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Mark Steyn

Ten Years Ago

A Great Night for British-ish Film

The Academy Awards come up tomorrow and we're marking them with a look at The Oscar For Best Oscar Speech and a salute to Hollywood's Silent Star. Here's how things looked a decade ago, a year when Jesus got the cold shoulder from the Academy, and I had to break the news to Speccie readers that the 2004 Oscars had been a bonanza for every outpost of the British Commonwealth except, er, Britain:

It was a night of triumph for British film. Well, okay, it wasn't. "UK Overlooked By Oscar Voters" was the BBC headline. "Whatever Happened To The Brit Pack?" wondered The Scotsman. "Ring Of Failure," declared a gloomy Birmingham Post, waking up to the bleak realization that the only Tolkien tourism boom was going to be the stampede to New Zealand to see the actual Shire where the great Kiwi author wrote his famous fantasy.

So it was a crummy night for British film. But it was a great night for British Commonwealth film – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, even Britain (the one-third of the Best Song written by Annie Lennox, plus make-up man Peter King and set designer Alan Lee, all three sharing in the Hobbit spoils); even my own decayed Dominion picked up Best Foreign-Language Film for Les Invasions Barbares. If the Eurocentric British press weren't so parochial, it would hail the Oscars as a grand triumph for what the Queen calls "our Commonwealth family": if you were a nominee who had the good fortune to be a subject of the Crown, you had a much better chance of taking home a statuette than those poor souls cursed to be free-born citizens of the United States.

Indeed, the Oscars are a much better – or, at any rate, less feeble - advertisement for the Imperial family than the Commonwealth Conference. If I were Her Majesty, I'd make it the theme of this year's Christmas message: start with one of those sappy Oscar-intro things about movies bringing the world together to sit in the dark and dare to dream our dreams, blah, blah, and then put her next to an Alberta key grip and a New South Wales gaffer showing her how to grip and gaff ("Really? How interesting") and end with her asking Charlize Theron's mum about the night she shot Charlize's dad ("Really? How interesting").

Billy Crystal had some cute cracks about down under: "It's official," he announced halfway through the night. "There's now no-one left to thank in New Zealand." But an opening reference to the Great White North was more pointed: "All of Hollywood is here. It's like the Canadian Oscars." Hollywood is the only place on the planet frightened of Canada. New Zealand is still an exotic, remote location, but Vancouver and Montreal are the default locations. When Clint Eastwood insisted Mystic River, set in Boston, actually be filmed in Boston, it was considered as radical a move as when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen insisted on filming On The Town in New York. In those days, if they wanted Manhattan or the mid-west or the Rockies or darkest Africa they built it on the back-lot. Now they just do it in Canada: "New York" is Toronto, "Philadelphia" is Calgary… The film unions, from the carpenters to the bit-players, are sick of it.

On the campaign trail, John Kerry keeps hammering corporations about "outsourcing" and "exporting" American jobs. But you'd be hard put to find as outsourced an industry as Hollywood, except maybe children's toys. The only difference is that, unlike the toy makers, the guys making the big decisions at head office in LA seem to have forgotten the basic business rule: KYC – Know Your Customers. All last week, Oscar types were whining that Mel Gibson was stealing their buzz. That's true to the extent that it was a buzz-less Oscars, and on the big night even the frocks were dull, with a pronounced lack of cleavage, save for game gals of a certain age like Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon. But the buzz about Mel's movie came from the Hollywooden liberals in the big media who've spent the best part of a year warning that The Passion Of The Christ was going to be the biggest thing on the anti-semitic scene since The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. All those liberal columnists who champion the necessity of brave transgressive artists when it comes to giving us a horny Jesus (The Last Temptation Of Christ), a gay Jesus (the Broadway play Corpus Christi) or a Jesus floating in the artist's urine (Piss Christ) have finally discovered a Jesus it would be grossly irresponsible to show to the public.

But what's really hilarious is Hollywood's failure to get The Passion Of The Christ as a business proposition. Until a month ago, the standard line from the studio execs was that Mel Gibson had blown well over 30 million bucks of his own money on a vanity project for him and and a handful of other Jesus freaks. Last week, it racked up the biggest mid-week opening – not just of any film in Aramaic but of any non-sequel movie ever; the only bigger opening gross was for The Return Of The King. Now the new rap on Mel is that he claims to be a Christian but he's making gazillions off his Saviour's suffering. Well, one reason he's making so much is because he doesn't have to share it with any of the big Hollywood muscle who were convinced the fundamentalist weirdo was out of his tree. Unlike all that Miramax pseudo-art-house stuff, The Passion is a genuine independent film: the system wasn't interested, so Mel bypassed it, and he's cleaning up.

How did they get it so wrong? Until 40 years ago, religious movies were a staple of Hollywood. The audience didn't change, Hollywood did. A couple of years back, I was at a conference at Paramount on American values and someone asked why they didn't make more religious pictures. Carmine Zozsora, producer of the Die Hard movies, replied in all seriousness: "Well, we tried that with The Last Temptation Of Christ, and it didn't work out too well."

That's the reality behind all that Oscar-night blather about how movies bind us together in stories of our common humanity, etc, etc. In fact, Hollywood defines our common humanity ever more narrowly. Nobody was in the mood for big anti-Bush speeches on Sunday night, and even Sean Penn contented himself with a mere subordinate clause about how actors had known there were no WMDs. But that's all you need. Like Billy Crystal's crack about Bush's National Guard service, it's the celebrity equivalent of a Masonic handshake – a way of signaling that you're in the club. But the club excludes too many people, and, if it carries on like that, the movie biz will be in as much trouble as the music biz.

That's not my main rap against Sean Penn, of course. Bill Murray was not only robbed but weirdly humiliated in his loss by Billy Crystal. As I said in my review, as you watch Mystic River Penn and Tim Robbins seem to be "furiously tap-dancing for Oscar votes." More fool the Academy for falling for it.

from The Spectator, March 6th 2004

from The Spectator, March 1, 2014

 

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