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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 10:17 GMT

They came, they saw but will they conquer?

By BBC News Online's Jane Black

Can you name the year that a British screenwriter grabbed his Oscar statue and shouted: "The British are coming"?

Oscars '99
It wasn't 1998 when four British actresses were nominated for Best Actress. And it wasn't 1997 when The English Patient picked up 12 nominations and nine Oscars including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

It was 1981. The screenwriter was Colin Welland, author of Chariots of Fire. The British film industry went into decline almost immediately.

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That lesson seems to have been long forgotten by the British media. This year, like almost all the others in recent memory, we've seen a barrage of press reports fuelling nationalist dreams of a British takeover of Hollywood.

But don't get your hopes up.

That's not to say that the darling of British film, Shakespeare in Love, and Elizabeth and Gods and Monsters, won't win accolades. Hollywood does appear to have a love affair with British cinema.

Why? Is it our old-world charm? Our lovely accents? According to Adam Dawtrey, European editor of Variety magazine, it is our class.

"Hollywood spends the year churning out broadly commercial films," Mr Dawtrey said.

"When it comes to considering the best work of the year, it's no surprise that the Academy is magnetically drawn to actors and actresses who have a seriousness that Hollywood doesn't - particularly when they are appearing in Hollywood movies."

It's true there is something classy about the British. Our worthy subjects (a weighty historical drama, the story of a tortured Gay man) and high technical standards cast a sheen of class to what is largely a press event for America's movie industry.

But Mr Dawtrey and others admit that alone cannot pull in victory for award-starved British film makers.

Destination: Hollywood

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A real estate magnate once said that there were only three important things in real estate: location, location, location. The same rule applies to the Oscars.

Those in the know say that if you are a successful actor or actress based in Hollywood you are more likely to have a constituency voting for you. Members of the Academy are loyal to the studio, to a friend, to the actor.

Last year four British actresses were nominated for Best Actress - but the award went to an American - Helen Hunt.

"More people will have worked with Helen Hunt than Judi Dench," said Variety's Adam Dawtrey. "Inevitably votes will weigh in favour of the local candidate."

Beyond the personal relationships in Hollywood is the film studios' full-on marketing assault.

Hype-merchants throw parties, place ads "for your consideration" in trade journals and ensure that the nominees appear in public and in interview as often as possible in the weeks leading up to the voting.

One actor reckoned his Oscar cost the studio about half a million dollars, even if none of it was in direct bribery.

Across the national divide

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So it seems "Britishness" is only half the battle. Nominees may have class but not proximity. They may be admirable but not familiar.

While it is easy to hoist the nationalist flag, this analysis understates the complex politics of Hollywood - the studios vs independents, blockbusters vs sleeper hits, the Americans vs the world.

It's best to look at the Oscar nominations as a whole.

Shakespeare in Love will likely do well. After all, it is an actor's film.

If Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein is right (and he often is), the Academy will like it because it's about actors, playwrights, the trade and the difficulties of getting produced.

That may be true but according to commentators, the odds are still on Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Both the Directors' and Producers' Guild chose it as Best Film earlier this month.

Ian McKellan, nominated for Best Actor in Gods and Monsters, has a chance but more mainstream (American) actors Tom Hanks and Nick Nolte are stronger candidates.

Best Supporting Actress nominees Brenda Blethyn, who portrays the floozy Mari in Little Voice, and Lynn Redgrave, who plays Hanna in Gods and Monsters, have both been nominated for Oscars before. They will find American Kathy Bates and Australian Rachel Griffiths stiff competition.

The Brits have won in the past. They may well win this year. But the fact is it is a Hollywood community who is voting and they do tend to vote for their own.

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