian descent). For supporting actor, there's Ken Watanabe of Japan ("The Last Samurai") and Puerto Rican-born Benicio del Toro ("21 Grams") - also a past winner. The directing nominees include a surprise entry, Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian director of "City of God."

"It looks like the United Nations," says Tom O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards" and host of the awards prediction web site GoldDerby.com. "The golden boy definitely went global this year."

O'Neil called it "a dramatic acknowledgment on behalf of Hollywood that this is now a global medium - it isn't just a hometown game anymore."

While not exactly a sea change - every year, some foreigners are nominated - the geographical variety of this year's nominees is striking. Not so many years ago, British actors, directors and films seemed the only ones to have a real shot. "Oscar has always been a sucker for a British accent," O'Neil says.

This year's variety comes on the heels of another important development: the wins two years ago by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, the only blacks since Sidney Poitier in 1964 to win Oscars for leading roles.

This year, Theron is favored to win best actress. And in the supporting category, there is talk that Aghdashloo (pronounced ag-DASH-loo) might have a real chance of upsetting the favorite, Renee Zellweger.

In the true global spirit, some nominated actors aren't even quite sure where they're from.

Castle-Hughes was born in Australia and lives in New Zealand; her father is Australian and her mother is a New Zealand Maori. What does that make her?

"I think it makes me ... I don't know," she said recently. "I've been in New Zealand since I was a baby, but my friends tease me and call me a woolly hopper. I don't know. I'm a bit confused. I guess, half and half?"

Hounsou, who gained fame in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" with the classic line "Give us free!" and later appeared on "ER," left school in France and couldn't find work, living as a vagrant until his looks got the attention of designer Thierry Mugler and landed him a modeling career. Now a U.S. citizen, he's been in the United States for 15 years.

"Life is sweet," he said in a telephone interview. "When the nominations were announced I was extremely surprised - and nicely asleep. I didn't even know they were on. I woke from one dream to another."

He says the Oscars have slowly become aware of the outside world.

"It's an education," he says. "The academy is becoming more sensitive and more aware. This shows that at its best, the Academy does reward the right people."

Aghdashloo, 51, also now a U.S. citizen, marvels as she sees her name being mentioned, for the first time in three decades, in some Iranian newspapers. "My name was banned in my country 25 years ago," she says - for acting in a film where she slept with a man.

Aghdashloo cannot go back - even with an Oscar. Four years after fleeing to London, she called her mother, homesick, and suggested she return. Her mother would not allow it, saying, "What good is a dead daughter to me?"

Lately, the actress' answering machine in Los Angeles has been filled with messages of affection from ordinary people in Iran, wishing her luck. And her mother back home wept with joy when she learned of the nomination, even though she had told the 16-year-old Shohreh to "Cut your tongue!" when she dreamed of Oscar glory.

Now, her mother has issued one stern command.

"If you don't win," she told Aghdashloo a few days ago on the phone, "I still want you to smile. No annoyed looks. No angry faces. You've been nominated, and that's enough.

"Promise me you'll smile."


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