The Santa Ana, the dry autumnal wind that develops in the Mojave desert and sweeps over Los Angeles, famously makes people go mad. Trust Hollywood to invent a nonmeteorological variation of the desert breeze that induces the same sort of madness right through the winter: awards ceremonies, with impossible-looking people in mad gowns and suits, so many of whom in the last decade have won Oscars for playing mentally ill or mentally disabled people. When, one wonders, will Hollywood’s infatuation with madness ever end?
No other country more than Britain willingly subjects itself to the annual Hollywood madness. An American Academy award given to a British film is invariably used as an occasion to celebrate Britain, as if it were being bestowed on a nation rather than an individual. This is a form of madness itself. Who can forget Colin Welland, who wrote the screenplay for Chariots of Fire, exclaiming after he won his Oscar in 1982, “The British are coming”? Welland, of course, didn’t mention that Britons had won as many Oscars the previous year, even though these were for technical skills rather than for acting, producing, directing, or writing. The point about Chariots of Fire was that it was a film about Britain—this country’s sense of fair play and its class system. Welland’s euphoria was explained by the amazing fact that an American award had been bestowed on a very British movie. Had that black Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (starring Alec Guinness in 1955), won an Oscar, one can’t imagine he would have the made the same remark. Nor would it have been plausible for the director of Shine, another movie about a gifted but disturbed man (played by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush), to have said, “The Australians are coming.”
But quintessentially British films rarely live up to their Oscar expectations. Howards End, The English Patient, and Shakespeare in Love (which starred the American Gwyneth Paltrow) allwon awards in the 1990s.But during that same period, British actors were most successful in non-British roles: Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and Michael Caine as Dr. Larch in Cider House Rules. Deborah Kerr, the British actress who worked mainly in America, picked up a lifetime achievement award in 1995. But, since 1990, Emma Thompson, who played Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, is the only Briton to have won an Oscar for acting in a British movie. Daniel Day Lewis won a Best Actor award for My Left Foot (a film about a neurological ailment), but he is an Anglo-Irishman and was playing an Irish writer, Christy Brown. Forty-three of the 57 Oscars won by Britons since 1990 have been awarded not for acting, directing, or screenwriting, but for technical or musical achievements. Britain’s biggest Oscar winner ever is the lyricist Tim Rice, who has won three Oscars since 1995.
It’s therefore no surprise that British patriotic hopes at this year’s Academy Awards are resting upon Iris, Richard Eyre’s movie about the mental decomposition (through Alzheimer’s) of the British novelist Iris Murdoch. This stars Judi Dench as Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as her husband, John Bayley, whose books about his wife were the inspiration for the film. It is an exceedingly British film about two exceedingly British people, although it also conveniently caters to Hollywood’s preoccupation with madness. But if the past 10 years are anything to go by, Iris will probably be beaten at the Oscars by Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, a film starring Russell Crowe about the lunacy of an American mathematician, John Nash. To triumph at the Academy Awards, a “British” film should ideally have an all-American cast with an American director and American screenwriters, and be shot in its entirety within a Hollywood studio. Meanwhile, Britons will doubtless continue to do brilliantly in art direction, music, set and costume design, and mostly for the work they’ve done on American rather than British films.