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OSCARS THEORY: Does the sole Yankee always beat 4 foreigners?

November 29, 2007 |  6:56 am

With so many foreigners competing in the Oscars race for best actress this year — Helena Bonham Carter ("Sweeney Todd"), Julie Christie ("Away from Her"), Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose"), Keira Knightley ("Atonement") and Ellen Page ("Juno"), among others — it's possible that we may again see a sole Yankee in the race. Perhaps only Angelina Jolie ("A Might Heart") or Laura Linney ("The Savages")?

If so, we'll hear lots of chatter among Oscarologists about that ole chestnut that a sole Yankee always prevails against a foreign invasion. But is the theory really true?


Believers use this theory to explain the seemingly unexplainable, including Marisa Tomei's 1992 supporting-actress win for "My Cousin Vinny." While Helen Hunt ("As Good As It Gets") beat four foreign lasses, she had won several awards leading up to the Oscars. Tomei had not. On Oscar night, the frontrunner in that supporting race figured to be Aussie Judy Davis who had picked up several critics prizes for her work in Woody Allen's domestic drama "Husbands and Wives." Nipping at her heels were thought to be the three Brits — Dame Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier's widow, who had won the Globe for "Enchanted April", New York critics choice Miranda Richardson ("Damage"), and Vanessa Redgrave ("Howards End").

But just how parochial are the Academy Awards? Before 1997, the last time a lone American actress prevailed over four foreigners in the lead-actress race was back in 1971 when Jane Fonda won for "Klute." Her competition? South African Janet Suzman ("Nicholas and Alexandra"), and three Brits - Vanessa Redgrave ("Mary, Queen of Scots"), the previous year's winner Glenda Jackson ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), and one Julie Christie ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller").

Interestingly, when Christie won in 1965, she beat two other Brits — the previous year's winner Julie Andrews ("The Sound of Music") and Samantha Eggar ("The Collector") as well as France's only best actress winner Simone Signoret ("Ship of Fools") and the sole American nominee, newcomer Elizabeth Hartman ("A Patch of Blue").

The following year, 1966, was the only one in Oscar history that all five lead actress nominees hailed from foreign lands. British born Elizabeth Taylor won her second Oscar for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" beating out both British Redgrave sisters — Vanessa ("Morgan!") and Lynn ("Georgy Girl") as well as French beauty Anouk Aimee ("A Man and a Woman") and Ukrainian Ida Kaminska ("The Shop on Main Street").

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For those keeping score, the only all-foreign supporting actress race was in 1963 when Brit Margaret Rutherford ("The VIPs") won over Austrian Lilia Skalas ("Lillies of the Field") and a trio from best picture winner "Tom Jones" — Irish Joyce Redman, Aussie Diane Cilento and English Edith Evans.

Before 1971, you have to go all the way back to 1933 to find when the lone Yankee — in this case Katharine Hepburn taking home her first Oscar ("Morning Glory") — beat out just foreign competition — England's Diana Wynyard ("Cavalcade") and Australia's May Robson ("Lady for a Day"). By the way, Robson has the distinction of being the earliest born nominated actress ever, arriving into the world in 1858.

The previous year, 1932, and long before she was the first lady of the American theater, Helen Hayes won her first Oscar ("The Sins of Madelon Claudet") over 1931's winner Canadian Marie Dressler ("Emma") and England's Lynn Fontanne ("The Guardsman").

And since 1997, the lone American factor has certainly not helped two Oscar winners add to their collections. In 2003, Diane Keaton ("Something's Gotta Give") lost to South African Charlize Theron ("Monster") while last year Meryl Streep ("The Devil Wears Prada") could not keep Essex girl Helen Mirren from winning yet another award for "The Queen." Of course, Streep is Oscar royalty. That nod was her fourteenth. However, with two past wins (one in supporting for "Kramer vs. Kramer"), she is quick to remind us this means she has lost more than anyone else as well.

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Talk about Helen Hunt winning for best actress for "As Good As It Gets". Here's some interesting trivia. Take 3-time Oscar champ Jack Nicholson. Isn't it amazing that all three of his Oscar wins came with a win for the lead actress: Louise Fletcher for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", Hunt in "As Good As It Gets", and Shirley MaClaine in "Terms of Endearment"?

However, Fletcher's career never took off after winning for "One Flew....", Hunt's career stalled after her win. By contrast, MaClaine's win came at what could be called the zenith of her career; she had been nominated on at least four other occasions and has a storied stage career as well.

Jack may have more influence on the Academy voters than anyone realizes.

Tom, you always talk about how the Academy never nominates comedic performances and never let them win. Well here is a perfect example of it happening. She won because she stole the movie( just like Jennifer Hudson did for "Dreamgirls") and made it worth watching! And you act like its some great travesty. Your acting just like the Academy does with these kind of performances.

You didn't do the boys! Robert Duvall's win for lead actor in Tender Mercies beat 4 Brits--Michael Caine in Educating Rita; Tom Conti in Reuben, Reubem; and co-stars Tom Courtney and Albert Finney in The Dresser.

As for Tomei's win--much like Nicholson in A Few Good Men, her "big moments" come right at the end of the movie. It pained me at the time, but with a little 20/20 hindsight I'm happier with her winning for that than I am about Tom Hanks winning for Philadelphia. Or Kim Basinger for LA Confidential.

Ida Kaminska was polish

That's an excellent analysis Rob! I always thought Richardson would have had a great chance had she been nominated for The Crying Game. While the performance in Damage was heartwrenching, the Crying Game was the better received and seen film, by far. Nevertheless, I still feel they chose the right performance for the nomination even though it killed her chances.

Ellen Page? Ok so she's Canadian that is so different then other nationalities. I mean if it were four Canadians instead of three Brits and an Aussie (which is practically the same as British) against Marissa Tomei, no one would make a big deal out of Tomei being the only American. Same goes for Charlize Theron shes practically american

Two things: first, if there's going to be a lone Yankee in this Best Actress race, surely it would most likely be Amy Adams? Though I think Laura Linney and Ellen Page will probably be on the list too. I don't rate Jolie's chances as highly.

Second, why do even seasoned Oscarologists such as you continue to find Marisa Tomei's win so inexplicable? It can easily be explained - not by the lone American theory (though that surely didn't hurt her chances), but by sheer process of elimination.

Judy Davis's chances were scuppered by the whole Woody Allen/Mia Farrow controversy of 1992 - the Academy couldn't bring itself to honour an Allen film that year, least of all such a raw, uncomfortable work. Joan Plowright had the sentimental advantage and the Golden Globe, but hardly anyone saw the film (and the performance wasn't very memorable). Miranda Richardson would have been a good bet to win a "body of work" Oscar for her three high-profile perfs that year, but strangely the Academy chose to nominate her for the most unpopular and critically reviled of those films. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave still hadn't been forgiven for her politicising the last time she won.

So that left Marisa Tomei, who had no real drawbacks - a knockout comic perf in a popular (albeit lightweight) film, she was believed to be the Next Big Thing even before she won, and benefited from the Academy's continual favouring of pretty ingenues in that category. Hell, I predicted it right and I was ten years old then! Why can no-one see how obvious it actually was?

Now if Miranda Richardson had been nominated for The Crying Game instead, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion!



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