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Jewish World Review April 13, 1999 /27 Nissan 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Ben Wattenberg


Hollywood is sharing
the spotlight

( EUROPEAN CULTURAL NATIONALISTS, especially in France, have made careers of attacking Hollywood as a vehicle for U.S. cultural imperialism.

Expensive, made-in-the-U.S.A., toys-for-boys blockbusters are crowding out inexpensive, locally produced movies, they say, and destroying in the process the great national film traditions of Europe. And, adding insult to injury, U.S. markets are closed to their films.

But with the increasing internationalization of film production and markets, the nationalist vision now seems dated --- and never more so than in the wake of this year's Oscars.

Italian Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," the top-grossing foreign language movie in North American history ($43 million and counting in U.S. box office), won three awards. In winning for Best Actor, writer-director-star Benigni became the first person to win one of the major acting awards for a foreign language picture since Sophia Loren's Oscar for "Two Women" in 1960.

The night's biggest winner was "Shakespeare in Love," which took seven awards, including Best Picture. Nominally, "Shakespeare" is an American film. It was financed by Miramax, Disney's gourmet films label.

But with its largely British cast and crew, "Shakespeare" was not, creatively, much of an American movie at all; no more so, really, than Sony's "Men in Black" was a Japanese movie. The thinking man's romantic comedy was directed by the British John Madden and co-written by the British playwright Tom Stoppard. Its co-star, Joseph Fiennes, and Best Supporting Actress winner Judi Dench are British, and its Best Supporting Actor nominee, Geoffrey Rush (a past Best Actor winner for "Shine"), is Australian.

The other period movie nominated for Best Picture, "Elizabeth," was directed by an Indian, Shekhar Kapur. It starred Australian Cate Blanchett (a Best Actress nominee) and featured (yes, them again) Fiennes and Rush in supporting roles. It was released, incidentally by Polygram, owned by a Dutch parent until it was acquired last year by Canadian Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s Seagram.

There's more. Other nominees in the acting categories included British Ian McKellen (Best Actor), British Emily Watson (Best Actress), Brazilian Fernanda Montenegro (Best Actress), Australian Rachel Grffiths (Best Supporting Actress) and British Brenda Blethyn (Best Supporting Actress). And "The Truman Show " earned nominations for Australian director Peter Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol, a New Zealander who studied filmmaking in London.

In its golden age, Hollywood depended on U.S. movie-goers for the vast bulk of its revenues. That has been changing for a while, and today, overseas revenues represent the majority, 60 percent, of Hollywood's total theatrical film revenues. Cultural imperialism? On the contrary, it means that the suits in the American studios now give more weight to foreign tastes and sensibilities in decisions about which movies are green-lighted and the size of their budgets.

Hollywood does dominate overseas, with American movies commanding market shares in the 60- to 80-percent range. But this, too, is probably good news on balance for foreign filmmakers. The growing popularity of American movies has fueled an overseas building boom in newer, more comfortable and technically sophisticated theaters. This means that foreign producers have access to more screens and a shot at a larger movie-going public. Joint distribution deals between the Hollywood studios and foreign distributors also mean more cash for foreign distributors to invest in local productions.

It's harder to say whether foreign movies are making inroads in the U.S. market. The anecdotal evidence of recent foreign surprise smashes like "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The Full Monty" and "Life is Beautiful" suggest that they are.

The success here of these and other foreign movies implies that American audiences don't reject foreign movies per se; they reject movies with a foreign aesthetic, wherever they are made, and in whatever language.

"Life is Beautiful" is a fable about the power of story-telling invention. Benigni plays a comically inventive waiter who shields his young son from the horrors of the Final Solution by making up a story: The concentration camp is the site of a game in which the grand prize goes to the first contestant to earn 1,000 points, points earned for not crying, not complaining of hunger, and staying out of sight of the camp guards, the "mean guys who yell."

Benigni's masterpiece has been attacked as a facile (and inappropriate, given its Holocaust context) celebration of escapism. But audiences, American and international, want stories -- narrative, linear, intelligible fictions that transform and provide refuge from the often cruel realities of life, just like the tale Benigni's character makes up for his son. Call it escapism, but audiences will take it every time --- over the social realism of a Rosselini, the psychological realism of a Bergman, or the technical games of a Godard.

The success here of "Life is Beautiful" and the success over there of English-language American films suggest the same thing: Great stories are stateless.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate