Scriptwriter Colin Welland brandished his Academy Award for 1981’s “Chariots of Fire” and cried, “The British are coming.” It’s gone down in Oscar folklore as a moment of hubris followed by disappointment, as the vaunted British renaissance fizzled out.
But maybe Welland turned out to be right. In Oscar terms at least, the Brits did come, and often conquered.
Particularly in recent times, they have become Oscar darlings, winning more than their share of nominations and statuettes for both smaller indies and lavish studio fare. The Brits regularly seem to crank out the kind of well-crafted, beautifully acted, intelligent yet audience-pleasing films that hit the Academy’s sweet spot, such as “The Queen” or “Slumdog Millionaire.”
If history is any guide, once again the Brits and British pics will have a big say in the outcome of this year’s races.
The Academy’s love affair with Blighty goes all the way back to 1929, when George Arliss became the first Brit to win acting honors, taking home gold for the title role in “Disraeli,” a biopic of the 19th century prime minister. British history has always played well in the Oscar stakes.
A collection of refined British actors, mostly working in Hollywood — Vivien Leigh, Laurence Oliver, Greer Garson, Ronald Coleman, Leslie Howard and Robert Donat — beguiled American voters regularly in the ’30s and ’40s. But it wasn’t until 1957 that AMPAS embraced a British director, when David Lean won for “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Flurries of success followed through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with a distinct bias toward the epic, the historical and the literary — “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Tom Jones,” “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi” — and to acting schooled in the Royal Shakespeare Company or Royal National Theater from the likes of Glenda Jackson or Anthony Hopkins.
The trend toward greater recognition of British pics has coincided with the trend toward a more global industry. From the introduction of routine trans-Atlantic jet travel through 21st-century tax incentives that lured tentpole production to English soundstages, the distance between Hollywood and London has steadily shrunk. The two filmmaking communities intermingled, with awards generating a virtuous circle of familiarity and opportunity.
This has created a community of taste, mirrored by the fact that about 10% of AMPAS members are now believed to be based in the U.K., while 25% of BAFTA voters live in the U.S. Those voters are an important swing bloc in both races.
Studio campaigners talk of a trans-Atlantic dialogue that takes place during awards season between AMPAS and BAFTA members, who have often worked alongside each other on the same productions. This season, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is the kind of Anglo-American collaboration that stands to benefit from this interchange.
“Inception” and Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” lack an overt English accent, but spring from the imagination of two British auteurs with strong constituencies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Voters have always been captivated by that touch of class that British actors seem to bring to their work. You don’t get classier than a monarch, and it’s axiomatic that playing a king or queen is a short cut to the Oscar podium. This year’s heir to that legacy is “The King’s Speech,” an immaculately tailored prestige pic that plays to the Academy’s taste for regal costume drama.
At the same time the Acad has a proven taste for uplifting working class underdog stories like “Billy Elliot” and “The Full Monty.” “Made in Dagenham” fits that bill.
Then there’s “Another Year,” the latest from six-time nominee Mike Leigh. Leigh has a record of elevating actresses previously unknown to American audiences into the Oscar spotlight.
Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and a BAFTA East Coast trustee, believes British cinema is currently operating at full artistic throttle.
“There’s no question there’s a British renaissance going on right now,” he says. “I felt it with ‘An Education,’ which even though Lone Scherfig is Danish was a very British film. Maybe it started with ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ We’re in a cycle where the British films being made are at their peak, and being embraced by audiences.”
It remains to be seen whether this year’s crop will be equally embraced by awards voters.