At Oscar time, o'seas pix fill void left by the studios

One night a year, the American film business runs a trade deficit.

No, not at the box office, where other countries continue to rail against the proliferation of U.S. product at the expense of their own film industries. The American deficit shows up only on Oscar night, when more and more filmmakers from around the world have lately figured in every category from cinematography – long a stronghold of Academy internationalism – to the holiest of holies, best picture.

Many industry observers saw last year’s Oscars as a watershed. Of the five best-picture nominees, only “Apollo 13” boasted intrinsically American subject matter handled by an American-born director, Ron Howard.

Of the rest, “Il Postino” (The Postman) was directed in Italian by an Englishman, Michael Radford, and co-starred France’s Philippe Noiret as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Australia’s Chris Noonan directed “Babe,” although the film’s biggest human role belonged to Oscar-nominated American actor James Cromwell. “Sense and Sensibility” was an English novel adapted by an Englishwoman, Emma Thompson, directed by Taiwan-born Ang Lee. The winner, “Braveheart,” directed by American-born, Oz-bred Mel Gibson, was set in medieval Scotland.

“There’s always a chance of a nomination if a film is English, or a period picture,” hazards Ella Taylor, film critic for the L.A. Weekly and herself an Anglo-Israeli co-production. “Also if they’ve had the hell marketed out of them by Miramax.” The Disney-owned distributor has a strong Oscar contender this year in “The English Patient,” adapted and directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Ralph Fiennes- English, the both of them.

The English quotient

Of all the non-American best-picture nominees in Oscar history, only British films have ever gone on to win. “Hamlet” started the trend in 1948, unless you count 1940’s “Rebecca,” set in director Alfred Hitchcock’s native England but produced in Hollywood by David O. Selznick. David Lean kept the Union Jack flying over Hollywood in 1957 with “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and in 1962 with “Lawrence of Arabia,” the picture that inaugurated the Academy’s most prolonged bout of Anglophilia to date.

Amazingly, between 1962 and 1969, only two best picture laureates had no Brit quotient to speak of. “Tom Jones” followed “Lawrence” in 1963 as the second straight winner from the U.K., and introduced a whole new generation of English talent to America. The best picture of 1964, “My Fair Lady,” married Shavian wit to the American opulence of a Jack Warner production.

Oscar went into remission in 1965, honoring “The Sound of Music” over “Darling,” but made up for it the year after that with “A Man for All Seasons.” Likewise, “In the Heat of the Night” won for 1967, but the Empire struck back for another twofer in 1968 and ’69 with “Oliver!” and “Midnight Cowboy,” an American story directed by Englishman John Schlesinger.

A blight on Blighty

“Midnight Cowboy’s” victory was symptomatic of America’s co-opting of young British filmmaking talent at the time. That caused a brain drain from which U.K. cinema would not recover, at least on Oscar night, until the back-to-back wins of “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi” in the early ’80s.

In the meantime, foreign films from beyond Britain finally began to make their presence felt in the best-picture sweepstakes. Among the best-picture runners-up to “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969 was “Z,” the French-language film about a Greek political assassination, which took home the Oscar for foreign-language film that year. Swedish films “The Emigrants” and “Cries and Whispers” were nominated for best picture in 1972 and 1973, respectively.

After that, though, foreign-language films were little heard from in the best-picture category until last year, when distributor Miramax used that very silence to help propel “Il Postino” into the running.

“The people at Miramax are such geniuses at Oscar campaigning,” marvels Damien Bona, co-author of Oscar dishfest “Inside Oscar.” “They reminded the voters that no foreign film had been nominated in 20 years. It was almost calling upon them to be more open-minded, as if to say, ‘If you don’t vote for ‘The Postman,’ you’re being xenophobic.’ ”

While good-naturedly conceding Miramax’s proficiency at “selling the hell out of a picture,” Miramax exec VP of production & development Jack Lechner attributed Oscar’s recent internationalism to the general weakness of recent studio product. (Lechner helped kickstart the international boom by developing Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” in his former capacity as assistant commissioning editor for drama at Film Four.)

“The Academy has opened itself up more to international movies and independents,” Lechner said, “because the studios are making embarrassing crap. They’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Miramax doesn’t have the import business all to itself, either. This year, New Line is distributing Australia’s “Shine” domestically, and October Films has both “Secrets & Lies,” from English director Mike Leigh, and “Breaking the Waves,” from Danish helmer Lars von Trier.

Studios give up the throne

The point of all this demographic head-counting is not to reduce a filmmaker’s vision to a mere function of his nationality, but rather to underscore a trend lamented by everyone contacted for this story: The recent ascendancy of foreign films has come about partly because of the studios’ abdication from the business of producing important – yes, occasionally self-important – Oscar-caliber pictures.

The Oscar-night trade deficit thus shapes up as a direct consequence of the year-round trade surplus enjoyed by an American film industry increasingly driven, except for the indies, by blockbusters that will never see the inside of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Shrine.

“Studios spend money mostly on stars,” sighed Indian-born Ismail Merchant, three times an Oscar nominee as producer of “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day.” “But the money you pour into making these big-budget films doesn’t get you anywhere. If you look at Capra’s films, Billy Wilder’s – those films had stories. They talk to you in a language of emotion and feeling.”

Of course, Capra and Wilder’s quintessentially American stories were made by a couple of guys from Sicily and Vienna, respectively. In making movies for their adopted country, they wound up seducing the world.

Worldly wise

Nowadays, American filmmakers make movies for the world, but risk alienating their own country. It’s worth asking whether Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or the Wilder-scripted “Ball of Fire,” Oscar nominees both, could even get made today. The former takes place against a backdrop of American political skullduggery, and the latter revels in the patois of rapid-fire, hard-to-translate verbal comedy – both supposedly death overseas.

Meanwhile, “an explosion is an explosion in any language,” says Bona, who expects a foreign-language film to win the best-picture Oscar some year soon. Wouldn’t it be a shame if, after all the uproar about the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, the only country that lost its national cinematic identity turned out to be America?

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