Whether it’s David Lean’s majestic best picture winners “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or more recent champs like “The English Patient,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” Oscar has always been a sucker for a foreign accent or a far-flung location. When filmmakers head to the international airline terminals, the Academy often takes notice.
“It’s almost a key element in an Oscar winner, that cinematic scope that reminds you the world is such a majestic place,” says “Movie Awards” author Tom O’Neil. “We know they often confuse best picture with big picture, and if you can translate that on a screen visually in Africa or the Arabian desert or wherever, they love it,” adding it probably reveals Hollywood’s secret inferiority complex.
Film historian Leonard Maltin says this type of movie often is the reason Oscar overlooks other, sometimes more deserving genres and smaller pics.
“Instead they seem to gravitate toward ambition, size and scope, and an exotic location is part of that,” he says, pointing to Mike Todd’s extravagant 1956 best pic winner, “Around the World in 80 Days,” which seemed to jumpstart the trend. It was shot in more than 10 countries, spanning 4 million air passenger miles for its crew with a total of nearly 69,000 people onscreen, the most ever photographed in separate worldwide locations.
“The audacity of really traveling around the world, not shooting it on a backlot and hiring international stars wherever they went, was a novel idea,” adds Maltin.
Up to that time, the only previous internationally lensed best pic winner was Laurence Olivier’s 1948 English import “Hamlet,” which rolled over homemade favorites such as “Johnny Belinda” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to take the top prize. Its success even caused some jingoistic studios to withdraw financial backing for the Oscar show (although they all came back the following year).
Certainly the trend picked up steam with the advent of widescreen formats such as Cinemascope, which came on the scene in 1953.
The Academy, coincidentally, started regularly nominating big studio, overseas-lensed fare such as “Roman Holiday,” “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” Following the 1956 triumph of “80 Days,” three more internationally shot pics won the next three best pic crowns in a row: “River Kwai” in ’57, 1958’s “Gigi” (shot largely in Paris) and “Ben-Hur” in 1959. In addition to “Arabia,” the ’60s also saw “Tom Jones,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!,” along with nominees such as “Cleopatra,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Dr. Zhivago.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the Academy had a love affair with director David Lean, whose films all were set and shot beyond U.S. borders.
From the 1955 Venice-shot romancer “Summertime” through his 1984 swan-song, “A Passage to India,” his films earned 45 nominations and 23 Oscars including two for pic and four for cinematography — something most of the foreign-lensed pic winners have in common.
Director Sydney Pollack was a perpetual Oscar bridesmaid until he took his cameras to another continent and shot the 1985 best picture “Out of Africa.”
He felt he never could have achieved the same effect shooting on backlots.
“We went to places in this wonderful land that had views and textures I had never seen before. It’s such a big, big country and it has a kind of light and a kind of look I had never encountered. It’s truly overwhelming, to the point where you say, if there was a Garden of Eden this is where it would be,” he said about the making of the film.
The bottom line is that Hollywood is really a global industry, and the Academy’s predilection toward foreign-set and -shot films is just a reflection of that reality.
In 1998, for instance, all five pic nominees were foreign- lensed: “The Thin Red Line” (Australia), “Elizabeth” (U.K.), “Life Is Beautiful” (Italy), “Saving Private Ryan” (France, U.K.) and winner “Shakespeare in Love” (U.K.).
This year promises to continue the decades-long love affair between Oscar and the rest of the world with internationally lensed contenders such as Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “King Kong,” “Syriana,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and even a Woody Allen film that finds the New York-centric filmmaker venturing to shoot in England.
Another hopeful with liberal use of locations is “The Constant Gardener”; pic’s director Fernando Meirelles says he couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
“I really tried hard to convince production and everybody that we should shoot in Kenya. I like to shoot in real places with real people,” he says. “If you feel it’s a real place and they’re real people, for some reason the story becomes more believable and you watch the film and think it’s true. A lot of people ask me if it’s a documentary.”
The filmmakers were so moved by their experience in Kenya that they have set up an ongoing fund using some of the film’s profits to benefit some of the impoverished areas where they filmed.
One of this year’s most exotic foreign locales is the Japan of Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Ironically, because of the film’s period requirements (it spans the first half of the 20th century) Marshall was forced to shoot most of his pic in Southern California — harkening back to an era of Hollywood “location” filming where no one traveled much farther than the backlot.
“We scouted Japan looking for the authentic settings, and it doesn’t exist because everything’s so modern. It was impossible to find streets and a village because of wiring and electric signs and Coke machines. We looked everywhere,” he says. “The only thing that exists now in Japan that we could — and did — shoot were shrines and temples and gardens.”