We want our Oscars back!

Colin Firth’s awards season triumph is part of a ruthless British takeover of Hollywood.

Actors are the UK's greatest export. They are also the most destabilising factor in the "serious American actor" economy. The Brits are taking advantage of a crisis within our film industry. Come Oscars night, we Americans will once again be forced to bear witness to their power. While we prepare for our annual celebration of America's favourite art form, the British are plotting their ruthless attack.

There is little doubt the outcome will be anything short of a bloodbath. Colin Firth - shy and composed, an Englishman to the core - will cinch the Best Actor statuette for his role in The King's Speech; Christian Bale will be victorious in the Best Supporting Actor category (for The Fighter). All the drama over which film will take top honours has been choked by the plight of a stammering English monarch few Americans under the age of 75 had ever heard of before now (and whose real-life comportment on the eve of war is rather daintily papered over by the film-makers).

Why are the British waging such a savage assault on one of the last remaining, albeit wobbly, American industries? Hasn't the American movie business been good to you? The benevolent hand of the Hollywood Industrial Complex has reached down to pluck many a Brit from the dreary BBC salt mines and propel them into a life of international fame.

Jeremy Irons was merely skulking around Brideshead until we swooped him up into Reversal of Fortune and then made him a bona-fide movie star with the Die Hard franchise. Tom Hardy used to stand atop Emily Brontë's wuthering moors in a stringy wig. Now, he's burned into young America's erotic psyche as the dashing forger from Inception. Hollywood has been Michael Caine's retirement home for over a decade.

Movies are sacred to us Americans, though it would be remiss of me to say we always paid them proper reverence. Our national identity, as well as our individual personas, stem from the movies. And we have certainly given the British their due place in our collective fantasy life. You've sparkled on our screens as unflappable spies, erudite villains, affable bartenders and sexually unthreatening romantic leads. We've rewarded your efforts with plaques, ceremonies and enormous box-office returns. Even your mediocre actresses, such as Kate Winslet, trample ours at awards shows. Helen Mirren could burp on a studio set and we would lob Oscars at her in return.

The Brits have even wriggled their way into our cash-cow superhero franchises. Christopher Nolan (director of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) has become the pre-eminent blockbuster auteur. Even our action stars are getting elbowed out by the grey-haired alumni of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Virtuosos such as Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, who could toss off a King Lear soliloquy in their sleep, traipse through our childhood imagination as American superheroes.

Yet having a Welshman (Bale) play Batman is not enough to quench the UK's imperial ambitions. Like Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, the inevitable sweep by The King's Speech on Oscar night will be a thuggish affair. Can't the British take some pity on us, especially as Hollywood suffers a decade-long thespian famine? We have been subsisting on a diet of paltry performances by feckless boys and cloying, wispy girls. Sure, this generation of actors can mug, recite and would perhaps be fun to sleep with, but they are crummy actors.

Even the fading titans who remain among us - the ones who made British public school boys want to smoke, box and take part in shoot-outs - have cashed in on their pedigree to clown about in crowd-pleasers. On occasion, some kindly director will trot out Robert Duvall or Diane Keaton and give them a bit part next to a twentysomething celebrity who wouldn't know who Lee Strasberg was if he stuck his cold, dead tongue in their ear.

It's not even that the Brits take more risks. After all, the tradition of British acting has a lot more to do with recitation and fencing than it does with sense memory and psychological excavation. While our actors have become expert liars, the Brits have always been good pretenders. You've restrained yourself from sawing your arms through the air and stamping around. Indeed, it would seem that your stodginess, the very rigidity that is so often associated with the Queen's subjects, has now become your greatest advantage in Hollywood. As Nabokov's bumbling Humbert Humbert says to the devious Clare Quilty in Lolita, "You took advantage of my disadvantage." The British have taken advantage of our disadvantage. Rather than letting us save face by handing trophies to inferior, though authentically American works of art, you will instead shamelessly mine us for our Oscar gold.

Note that I am much more prepared to concede the inferiority of our product rather than admit the inexplicable and sudden superiority of yours. With that confession, we might as well cut right to the root of our malady. This is to be found on a small stretch of a street in New York City called Broadway.

American theatre served as the great incubator for that spectacular group of playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, directors such as Bob Fosse and giants of the acting profession such as Marlon Brando, who would eventually burst with indescribable and exceptional energy on to the screen. (Could you picture Firth on his knees screaming out in animalistic rage for his wife? Me neither.)

Those once-hallowed boards have warped and deteriorated and now attract nothing more than risk-averse tourists to see reboots of 50-year-old musicals or jukebox collages of whatever act is burning up the nostalgia charts these days. Even worse, when an interchangeable Hollywood starlet is between plum film roles, she will spend a summer muttering through some forgettable revival on Broadway to beef up her résumé.
Young stars from the US lack any thorough grounding in the theatre, and are prematurely thrust on to the screen. Here lies the source of America's cinematic atrophy and the British triumph - which once again is more by accident than by design. The camera lens is such a constricting device - so invasive, so intimate - that all viscera and emotions must be dampened, else you appear like a lunatic.

Instead of playing to the gasps and applause of a live crowd through the unbroken curve of a play, this new generation of actors has had only one master: the cold, unblinking eye of the camera. The natural response is to be guarded, removed and false. Only the truly vain and pathological could feel satisfied watching 30-foot-high projections of themselves. The end result: this generation of American actors is far more adept at being liars and hustlers than it is at being artists or seducers.

You need look no further than our main Oscar contender for this year's Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, the very model of the new Hollywood actor. A jumpy, affectless boy who brings an unnerving amount of paranoia to all his roles, Eisenberg is a mealy-mouthed sock puppet for a heavy-handed screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) who made his bones writing scripts for television. Eisenberg's career is merely a continuing portrayal of the same socially inept adolescent. He shows little sign of making a memorable choice of character, and his performance in The Social Network is no exception.

Even our more respected stars such as George Clooney or Johnny Depp are opaque and keep their distance from the audience. The film historian David Thomson (good grief! I have to make this point by quoting a native Londoner) diagnosed this as a growing American problem: an "uneasiness over sincerity".

The downward spiral is accelerated by the dismal, if not embarrassing, state of American cinema. Why should one of our actors, even if they knew how, spill their innermost thoughts out on to the screen if the pictures have lost their dignity? In any case, lurking right behind them is a wry and poised Englishman, a veteran of tedious Jane Austen adaptations, who need do nothing more than stutter and stammer to outshine you. Don't get a swollen head about it. You Brits are still boring. But nowadays, you're simply better.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is an American writer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of "Mad Men Unbuttoned: a Romp Through 1960s America" (Collins Design, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants