Ten years ago scriptwriter Colin Welland, foursquare, fat, and Lancastrian, stood on the same spot in his own moment of glory with Chariots of Fire to declare triumphally "the British are coming". But of course they never did. The film's director, Hugh Hudson, imploded bloodily on the battlefield of Revolution. Its producer, the very moral, very knowing David Puttnam even took over Columbia Pictures and announced that he was going to clean the Augean stables of all its greed and graft and moral turpitude. He was quickly gobbled up and spat back over the ocean to where he belonged. The truth is that the British rarely come for very long, and when they do it is because they have a natural affinity with the gilded American way.
There is something crucial you should know about the squat bearded man who stood on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Monday night. He grew up in a small town on a small island in a warm, tight-knit Italian family. His mother and father are Italian ice cream makers. You can see them briefly towards the end of The English Patient; you could hear them on the radio yesterday sounding remarkably pleased and proud, and remarkably... Italian.
Minghella's unEnglish warmth is at least as important to his work as his meticulous artistry or his writerly skills. As Mark Shivas, who produced Minghella's Channel 4 series What If It's Raining?, has said "He has this ability to bring incredible emotion to whatever he does. Not many people have that. It makes him very attractive in America and elsewhere."
Minghella has distanced himself from English frigidity, identifying his place on what he calls "the Italian shelf", citing Fellini and the Taviani brothers, in particular The Night of the Shooting Stars. "My taste," he says, "doesn't always correspond to the austerity of the English school" - which may explain why he got as many embarrassed reviews as raves for Truly, Madly Deeply, the film he made for BBC2 which went on to a surprise cinmea release and even more surprisingly became a global hit. America in particular took it to its bosom; they understood what British critics did not.
After that he eagerly took off for America and American subject matter to work with Matt Dillon, a recognised box office name. Minghella was entering a different world with the sympathy and conviction of a man who would be able to live and thrive there. That he was not frightened by the values and manners of Hollywood film stars is not in doubt; it is a delicate and complicated business that he understands.
Talking to The Times about the transition from working with his friend Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply to his star Matt Dillon in Mr Wonderful, he said: "There is much more baggage accompanying an American actor - literally, in the sense that they bring more people and things with them. Although it sounds very cranky and demanding from a distance, it becomes much easier to understand when you see the sort of scrutiny they come under. It's very hard if you're William Hurt or Matt Dillon to lead a normal life." But he held out against pressure to discard his English actors in The English Patient and bring in Americans who would mean a lot at the box office, and he did it for all the right reasons. But not for one moment was it an act of alien discomfort.
As Minghella sits facing his gold plated statuette, he knows that while Mr Wonderful came and went largely unremarked, it got noticed where it counted - in the executive suites where the money decisions are made. It may be his surgical precision that earns the rave reviews, but it is his lack of constipated Englishness - his feeling for feelings - that really recommends him to the Americans. In that sense, Mr Wonderful rather than The English Patient may one day be seen as the pivotal film of his career, the modest little romantic comedy that convinced Miramax and Buena Vista that their investment would not wither in the sand. Here was a talent who could deliver the mainstream heart as well as the expected trappings of British good taste, and perhaps for the first time British good taste without that lingering sense of cultural intimidation (what Americans like to refer to as "that Merchant-Ivory thing").
Misguided English snob commentators have dwelt on how hard philistine Hollywood found it to grasp the "difficult" material of Michael Ondaatje's book (and if you've read the book, you can sympathise with the moguls). But what is more pertinent is how well Hollywood understood the appeal of the story once Minghella's screenplay had broken the single viewpoint structure into a traditional narrative and made full use of flashback to incorporate lush location shooting. Tragic romance and Big Questions against exotic vistas is something the system, and the Academy, has a rather touching fondness for. One needs only to look at Out of Africa, which garnered 11 Oscar nominations in 1985. The English Patient bears a marked resemblance to it, in its plot as well as in its poetic flights in pretty biplanes.
Like The English Patient, Out of Africa carried away the best director and best film Oscars, but unlike The English Patient it took decades for Karen Blixen's book to hit the screen. Ondaatje's book took just five years, extraordinarily fast in Hollywood terms, and one is tempted to credit Minghella for that. It is here that his Englishness may well have had a part to play. For Hollywood favours us for prestige pictures and that touch of elusive class which is reckoned to mark out the British director from those who churn out blockbusters - we're talking David Lean not Steven Spielberg, though of course Schindler's List is an attempt at a David Lean picture.
When Hollywood thinks of the British it is usually in precisely these class terms and the invitation to them is usually of country-house weekend duration. When they try to go native, things often turn sour.
Richard Attenborough, flushed with a feeling of emancipation after Gandhi, went disastrously on to the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, showing he was playing away and losing disastrously. The film bombed and he has since retretaed back to Shadowlands. Similarly, Roland Joffe after his victory with The Killing Fields tried to tell the story of the genesis of the atomic bomb with Fat Man and Little Boy - and bombed. After the costume romp of Tom Jones, Tony Richardson's The Loved One turned him into the loathed one overnight, the clash between English sensibility and alien subject proving fatal. The Americans can put up with being patronised but they will not be condescended to.
There is such a thing as the Oscar curse which does not only afflict the English (though it has been known to magic fine actresses into Labour transport spokespersons). But in Anthony Minghella the Academy may have picked one not prone to any of the afflictions of Albion.
The British may not be coming, but one son of Italians from the Isle of Wight probably is.Reuse content