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Oscar's British Love Affair

Feb. 15, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

A look back at the Oscars in a less contentious era than our own. First published on February 26, 2014 on

“There will always be an England, even if it’s in Hollywood.”

That was just one of many barbs Bob Hope aimed at the British film industry during the Academy Awards broadcast for movies released in 1964, a year when English films, actors, and filmmakers dominated the presentation. The ceremonies took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (as they did during most of the 1960s) prompting Hope to open the show with: “Good evening and welcome to Santa Monica on the Thames.”

Old Country 2012 nominees Judi Dench, Chewitel Eijofor

This wasn’t the first time that England had figured prominently in the Oscars. The British Invasion of Hollywood began in 1930. George Arliss was the first of his countrymen to win a Best Actor Oscar for “Disraeli,” followed the next year by Charles Laughton for “The Private Life of Henry VIII.” Victor McLaglen, Vivien Leigh, and Robert Donat won Best Actor or Actress honors later in that decade.* British stars enjoyed similar success in 1940s. Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Ray Milland, Ronald Coleman, Laurence Olivier earned Oscars. Olivia de Havilland won two (for “To Each His Own,” 1946, and “The Heiress,” 1949). (Curiously, until the late 1940s, the Academy reserved its praise for actors only. Up to that point, no Britons had been nominated for writing, directing, cinematography, Best Picture, or other categories.) David Niven, Alec Guinness and, again, Vivien Leigh were the only Brits to win the top acting award in the 1950s. But things were about to change.

From its earliest days to this year’s multiple nominations for “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena,” the Academy Awards have welcomed the Brits.

The 1960s proved to be the best decade for British films and actors, with multiple nominations and Oscars. Both “Oliver” (1968) and “Tom Jones” (1963) won for Best Picture, only the second and third British films since the first awards given out in 1929. (“Hamlet” had won in 1948.) 1964 was particularly eventful for British films and filmmakers – and British-themed films made in Hollywood. Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Peter Sellers dominated in the top acting category. Harrison won for “My Fair Lady,” as did Julie Andrews for “Mary Poppins.”

Peter Ustinov, Stanley Holloway, John Gielgud, Gladys Cooper, and Edith Evans took five of the ten supporting actor slots. “Becket,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Mary Poppins” were Best Picture nominees. Joining them was “Dr. Strangelove Or How I learned to Love the Bomb,” from Bronx-born director Stanley Kubrick, who moved to England to make the picture and never left. He lived in England for the rest of his life.

1964's "Becket": ten nominations, only one Oscar for screenplay

Other British movies nominated that year: “A Hard Days’ Night” for original screenplay and “Goldfinger” for sound editing. In 1965, when the camera zoomed in on Bob Hope as he stepped to the podium at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the comedian opened the show with these remarks: Good evening and Welcome to Santa Monica on the Thames…This will be a very unusual night. Tonight Hollywood is handing out the foreign aid… Incidentally there's a new rule tonight. Before you can pick up your Oscar, you have to show your passport... How do you like those nominations? Richard Burton Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers. Don’t we deport anybody?

"There's a new rule tonight. Before you can pick up your Oscar, you have to show your passport."

In the years since, several British films have gained outsized recognition from the Motion Picture Academy: “Chariots of Fire” (1981, seven nominations, four Oscars including its memorable Vangelis score), “Gandhi” (1982, 11 nominations, six Oscars), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998, nine nominations,six Oscars including this year’s nominee Judi Dench), “Slumdog Millionaire (2008, ten nominations, eight Oscars including Best Picture) and “The King’s Speech” (2010, ten nominations, four Oscars including Best Actor, Picture, Director). The cavalcade of British movies and filmmakers continues to this day, as witnessed by Oscar nominations this year for Chewitel Ejiofor, Christian Bale, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett (actually, she’s Australian), Steve McQueen, Sally Hawkins, Roger Deakins, Steve Coogan, and for the films “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” and, yes, even “Gravity.” The British Academy of Film and Television Arts considers it a homegrown product, because of its British producer and that it was filmed at Shepperton Studios, near London. *Arliss was also nominated in the same category for “The Green Goddess.” He wasn’t the only double nominee that year. Ronald Coleman was nominated twice as Best Actor for “Bulldog Drummond” and “Condemned.” Maurice Chevalier also received two Best Actor nominations for “The Love Parade” and “The Big Pond.” And Greta Garbo was twice nominated for Best Actress for “Anna Christie” and “Romance.” Clarence Brown, the director of both films, also received double Best Director nominations

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