Mexico’s director dilemma

<b>The Back Lot:</b> Helmers forced from homeland

There should be a special salute at this year’s Oscar ceremony to the amazing triumvirate from Mexico. It’s hard to recall a time when three filmmakers representing a foreign country occupied as significant a presence as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron.

One has to think back to the Italy of Fellini, Antonioni and Rossellini to find a comparable moment.

There’s a big difference, however. The Italians of that period made their films in Italy. The Mexican trio are true internationalists, which has both good and bad connotations. Their recent films — “Babel,” “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — reflect a range of settings around the world. Indeed, the three filmmakers, though separated by continents, still talk to one another virtually every day, exchanging war stories.

But here’s the rub: Though all three love their home country, it’s no secret why they do not shoot their movies there. The threat of kidnapping looms so large in Mexico that high-profile artists opt instead to live and work in London or Los Angeles or Spain where they and their families are safe from violent crime. Making films is itself a high-risk adventure, so why add personal dangers to the mix?

The growing tide of violence around the world brings with it a grim cultural price, as the dilemma of the Mexican triumvirate reminds us. In Mexico, at least, the new president, Felipe Calderon, has launched a serious offensive against lawlessness and is trying to reform the army. If he succeeds, surely Calderon should promptly be sent to the Middle East to replicate his effort.

* * *

It’s amazing to me that people — serious people — are still wasting their time arguing about producer credits. Clearly the job of producing a movie has become an exercise in “group-think.” You never see a movie any more that lists a single producer.

So why does the Producers Guild or the Academy worry whether three or five people are lining up to accept the Oscar? There always seem to be several writers on a movie — why not several producers?

Producers have been complaining about loss of status for longer than I can remember. I once actually had a cup of coffee with David O. Selznick to listen to his complaints. Yes, even the man who gave us “Gone With the Wind” felt unappreciated.

As recently as the ’70s, some producers like Hal Wallis still exercised control over their projects, both in the writing and editing. Today, however, films may take as long as 10 years of nurturing only to require ultimate help from a co-financier, not to mention a co-distributor. The producers who launched the project thus may have to hand the baton to others, who actually are around during the shoot.

In seeking to resolve the issue of credits, the Academy has only further confused things. Rather than favoring the so-called “working producers,” the rulings essentially reward the “money” guys — not that they don’t deserve credit for putting their money where their mouth is. The people who actually put the package together are oddly marginalized.

The Academy’s ruling does not affect screen credits, to be sure — merely who gets to walk the walk on Oscar night. Indeed, the imbroglio brings back memories of the moment when Jack Warner essentially grabbed an Oscar away from Hal Wallis on “Casablanca.” Warner, after all, wrote the check; he felt he deserved the kudos, not the guy who actually produced the movie.

* * *

While we’re handing out special tributes, how about one for Leonardo? Given the endless succession of award shows, one has to empathize with those who, like DiCaprio, look on night after night while the Helen Mirrens of the world collect their kudos and make their teary speeches.

Leonardo has a unique problem, to be sure, because he is competing against himself with “Blood Diamond” and “The Departed.” His performances were strong in both, but apparently not strong enough to elicit the votes from SAG or the Globes or, perhaps, from the Academy. At the SAG awards he was carrying on bravely, applauding the winners, hair slicked back, looking like a young Howard Hughes.

I suppose he has to keep coming, and keep losing. Won’t some kudo show give the guy a break? The People’s Choice Award went to Vince Vaughn for a very important reason: He agreed to show.

Where were you, Leonardo, when they needed you?

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