The Los Angeles Times recently ran an editorial that put forward an argument for the elimination of the foreign-language category at the Academy Awards. Its point was that "foreign film-making talent is represented in record numbers" in all categories and therefore in no need of special support.
The argument from the box-office perspective, is that if the Academy leveled the playing field, foreign film would be less marginalised and could compete on an equal level for theatrical space.
It is an intriguing leap to imply that a rule change in Academy voting would set off a chain reaction of wider distribution and a warmer audience reaction to subtitled movies.
To buttress the argument, the editorial writer made the point that all of this year's nominees have American theatrical distribution. Technically speaking, the article was wrong, failing to mention the fact only two of the films had opened commercially prior to the announcement of this year's slate and are not eligible for consideration in other categories.
One might also be inclined to read such arguments as tongue-in-cheek; a modern allegory in which the foreign invaders slip into the nation's multiplexes and disappear into the darkness with film's greatest honour.
It is an interesting idea that the emphasis on international markets might actually represent a challenge to American cinema, in which, ultimately, the Academy Guard will have to be called up to patrol Hollywood's endangered cultural border just like the cavalry in countless westerns. But a bit of perspective might be in order.
The Academy Awards were established to honour what was best about the American film industry. Hollywood had been taking it on the chin as a godless town rife with scandal that produced cheap entertainment. In this particular Sodom, a handful of 'worthy' movies were supposed to stave off the wrath of the gods.
Oscar's studio origins
The initial awards, nominations and balloting were conceived in haste and it took close to a decade to evolve into something reflective of its present state.
It was a tacit celebration of the studio system with the award categories determined by the departments and the artists and technicians employed under its umbrella. In the 1930s, the majors made cartoons and documentary shorts, so honouring that work made sense.
There probably never was a moment when the Academy board consciously determined that the Oscar should be the international movie prize.
The composition of the membership pretty much ensured that American films would prevail but from time to time a British movie would be taken into the fold and prior to its official sanction, the board would occasionally award a special citation to such significant foreign films as Shoeshine and Rashomon. But it is a bit of a stretch to see foreign film as a threat in a global market still dominated by US fare.
All this brings to mind a comment by Jorn Donner during his tenure running Svenskfilm. He observed that about 80% of movies playing in Sweden were American productions. Donner said that, objectively, 80% of the best movies were not American. His conclusion: "We have an anomaly."
And one truly has to conclude that any time someone working outside the US system sneaks onto the main ballot or wins the coveted statuette, it is an anomaly and likely a worthy one.
- E-mail Len Klady at email@example.com.