Alexander Chancellor's Week

Imitating the Oscars
Feb. 26 2002 2:32 PM

Alexander Chancellor's Week

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If you're old enough, you may remember Laurence Olivier's ridiculous speech at the Oscars in 1979 when he was given a lifetime achievement award. It wasn't the longest speech ever made at the Oscars. That record is still held, I believe, by Greer Garson, who spoke in 1943 for five and a half minutes after winning best actress for Mrs. Minniver. James Coburn might have broken her record in 1999 if the orchestra hadn't struck up to get him to stop. "Listen … wait a minute, wait a minute," he said. "I gotta say something else here. … This for my beautiful wife, Paula. She finally got to come to the Academy Awards. This is for you, baby." I can't actually remember how long Laurence Olivier's speech lasted, but it certainly broke the 45-second limit. And it was streets ahead, in terms of pretentiousness, of James Coburn's pathetic effort to cement his marriage. Let me remind you simply of Olivier's ending. "From the top of this moment," the great man said ("From the top of this moment," I ask you!). "In the solace, in the kindly emotion that is charging my soul and heart at this very moment, I thank you for this great gift which lends me such a very splendid part in this, your glorious occasion." Nobody has ever matched that, not even Julia Roberts, who did her best last year to make a fool of herself by speaking not only too long but also incoherently. She dealt with the problem of expressing the obligatory gratitude to all relevant colleagues within the allotted time by thanking "everyone I've ever met in my life". It was a pity, under the circumstances, that she forgot to specify Erin Brockovich, the real-life environmental crusader without whom the film, Erin Brockovich, would never have been made.

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Britain's annual attempt to emulate the Oscars—the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA)—took place at the Odeon, Leicester Square, on Sunday night. BAFTA may yearn for Hollywood glamour (and didn't do badly this year by delivering Warren Beatty, a half-naked Nicole Kidman, and a rain-drenched Kate Winslet to the paparazzi in Leicester Square), but the BBC does at least impose a certain discipline on the award-winners. The Corporation crams four hours of these tedious proceedings into two hours for the television viewers, and so has to do some fairly fierce editing of their acceptance speeches. Russell Crowe, who won Best Actor for his role as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, was admirably brief. But he had a small lapse into Olivier-type pretentiousness when he decided to quote a poem. This was by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, and was very short. Nevertheless, it was a poem, which is why the BBC must have decided to cut it out of its broadcast. If something has to go, a poem must be the prime candidate. Called "Sanctity", this is how it went:

To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women,
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer jaws of heaven.

Russell Crowe was so angry about it being cut that, according to newspaper reports, he retired to a store room in the Grosvenor House Hotel, where the BAFTA Awards dinner was held, while two of his security men lured the BBC director of the show, Malcolm Gerrie, to meet him there. The unsuspecting Mr Gerrie was then pinned against a wall by the burly gladiator and subjected to a finger-jabbing tirade. "I don't give a fuck who you are," the Sun quoted Russell Crowe as saying. "Who on earth had the fucking audacity to take out the Best Actor's poem? You fucking piece of shit. I'll make sure you never work in Hollywood." Swearing may be normal in contemporary Britain, where even civil service mandarins engage in it, but the last sentence was clearly a mistake. There is no evidence that Mr Gerrie has any desire to work in Hollywood. But if he does, it is unlikely that any Australian actor, however successful, will be able to stop him. This is a classic case of hubris. It unsettles our image of Australians, whom we like to think of as modest and down-to-earth. But no one seems secure against the dangers of success in Hollywood. Nor do they seem secure against the American taste for forthright language. When even British civil service mandarins have become addicted to the word "fuck", one can hardly be surprised to find an Australian actor using it.

It's no use pretending that the Europeans aren't becoming more and more anti-American as September 11 gets further and further away. There is little stomach even in Britain for new military confrontations, especially as we know that there can be no glory in it for us. We are used to holding out on our own against axes of evil while persuading the Americans to join in. It's not nearly so much fun just tagging along behind the United States, with only a footling supportive role to play. I hired a minicab in London today whose driver was decidedly anti-American. Admittedly, he was a Muslim—an Asian immigrant from Kenya who had lived in Britain for the past 25 years. But his views on American "naivety" in international affairs was not so different from the average Englishman's. He said he didn't "agree" with what Osama Bin Laden had done but kept stressing how popular he was in the Muslim world. My driver was convinced that Bin Laden was alive and hiding in Saudi Arabia. "The people love him there, even if the royal family doesn't," he said. I don't suppose he has the faintest idea where the great terrorist is, but so sure was he about his whereabouts that I pass the information on, just in case it turns out to be right.

Alexander Chancellor is a co-editor of Slate UK.