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Let's hear it for Britain's un-British star

Is there any stopping Minnie Driver? John Lyttle charts the career of a formidable alternative to the English Lady
One of the more forensically interesting aspects of this year's Oscar nominations is the array of British actresses hailed as being simply the Best. As usual, there are a couple of planks of English rosewood - Kate Winslet in the title role of Titanic and Helena Bonham Carter flapping The Wings of the Dove - though I'm sure the public would actually prefer to see Helena in A Doll's House. Or, failing that, under arrest.

Kate and Helena pretend really, really, hard (Kate can't blink without acting) but, let's be honest, the gels are really luxury items. They flounce, therefore they are; blooming lovely in that genteel Deborah Kerr/ Jean Simmons fashion that we, and America, never tire of. Like colonialism, this is something we're good at: exporting Ladies (note the capital L) of breeding who may not be above loosening their corsets and giving you one. These creatures are as tastefully lifeless as the costumes they inhabit, and their survival is in defiance of Britain being a classless society. Not on celluloid, it isn't. Not when Merchant Ivory epics resemble heritage catalogues more than moving pictures. Why, even ugly Victoriana sells well abroad. Why else would Judi Dench be up for the impeccably dull Mrs Brown?

Julie Christie has also been in a Merchant Ivory film. Now she's Oscar- tipped for After Glow. Julie was once more Quant than quaint. In her heyday she was the anti-Kate, the anti-Helena, an icon of swinging upward mobility; the dolly bird who spelt doom - temporarily, as it turned out - for Rada- cum-Rank starlets.

Julie won an Oscar in the Sixties for Darling: Darling was a "It" girl who modelled, did cocaine, made the gossip pages and married well. (It has remake potential.) Julie Darling was ground-breaking: a bit of rough who grasped that the era's social upheaval meant she could go places and do people. On screen, cut-class accents suddenly seemed a social faux pas. Cockney rebels gatecrashed the drawing-room. Hello Carol White, goodbye Sylvia Sims.

But Julie's a lesson to us all. After making us suffer through Miss Mary and an appearance in Pinter, she has finally made the adjustment to another internationally-approved brand of English Grand. Julie, the feminist with the face-lift, is now Serious and Seriously Mannered (note the capital S, M and A). If not exactly Maggie Smith, she is getting awfully Glenda Jackson.

What an impressive collection of tics Julie has cultivated! She chews her lower lip in a manner that suggests she was a Friesian in a previous life, and tosses her hair more often than a very pissed flamenco dancer. Your itch to smack her, but if she can't work up that level of energy for her performance, why should you?

Besides, it's not Julie's fault. Nor Kate's, nor Helena's. It's the market-place - so we're assured - that craves "classy" types. Meaning "class" types. Thus those who look, sound or behave as if they wear white gloves to pick their noses have an automatic advantage.

Consider Kristin Scott-Thomas (The English Patient). Or Julia Ormond, whom Hollywood launched as the Lady for the Nineties (Legends of the Fall, Sabrina) but who wasn't. Perhaps because audiences sensed she was quite Serious underneath (see Smilla's Feeling for Snow), the way they had previously sensed that Joan Collins was a bit of a slapper behind that Maida Vale accent. Our slappers don't travel. Diana Dors didn't (her US debut, I Married a Woman, died); Patsy Kensit has ideas beyond her regular beat (Angels and Insects, indeed!) and the "common", Kathy Burke and Julie Walters are "hard to cast" - snobbery pretending to artistic judgment. Likewise Brenda Blethyn was once a Best Actress nominee like Walters and is just as liable to be short of suitable projects. (Walters' and Blethyn's next flick is with each other.) What's required are Ladies ala Elizabeth Hurley. Serious ala Natasha and Miranda Richardson with only Emma Thompson liable to do absolutely everything: a Serious Lady who's also capable of playing a funny First Lady in Primary Colors.

None of which, however, explains Minnie Driver.

