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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide