At the 1982 Oscars ceremony Colin Welland waved aloft the award he had just won for the screenplay of Chariots of Fire and announced: “The British are coming!”
This proclamation was widely regarded as the result of euphoria and thus not taken too seriously. But Welland wasn’t entirely wrong. Chariots of Fire won four Oscars, including best picture, and next year Gandhi trumped that with eight, among them best picture, best director (Richard Attenborough) and best actor (Ben Kingsley).
Since then only Slumdog Millionaire in 2009 has emulated Gandhi, but even so the Brits have consistently had a significant presence at the Oscars. Acting awards have gone to such as Daniel Day-Lewis (best actor three times), Michael Caine (best supporting actor twice), Emma Thompson (uniquely a winner for both best actress and best screenplay), and the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth and Tilda Swinton.
In the same period four British directors and seven screenwriters have won, not to mention various awards in less glamorous but equally important technical categories. OK, so that’s roughly the record up to this year when, finally, the British can surely be said to have arrived.
Two British films are among the eight nominated for best picture – The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game – and their respective male stars, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, are up for best actor. Meanwhile Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) are nominated for best actress and Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) for best supporting actress. Already that’s a pretty hefty non-American presence at an essentially American awards ceremony, without mentioning nominations in the technical areas.
Of course, how many – if any – of them will win is another matter. Redmayne may have added the Bafta award for best actor to his Golden Globe, but the Las Vegas bookies make him second favourite for the Oscar to Michael Keaton (Birdman).
Frankly, I don’t understand that. For me Keaton wasn’t even the best actor in Birdman: that was Edward Norton, who is up for best supporting player. Indeed, Keaton is no better than two British actors – David Oyelowo (Selma) and Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) – who were sadly overlooked for nominations.
But then most of the nearly 7,000 Oscar voters are American and Keaton is a local boy, 63 years old, who has never won a major award, apart from a Golden Globe. So he’ll probably get the home team decision.
In fact, give or take Redmayne and Keaton, what happened at the Baftas may well be repeated at the Oscars. All the other Bafta winners in the main categories are favourites to win again at the Academy Awards.
But so what? It always seems to me that the Oscars are much more interesting at the nominations stage than in the final analysis. Apart from best picture, for which everyone votes, all the nominees are chosen by their peers – actors by other actors, directors by other directors and so on. If people who were probably vying with you for the same job think you did some of the best work of the year, that’s a true compliment.
Just being nominated for an Oscar is a victory in itself. It’s only when it comes to picking the winners that everyone votes in every category and the whole thing becomes little better than a crapshoot. Personal likes and dislikes come into play. You might vote for someone simply because he or she was nice to you on the set.
Then there’s the question of whether all the voters actually saw all the films. It’s not unknown for some, especially the elderly, to get their maids to watch them on DVD and deliver their opinions.
But even if all our starry contenders come home empty-handed, the British are still a powerful influence in Hollywood. Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Emily Blunt (Into the Woods) and Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) were nominated for Golden Globes.
And in Selma, the story of a vital event in American history, the civil rights march led by Martin Luther King in 1965, all the main players – David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo and Tim Roth – were British.
What’s more, as James Corden pointed out recently, Batman (Christian Bale), Superman (Henry Cavill) and Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) are all played by Brits. Corden himself is about to take over as host of The Late Late Show, thus adding to the list of Brits – Damian Lewis (Homeland) and Dominic West (The Wire), for instance – who have made an impact on TV over there.
We may not be serial winners of Oscars, but it seems Welland was right, if not quite in the way he meant.
Live coverage of the 87th Annual Academy Awards can be seen on Sky Movies Oscars tomorrow morning (Monday 23rd February) at 1.30am
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