Minnie is nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Good Will Hunting, the tale of a mathematical genius (Matt Damon - ha! ha! ha!) who's searching for himself, mostly up his own bottom. Minnie is the love interest and she walks away with the movie, all through the simple expedient of an expertly timed blow job joke (Minnie ha! ha!). I mention this because while the UK press has been kissy-kissy over Kate, Helena and Julie, Minnie the minx has barely been mentioned, unless it's to gloat over how Damon dumped her on Oprah without bothering to tell her first. But then Minnie makes the British film industry nervous. Five years ago she exploded out of drama school and now she's a name, and she hasn't been typed, and who's sure if she's U or Non-U? What's her ... accent? She's done so many.

She's also done it on her own.

When Minnie hit big in Circle of Friends, chi-chi London gave her the cold shoulder. She was out of work for a year and relocated to La La Land, only to be chastised for "abandoning Britain". Naughty Minnie: "I've been torn to pieces because you are not allowed to succeed outside the confines of the British Isles." But then Minnie had been irreverent about paying your dues, and her sitcom stint: "I am a graduate of crappy TV."

But Minnie is British. She's just British in a new, Brit-poppy way. You'd never guess she came from an island race. She's UK Mod; egalitarian. You could take her anywhere (even the US!). In fact, Minnie is almost eerily free of national or cultural connections. She could live in a country house or a council flat. Spooky.

Actually, Minnie comes from big money. Or came. That was before her father lost pounds 10bn. She's had it smooth, she's had it rough, and she's nigh impossible to pigeonhole: she played Irish in Circle of Friends, mid-Western in Gross Pointe Blank, Italian in Big Night and Yank again in Hard Rain. Breeds warmer to the touch than some, so there's irony in being nominated for one of her rare Brits. She's so decidedly un-British: eager, spontaneous and sensuous.

Julie Christie had it once: emotional transparency. Emily Lloyd lost it, and a Brassed Off Tara Fitzgerald would like to have it. But only Minnie allows feeling to ripple like waves. She isn't a bottled-up beauty as most Too Cool Britannia actresses are. They are captives to technique. Or, more correctly, control. Suppression is a terribly, terribly British thing. Witness Brief Encounter.

Minnie, though, flows au naturel. Biology or her schooling at the oh so funky Bedales, where pupils were encouraged to let it all hang out, man?: "I love being a sex object. When the crew pinching my bottom, I love it."

Minnie is more hustle than bustle, though she has The Governess due, and her first TV role was as one of Mr Wroe's Virgins, a costume drama in which her costume didn't stay on for long. She got naked fast, but then she does, and well beyond the physical. When she finds Chris O'Donnell unfaithful in Circle of Friends, every expressive pore leaks anger and hurt. No mask she - and too hell with good manners. She's ravaged (it) and (it) dignified; the same way that she's held on to her pride while doing PR tours with Matt Damon, refusing to trash him. (He also dumps her in the film. Life imitates crap.) With Minnie you have an ineffable sense that what you see is what you get. Call it star quality; the sensation that a real soul is shining through, whether she's befriending Brad Pitt in Sleepers or making the most of being Robbie Coltrane's singer girlfriend in Goldeneye. Torturing "Stand By Your Man", she stands on her own two glittery boots. Kate requires Leonardo to unleash her, and Helena wants Linus to show her the money, but Minnie needs only her freckles and wit. Brought up under Thatcher, she embodies the tricky dictum that position is to be achieved, not born to: will it and it will happen. Yet Minnie is the moment and Blairite: sure, reach... then reach out, be responsible. She's got a high emotional IQ

Minnie Driver is now. A British-born star who owns no debt to her contemporaries, those poster girls for privilege and high colonics , or to her stuck-up, screwed up predecessors. With the possible exception of: Elizabeth Taylor, another exotic, free-living, gutsy dame (not Dame) transplanted early from dry native soil to grow under the Californian sun. Not exactly a rose, not exactly a Lady and not exactly Serious, but an impatient hybrid; the Best of both. Elizabeth has two Oscars. By tomorrow morning, let's hope Minnie has at least one. Minnie: the People's Princess.

(Best) British Actresses Known to Have Gone Home with a Small, Yellow Stranger

1939: Vivien Leigh for Gone With The Wind 1951: Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire 1960: Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8 1964: Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins 1965: Julie Christie for Darling 1966: Elizabeth Taylor for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1969: Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1970: Glenda Jackson for Women in Love 1973: Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class 1992: Emma Thompson for Howard's End