Oscar: British Are Coming (Again)–Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole

I am vastly intimidated by English actors. We American actors think we’re just a bunch of slobs compared to them, and that they can quote all of Shakespeare by heart–
Meryl Streep, Three-time Oscar nominee

You Americans are famous for your hospitality, but this is ridiculous–Julie Andrews, Best Actress, Mary Poppins

You really are incredibly generous to aliens–
Robert Bolt, Oscar-winner, A Man for All Seasons

If my reading is correct, the Oscar race has not only begun, at Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, but has already two frontrunners who stand excellent chance to garner nominations and perhaps even win the Oscar itself.

As of September 1, the lead contender in the Best Actress category is Helen Mirren for the political serio comedy, “The Queen,” and dominant contender in the Best Actor league is vet Peter O’Toole for the melodrama “Venus.”

I have never made such firm predictions so early in the game–we are four months away from nomination day and almost six from the Oscar telecast.

The two Oscar frontrunners share many things in common. First and foremost, both Mirren and O’Toole are British, which carries a lot of clout. Second, both are well-respected vet actors with an Oscar track: Helen Mirren has been Oscar-nominated twice before, and Peter O’Toole seven, all in the lead category. Third, both actors have done good work on stage, film and TV in the U.K. as well as the U.S.

Finally, both Mirren and O’Toole play juicy roles, that kind that grab the attention of the Academy voters–and audiences too. Mirren is cast as the forceful yet enigmatic Queen Elizabeth II, forced into the international limelight after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. For his part, O’Toole plays a droll aging (seventysomething) actor in the autumn of his career and life, who suddenly discovers repressed feelings and dormant desire for a young working class girl.

I have written at length about these performers and their movies, and here I wish to discuss their Oscar prospects in the context of British dominance in general. (See reviews)

Helen Mirren

Mirren has been nominated twice in the Supporting League, for “The Madness of King George” (1994), in which she played another loyal Queen, Queen Charlotte, and for going from upstairs to downstairs in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001), as the spooky house headmistress bearing a big secret and chip on her shoulder.

It did help that both “Madness of King George” and “Gosford Park” were also nominated for the top prize, Best Picture (though neither won) because it necessarily elevates the performances in them and brings increased attention. Thus, it will be very helpful for Mirren if “The Queen” also garners nominations for Picture, Director (Stephen Frears), Screenplay (Peter Moragn) and others.

Peter O’Toole

An actor of vitality and passion, Peter O’Toole has impressed critics and audiences with his blond hair, blue eyes and virile physique, used to an advantage in the heroic mold. One of O’Toole’s assets, a strange sexual ambiguity, was played up in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but he could also be brutal and threatening with strong animalistic presence that was different from Brando’s.

“The fact that I have lost five times intrigues me even more,” Peter O’Toole said after his sixth nomination, for “The Stuntman” (1980). But what exactly did he really mean by that

O’Toole has been nominated seven times for legit, competitive awards, and in 2004, he received (rather reluctantly) an Honorary Oscar that was perceived as career achievement, and compensation for having missed seven time.

In this, he joined the company of Richard Burton, who had always been nominated seven times (six in the lead and one supporting). If O’Toole garners a nomination (and then Oscar), he’ll join the distinguished company of Paul Newman, who won the Oscar at his eighth nomination (for The Color of Money”), and like O’Toole, after getting an Honorary Oscar. The group also includes Al Pacino, who finally won Best Actor in 1992, also at his eighth nod, for “Scent of a Woman.”

Role’s the thing

Eccentric, often to a fault, O’Toole has played Kings (“Becket,” “The Lion in Winter”), teachers (“Goodbye Mr. Chips”), but we mostly associate him with his bravura portrait of the title role in David Lean’s historical epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” which swept most of 1962’s Oscars.

Luck played a role, for originally the part was offered to Marlon Brando, who opted to do instead “Mutiny on the Bounty.” We like his flamboyant showbiz performances, such as “The Stunt Man,” and as the alcoholic actor in the frivolous comedy, “My Favorite Year” (1982), O’Toole’s last nomination, which mat play a contributing factor this year if his astonishingly subtle and uncharacteristicaly subdued turn in “Venus” is hailed as a comeback role.

Helen Mirren’s nominations

1994: The Madness of King George (lost to Dianne Wiest)
2001: Gosford Park (lost to Jennifer Connelly)

2006: The Queen

The Last Station

Peter O’Toole’s Nominations: 8 (spanning 44 years)

1962: Lawrence of Arabia (lost to Gregory Peck)
1964: Becket (lost to Rex Harrison)
1968: The Lion in Winter (lost to Cliff Robertson)
1969: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (lost to John Wayne
1972: The Ruling Class (lost to Marlon Brando)
1980: The Stuntman (lost to Robert De Niro)
1982: My Favorite Year (lost to Ben Kingsley)

2006: Venus (lost to Forest Whitaker)

Other British (and Aussie) Hopefuls in 2006

Emma Thompson (lead in “Stranger Than Fiction”)
Judi Dench (“Notes on a Scandal”)
Cate Blanchett (lead in “Notes on a Scandal,” supporting in “Babel”)
Jude Law (“All the King’s Men”)
Kate Winslet (lead in “Little Children,” supporting in “All the King’s Men”)


Essay written in 2006.

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