How The Vanishing Changed the Oscar Rules

Spoorloos - the original The Vanishing - led to the Academy having to change its ways...

People sometimes come to this site in search of a film to watch, that they’ve not heard of. Sadly, the late George Sluizer’s stunning thriller Spoorloos has been infected by its tepid 1993 Hollywood remake, that Sluizer himself directed. But the original is one of the best, darkest thrillers of the 1980s. It’s an amazing piece of work.

It’s also a piece of work that led to the Academy having to rewrite the rules for one of its Oscar categories.

The film’s country of origin was the Netherlands, and when it came to Oscar time, it was put forward as the Dutch entry for the Best Foreign Language Feature Academy Award. Yet the film was deemed ineligible, in spite of the fact that not a word of English is spoken in it.

The problem stems from an old rule that the Academy was employing back in the late 1980s. It deemed that films submitted for the category should have at least 50% of their dialogue in the language of the submitting country. The problem with Spoorloos was that Sluizer had shot a good chunk of his film in France, and he wanted authenticity. As such, as the late publicist Jerry Pam recalled in his memoir, Sluizer “decided he could not expect his audience to accept French peasants speaking Dutch. He had them speak French, and used Dutch subtitles.”

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As such, Spoorloos fell foul of the Academy’s rules, and one of the strongest candidates for the Best Foreign Language Feature was duly eliminated from the field on an archaic technicality.

There was a backlash against the decision, and the Academy acted quickly to put things right. It was too late for Spoorloos, but in time for the following year, a rule change was brought in that added an exception. That if the storyline of a film demanded a setting in another country, then it would be deemed appropriate for the language of the other nation to be used. That would no longer be cause for exclusion from the Oscars.

Fortunately, Spoorloos’ commercial impact wasn’t dampened too much by the Oscar problem. This was in a pre-internet era, where the Oscars were seen as crucial to getting foreign language features even a small release outside of their home country. In the case of Spoorloos, enough people banged the drum to turn it into a success. The irony was that the original was successful enough to get the Hollywood remake greenlit, but it was the American version that turned into the commercial disappointment. Said remake – which starred Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock – failed to trouble the Oscars either, as it happened.

The original firmly stands the test of time, though. It’s one of those outstanding thrillers that the less you know, the btter. It’ll rattle in your head for a very long time, too.

Jerry Pam’s book, Memoirs Of A Hollywood Publicist, is published by BearManor Media.