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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : Rue, Britannia : The British like it when their Oscar nominees win. Really they do. It's just that first, a bit of struggle is required--and modesty's mandatory

March 20, 1994|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

LONDON — Everyone loves a winner, right?

If you believe that, it only goes to show you've never spent any time in Britain.

At no time of year is it clearer that the British despise their winners than the weeks leading up to Oscar night.

Around this time, Americans who take an interest in such things are animatedly speculating whether Tom Hanks, Tommy Lee Jones, Winona Ryder or whomever they like will receive a statuette come Oscar night. Should their favored nominees win (and make the right kind of modest noises in their acceptance speeches), then Americans, good-hearted, generous-spirited people that they are, will be genuinely pleased for them.

We British approach all this rather differently. We are a nation suffering from the "tall poppy" syndrome--which means we take cruel delight in cutting down those individuals who distinguish themselves above others. We just about tolerate people who restrict their success to Britain. For those who have the temerity to achieve fame and respect abroad we reserve our deepest loathing. Especially if they do so in America. More especially still if they do so in Hollywood.

This is why, since Oscar nominations were announced, the British media have been sharpening their knives. Prime targets this year are Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson.

Day-Lewis has already stuck his head above the parapet, having won a surprise Oscar for 1989's "My Left Foot." This time the media are ready for him; since this year's nomination he has been the subject of newspaper profiles that, in the absence of any sexual scandal or substance abuse problems surrounding him, simply seek to portray him as an obsessive teetering on the very edge of sanity.

His breakdown during a 1989 stage performance of "Hamlet" was exhumed and analyzed for clues to his alleged instability. His preparations for his Oscar-nominated role in "In the Name of the Father" were lovingly detailed--how he had himself locked into a prison cell on the film set for three days, how he hired men to kick at his cell door, shout abuse at him and douse him with buckets of water to interrupt his sleep. This, said one headline, was "madly obsessive" behavior. An anonymous source said: "A lot of actors pretend to be crazy. But with Daniel you can never be sure it's just an act."

Given the parlous state of their film industry, one might think the British would be wildly cheering an actor like Day-Lewis, whose success at the very least brings enormous credit to their acting tradition. Instead, the Brits, with a wink and a smirk, prefer to insinuate he's gaga.

Thompson comes off even worse. She is someone who, in academy terms, has achieved something even more extraordinary: The year after winning an Oscar for "Howards End," she is now nominated for two further performances--in "The Remains of the Day" and "In the Name of the Father." Yet she and her husband, Kenneth Branagh, are chronic irritants to the British media because they have achieved success at an early age, and because they show every sign of relishing it.

Branagh committed the unforgivably immodest sin (in British eyes) of writing an autobiography before his 30th birthday; when it became clear that Hollywood regarded him as a major talent, his fate in his homeland was sealed. (If Branagh ever wins an Oscar, a good half-dozen journalists in Britain may contemplate suicide.)

Thompson now recalls that the British press initially approved of her, but implied after she married Branagh that she only got work through him. "I thought, 'Boy, is that ever mean-spirited,' " she said. "And sexist."

Now Thompson does not talk to Britain's tabloids. But it was a broadsheet film critic, the Sunday Times' Julie Burchill, who recently launched the most damning attack on her.

Reviewing "In the Name of the Father," Burchill wrote of Thompson: "Fast becoming the most mannered, irritating actress since Meryl Streep, her performance is a national scandal. She seems like an amateur actress auditioning way out of her depth. Even seen from behind, not speaking, completely covered, with a raincoat over her head, running, she has the power to irritate and dismay in a way that very few actors do." This was a review (in a supposedly respectable paper) of work that won Thompson a best supporting actress nomination.

The problem with Day-Lewis and Thompson, I suspect, is that neither has yet experienced failure or hardship; their rise to their current preeminence appears effortless. The British need them to suffer a personal crisis, financial problems or a career downturn before being recast as lovable.

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