When it comes to patriotic flag-waving and Oscar time, Slumdog Millionaire is as British as its young male star, Dev Patel, who hadn’t been to India until the actual shooting of the movie. Winning best picture among its eight statuettes, it joins previous British winners Hamlet (1948); The Bridge on the River Kwai; Lawrence of Arabia; Tom Jones; A Man for All Seasons; Oliver!; Chariots of Fire; Gandhi; The English Patient; and Shakespeare in Love.
Eleven winners since 1927-8 shows Oscar is an Anglophile and always has been. In the best actor category, British actors have often won in American pictures. The roll of honour there is golden, from George Arliss in Disraeli and Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood. That’s 16 victories.
For best actress, count 12 wins, from Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind to Helen Mirren in The Queen, and now Kate Winslet in The Reader (which also has a British scriptwriter, director and male lead). This list leaves out Elizabeth Taylor (born and raised in London, albeit with American parents); plus the sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, who took great pride in their English heritage but were actually born in Tokyo.
British supporting actors have won that Oscar 12 times since 1936. For supporting actresses, the number is 10. For directors, there are 10 more winners, including David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, Tony Richardson for Tom Jones and John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy.
There were two British directors nominated this year and Sam Mendes could easily have been a third with Revolutionary Road — a near-classic American novel that no American director could get mounted.
Hollywood has always been wide open to British talent, charm and society. In the days when the Academy was founded (roughly at the coming of sound) acting British was a sign of refinement and value. That’s what helped Ronald Colman and Cary Grant to their success. It’s part of the Wasp-like tone that attached to Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and even Meryl Streep.
British cinematographers have racked up win after win, including this year’s victory for Anthony Dodd Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire. Since 1945, the Brits have dominated the screenwriting awards.
In the 10 writing nominations this year, five went to Brits (and Simon Beaufoy won, again for Slumdog —).
The lesson is clear: you can’t make a great American movie without hiring British. —