Oscar: British Actors Dominate

As of September, Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), who just won the Venice Festival Award, and vet Peter O’Toole (“Venus”), a seven-time nominee, lead the 2006 Oscar race in the acting categories. If they’re nominated–and win–they’ll joing a long, illustrious list of British thespians, which began with George Arliss and Charles Laughton in the 1930s, and has continued to the present. Here is a look at strong years for British thespians in the Academy’s history.

Luck of the British

From the very beginning, the rules stated that, “No national or Academy membership distinctions are to be considered.” The awards were going to be conferred with no regard to geographical or political boundaries. The Academy was proud that the first Best Actor, German Emil Jannings, “was not even a citizen of our country.”

Americans have largely dominated the Oscar race. The majority (over 70 percent) of the Oscar nominees have been American, about 20 percent British, and about 10 percent artists of other nationalities.

Despite annual fluctuations, about one out of every three foreign players has been British, indicating a clear British dominance of the Oscar contest. Is it the high quality of British films and British acting that accounts for their preeminence in the Oscar race

1933: First British Triumph

Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the first British commercial hit in the United States since the advent of sound. The film’s lead, Charles Laughton, who won Best Actor, became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and busiest actors after the Oscar.

1939 as Vintage Year

In 1939, the two lead acting awards went to British players for the first time, though Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind) was honored for an American movie, and Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) for a film that was financed by MGM but drew mostly on British cast and crew.

This generosity to English performers was used by the Academy for public relations, promoting the notion of nonsentimental voting that disregards political considerations. At the same time, it prompted many speculations as to “whether England would have done the same to us,” to which ultra-patriotic gossip columnist Louella Parsons answered unequivocally, “I doubt it.”

British acting continues to enjoy prestige in the U.S.–it is a revered institution. Admired for their versatility and technical skills, British actors are deemed better trained than their American counterparts, as Meryl Streep’s cited opinion demonstrates.

1981’s Chariots of Fire

“The British are coming!” screamed Brit writer Colin Welland in 1981, after winning the Original Screenplay for Chariots of Fire, a proclamation that showed how the British measured the success of their own industry–in terms of how well they are doing “over there” in the United States. Nothing denotes success so visibly and tangibly as the Oscars,” wrote Peter Whittle in the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a feeling that being big in Britain is not quite enough, that you haven’t really made it until you’ve made it in Hollywood.”

1983: All-time British High

In 1983, when British actors again dominated the race, various explanations were offered. The critics found it strange that four of the five Best Actors were English: Michael Caine (“Educating Rita”), Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay (both for “The Dresser”), and Tom Conti (“Reuben, Reuben,” an American film). The fifth nominee was American, Robert Duvall (“Tender Mercies”), who turned out to be the winner.

The “New York Times” critic Vincent Canby, who understood the roots of the problem, observed that the Academy’s customary respect for English players was no greater in 1983 than in previous years, and that “Hollywood today is no more or less Anglophile than it’s ever been.”

1989-1991

The British dominated the Best Actor category for three consecutive years: Daniel Day Lewis (“My Left Foot”) in 1989, Jeremy Irons (“Reversal of Fortune”) in 1990, and Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) in 1991, elevating the visibility of British players to an unparalleled level. With the exception of Olivier (“Hamlet”), Day-Lewis, and a few others, most British actors, such as Irons and Hopkins, have won for American-made pictures.

1997’s Brit Women

In 1997, Helena Bonham Carter was nominated for The Wings of the Dove, Julie Christie for Afterglow, Judi Dench for Mrs. Brown, and Kate Winslet for Titanic. The winner was the allAmerican nominee, Helen Hunt, for the comedy, As Good As It Gets.

Most critics attribute a lack of good women roles in American cinema to a brand of filmmaking typified by Hollywood studios that calls for big stars and high concepts heavy on special effects and fastpaced action. “A lot of our studio movies are boys’ flicks and testosterone events,” casting director Mali Finn told USA Today, “and the women get shoved into the background.”

1999’s Sam Mendes and company

In 1999, the much-praised London theater director, won a directing Oscar for American Beauty, and four British were nominated for acting: Samantha Morton for Sweet and Lowdown, Janet McTeer for Tumbleweeds, Jude Law for The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Michael Caine, “that quintessence of a certain kind of Britishness,” for The Cider House Rules.

There was extensive coverage in the London media, not just in the tabloids but also in quality press like the Times, which hailed an outstanding lineup of British talent–on course for Oscar glory.”

The illustrious list of Oscar-winning and nominated British players reads like the “Who’s Who” register of honorary titles of Sirs and Dames. Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Michael Caine, and, most recently, Sir Sean Connery, have all been nominated and several have won. Then there are Dame Edith Evans, Dame May Whitty, Dame Judith Anderson, Dame Gladys Cooper, Dame Flora Robson, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and Dame Judi Dench.

Both the Academy and the British actors benefit from playing the Oscar game. The Oscar has made these players into international movie stars, and the British players in turn have contributed to the prestige of the Academy as a reputable institution that recognizes talent.

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