LOS ANGELES -- She doesn't speak English. She has never been to Los Angeles. And on Sunday, the day of the Academy Awards, French actress Emmanuelle Riva will celebrate her 86th birthday.
Riva has quietly been one of this Oscars season's most compelling stories. Once considered to be, at best, a long shot in the lead actress race that most awards pundits had predicted would come down to Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" or Jessica Chastain, who played a CIA operative in "Zero Dark Thirty," it now seems that interest and appreciation for Riva's career -- and specifically her work in the Oscar-nominated "Amour" -- may well result in a trophy Sunday night.
Riva's turn as a woman confronting her mortality after a debilitating stroke in Michael Haneke's unflinchingly honest "Amour" won praise from the moment the movie premiered at Cannes in May. Since then, the actress, who has done only a handful of interviews and left Paris but once in support of the film, has taken top prizes from the European Film Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (which she shared with Lawrence), the National Society of Film Critics and, most recently, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).
The BAFTA win prompted some pundits to reassess the lead actress Oscar race, which also includes 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible."
"The overlap between BAFTA and the academy is small, but there are a lot of people who think the academy will vote for this consummate, veteran actress," says Anne Thompson, editor of the Thompson on Hollywood blog at Indiewire. Thompson herself recently switched her prediction from Lawrence to Riva, reasoning that because "Lawrence is young and has a great career ahead of her," academy voters will reward Riva now, as the opportunity probably won't present itself again.
Indeed, Riva is the oldest woman to be nominated for lead actress and, should she triumph, would become the oldest winner of an acting Oscar, surpassing Christopher Plummer, who was 82 when he took the supporting actor award for "Beginners" last year.
Riva owns a special place in film lore -- and in many academy members' hearts -- for her lead turn as the beautiful French actress who engaged in a brief, intense, impossible love affair with a Japanese architect in Alain Resnais' 1959 masterpiece, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," a key film in the French New Wave movement.
That movie's themes of love and death are revisited in "Amour," a fact not lost on Riva.
"There are these echoes, these coincidences, an interweaving of themes," Riva told the Los Angeles Times in December, "because it seems to me 'Amour' is a film about love, not a film about death or illness. Love is the essence of life; love touches all of our work. Love never leaves us. It clings to us, and we cling to it."
Haneke remembered Riva from Resnais' movie and sent her the "Amour" screenplay. Her interest was immediate, she says. "It was an extraordinary miracle for me," Riva told the Times. "I was ripe. It was the perfect time for me to become this character. I wasn't acting. I wasn't playing the part, that's the best way I can say it -- I wasn't playing, I was being."
Riva has lived in the same Paris apartment for nearly 50 years. She doesn't own a television or cellphone and disdains travel to the point where, according to producer Margaret Menegoz, she slept in her dressing room during the eight weeks she spent making "Amour" to avoid the 45-minute commute between her apartment and the soundstage.
"She wanted to concentrate," Menegoz says. "No distractions. No small talk."
Riva visited New York for the first time in January to accept two awards for Haneke, who is directing an opera in Madrid. Her one request?
"She wanted a car to take her to see the Statue of Liberty," said Sony Pictures Classics co-President Tom Bernard, whose company distributed "Amour" in North America.
Scheduled to land in Los Angeles later this week, Riva, as yet, has expressed no specific desires for her maiden journey to Hollywood.
"I can say with certainty we'll be celebrating Emmanuelle's birthday Sunday," Sony Pictures Classics co-President Michael Barker said. "Anything else will be icing on the cake."