There’s about a fortnight or so to go until the pinnacle of Hollywood’s seemingly unending self-congratulatory season, the Academy Awards, takes place. And, according to many film critics and Las Vegas odds makers who actually do take bets on this sort of thing, the quest for the Best Picture statue would appear to be a two-movie toss-down between The King’s Speech and The Social Network, with Black Swan, Inception and True Grit further behind. Everyone trying to handicap the Oscar races has their own thoughts as to why one movie may win out over another: artistic aspirations, social significance, “feel good” themes, the size of the buffet table at studio screenings, and so forth. Well, I’m no different, and I’d like to present my own very simple theory on the subject; Simply put, The King’s Speech will take top honors due to its English setting.
You see, in the Academy Awards’ 83-year history, no less than 14 Best Picture winners have been primarily set or had key scenes in the United Kingdom. Chronologically, they are Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Chariots of Fire, Braveheart, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love (but not, curiously, The English Patient). Why the infatuation with America’s former mother country? It could just be that the Oscars have traditionally marked Hollywood’s attempt to elevate its product to the rarefied level of fine art, and to our untrained ears few things sound more artistic and sophisticated that an English accent. Heck, they even gave the 1948 award to a movie that was filled with English accents but set in Denmark, Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet.
Does this mean there’s no Oscar love for domestically-based projects? Quite the contrary. Britain’s tally is actually second to the city so nice they named it twice, New York, New York. The Big Apple was home base for an impressive 17 of the first 52 top films: The Broadway Melody, It Happened One Night, The Great Ziegfeld, You Can’t Take It with You, Going My Way, The Lost Weekend, Gentleman’s Agreement, All About Eve, Marty, The Apartment, West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, and Kramer vs. Kramer. It sure seems as though a lot of actors, writers, and directors out in Hollywood get nostalgic for their East Coast beginnings. One might think that that this would give a boost to the chances for the Gotham-based ballet drama Black Swan, but, interestingly, no New York-set film has taken home the Best Picture award since Kramer in 1980.
Third place in the locale list also sits across the pond. Four movies with primarily French settings–Wings, The Life of Emile Zola, An American in Paris, and Gigi, along with the partly Gallic All Quiet on the Western Front and the aforementioned Chariots of Fire–have come away with Hollywood’s top prize. Coming in out of the money at fourth is America’s third-largest metropolis, that “city of the big shoulders,” Chicago, setting for The Sting, Ordinary People (set in the Oak Forest suburbs) and, of course, Chicago. The Academy’s home base of Los Angeles is home to a mere two winners to date, Million Dollar Baby and Crash (sorry, L.A., but the last 20 minutes of Annie Hall doesn’t count). and no other spot on the globe can lay claim to more than two films, among them Atlanta (Gone with the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy); Austria (The Sound of Music, Amadeus); India (Gandhi, Slumdog Millionaire); New Jersey (On the Waterfront, A Beautiful Mind); and Vietnam (The Deer Hunter, Platoon). Meanwhile, locals here in southeastern Pennsylvania must content themselves with a single Philadelphia-flavored winner, 1976’s Rocky. Oh, and call it modesty, self-loathing or what have you, but there’s never been a Best Picture that had Hollywood as its main milieu (Editor’s Note: This article was, of course written before 2012’s top prize went to The Artist.)
With all this in mind, the Harvard- and Silicon Valley-set Social Network could well need the help of all its “friends” if director David Fincher’s Web-based biodrama is to stand a chance of taking the Oscar crown away from King George VI. Clearly, when it comes to success at the Academy Awards, there’ll always be an England.