My earliest memory of Oscar hype is this. I was 11 years old and being driven home from school with the radio on. We were stuck in traffic when the news bulletin came on: the Oscar nominations had been announced. But rather than talk about the different films that were up for Best Picture, all the focus seemed to be on Billy Elliot, Billy Elliot and Billy Elliot. Three Billy Elliots for the three nominations it had received (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress). The DJs probably talked about how cute Jamie Bell was and I distinctly remember them interviewing an American commentator whose pronunciation of “Julie Walters” made me laugh. Would she follow in Shakespeare in Love’s recently revered footsteps? Was this the year that Billy Elliot would bring it home for the Brits?
Sadly, Billy came home empty-handed, and as much as I enjoyed An Education, I wouldn’t be too surprised or annoyed if it suffered the same fate. It’s also received three nominations (Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay), as has The Young Victoria, whilst the British stars of The Last Station and A Single Man are sitting hopefully in acting categories.
In the past nine years, it’s been a pleasure to hear about the successes of Kate Winslet, Wallace & Gromit, Julian Fellowes and Danny Boyle, to name but a few. But the Academy Awards are a Hollywood affair and we should never forget it. If you’re a British film fan who places importance on American awards ceremonies, count yourself lucky that we’re one of the highest-represented countries out there.
When reporting the nominations, this year’s newspapers have largely focused once again on how the UK has fared. “Plucky Brits in the frame as US big hitters slug it out for Oscars glory,” wrote The Times. “Respectable showing for British actors as ex-spouses square up for Oscar glory,” reported The Guardian. The image this creates carries an inferiority complex: whilst the British film industry will never reach the size of Hollywood, it still turns west for approval more often than it looks at its immediate audience. It’s not so different from the political analogy presented by In the Loop (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay): we have a ‘special relationship’ with the USA, and we’re seduced into it by the idea of riding in a big limo.
But the relationship between British and American films at the Oscars is symbiotic: just as we make historical dramas so that the Academy will take notice of our British accents, so the Academy looks to the U.K. to seem more international than it really is, for period films that we know how to make better than anyone else. Rather than being a part of the Oscar hype machine, the BAFTAs would do well to model themselves on the César Awards which honour the best French films of the year. Wouldn’t things be more interesting if An Education was competing with Fish Tank for Best Film, whilst Avatar waits to see if it will be named Best Foreign Film?