Jewish World Review March 19, 2002 / 6 Nisan, 5762

Michael Medved

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The Empire strikes back at Oscars

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Paul Revere warned us 227 years ago that "the British are coming!" - and now, in terms of the Academy Awards, the British (and their colonial cohorts) have definitely arrived.

The disproportionate domination this year of top Oscar categories by Britons and Aussies represents an odd, almost perverse quirk for an American industry that otherwise rules the known universe.

Of the 20 nominations for acting awards (best actor, best actress and best supporting actor and actress), a full half of them went to representatives of the old British Commonwealth (eight English performers and two Australians). The two Aussies - Russell Crowe as best actor for A Beautiful Mind and Nicole Kidman as best actress for Moulin Rouge - count as sexy international superstars, as does British supporting-actress contender Kate Winslet (Iris).

In contrast, other Imperial entrants may be admired, but they're hardly idolized. Judi Dench (nominated for best actress in Iris) may be a perennial Oscar favorite, but she's hardly a bankable box-office star - nor are supporting-role nominees Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith (Gosford Park), Jim Broadbent (Iris), Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast) and Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings). As for middle-aged Englishman Tom Wilkinson, despite his richly deserved best-actor nomination for In the Bedroom, few Americans would recognize his face or his name.

Meanwhile, one of the beleaguered Americans attempting an Oscar defense against the British invasion is Renee Zellweger - winning her best-actress nomination in Bridget Jones's Diary for mastering a flawless London accent and portraying one of the most endearing English girls of contemporary fiction.

The Rule Britannia theme to this year's Oscars goes beyond acting categories and extends to the five nominees for best picture.

Gosford Park focuses on the relationships between servants and masters during a shooting weekend at an English country estate.

Lord of the Rings features some of the world's most distinguished British actors (Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett), an English novel as its source and stunning New Zealand locations.

Moulin Rouge may be set in turn-of-the-century Paris, but the accents of its stars (Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent) and its director (Baz Luhrmann) ring of Sydney, Glasgow and London.

A Beautiful Mind also features a British star (Paul Bettany) in a key supporting role to Australian Russell Crowe, while unfolding in the most aristocratic and English of American settings - the imitation Oxford of the Princeton campus.

Alone among the five best-picture nominees, In the Bedroom offers an unequivocally American location with its picturesque portrayal of coastal Maine. But even here the project relies on its English leading man, Tom Wilkinson.

American audiences have grown so accustomed to this pervasive British presence in quality moviemaking that we scarcely recognize how illogical it is.

The combined population of Australia and the United Kingdom is only about one-fourth of the population of the United States alone. Each year, Americans churn out some 10 times the theatrical feature films as our cousins Over the Pond, and spend perhaps 30 times as much producing them.

Moreover, America remains the world's undisputed economic and military powerhouse, with an all-conquering pop culture that penetrates every corner of the globe.

Nonetheless, Anglophiles might argue that the surprising Hollywood infatuation with English achievements reflects the inherent superiority of United Kingdom culture. According to this view, the relationship between Britain and her rude American offspring parallels the connection between ancient Greece and its successor civilization in Rome. The older culture might be supplanted by the brute power and organizational genius of the younger empire, but remains vastly more refined and artistically accomplished.

Such arguments carry enough weight to convince gullible Yanks that anything with an English accent counts as more cultivated than our homegrown alternatives; after all, even the earthy American Madonna has begun speaking like a posh Londoner in her latest incarnation. PBS, our government-supported television network for the smart and substantive, leans heavily on imported English material, so much so that the most popular public TV offerings seem to consist of animals who mate and Britons who don't.

Sure, Upstairs, Downstairs beats Dynasty in aesthetic excellence, but does that mean that the Spice Girls automatically deserve more respect than Destiny's Child? Do the tabloid scandals of Prince Charles register as any less tawdry than the embarrassments of Bill Clinton?

Beyond the silly prejudice about the superiority of all things English, the outrageous Oscar success of British and Australian performers owes something to the formidable real-world advantage that these professionals enjoy over their American counterparts. They emerge from an industry that generally avoids the blockbuster mentality - the all-consuming focus on spectacular box-office success that stems from the huge costs and correspondingly swollen ambitions of most Hollywood projects. Capable, serious performers (Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen) can thrive for decades in the more modest, less cutthroat film industry of Britain without winning breakout success.

U.S. production companies concentrate, by contrast, on generating charismatic, universal stars who can pay the crushing bills - searching for the next Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise rather than nourishing gifted, unassuming thespians.

England's outstanding theatrical traditions (remember a journeyman actor named Shakespeare?) have always provided Hollywood with some its greatest talent - from Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock to Anthony Hopkins and Jude Law. The most accomplished Englishmen all do manage to make the pilgrimage to California for high-profile projects, so that London will never replace Los Angeles as world center of the entertainment industry.

Despite a trickle of American expatriates to the Mother Country (including, apparently, Oscar-nominated director Robert Altman) the talent flows across the Atlantic in an overwhelmingly westward direction.

Nevertheless, the uncanny cinematic achievements of Britons and Australians deserve special celebration. At Sunday's Oscar celebrations, dedicated movie fans may well toast the Queen's health with gin and bitters and hum a few bars of There'll Always Be an England.


JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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