Why the cultural cringe, Ricky?

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The Independent Online

Imperial subjects are obliged to pay tribute to empire, one fully understands that. But it can be irksome - and it got particularly irritating at the Golden Globes awards. Exhibit One was Ricky Gervais's response to his richly deserved award for The Office. "I'm not from these parts," he said. "I'm from a little place called England. We used to run the world before you did." Later, he expanded on his pantomime of provincial dazzlement: "Here I am, this fat bloke from Reading sharing a room with Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray and Michael Douglas. It's fantastic." Exhibit Two was Charlize Theron's response to her Best Actress award for her portrayal of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos (well deserved too, by all accounts). "I'm from a farm in South Africa," she gasped. "This is crazy."

The implication was clear: both performers were geographically disqualified from entitlement to the glittering prizes, but had - in some fairy-tale reversal of the rules - triumphed anyway. And, by expressing their incredulity, they implicitly acknowledged the imperial sway of America when it comes to film. Not everyone remembers to do this. When Colin Welland won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire and announced that "the British are coming", he was regarded as having queered his pitch in Hollywood - and possibly that of David Putt-nam, too, who was essentially treated as an enemy alien during his stint as chief of production at Columbia.

Now, we have to be understanding here. Gervais and Theron were first-time winners, so they haven't had to polish their international act. If Nicole Kidman had won for her performance in Cold Mountain, one can't imagine she would have gushed about how amazing it was that a kid from Sydney should have come so far. Talent gets you the green card, but repeated success confers honorary citizenship - and Nicole is now a naturalised American, whatever her passport says.

It's possible that Gervais was guying a cultural cringe, rather than just exemplifying it. But I doubt it myself. He'd beaten the big boys, but he was sensible enough to make sure that his thanks acknowledged how big they are. And, while American actors may perform this little ritual of obeisance on their first appearance on the winner's podium in Los Angeles, it's much harder to imagine them doing it in Cannes or Berlin or Venice. They are, in some way that we never quite feel about ourselves, born to the purple.

This sense of a Hollywood Pax Cinematica - a benevolent extension of the benefits of moviedom to all corners of the globe - isn't exclusive to actors. Interviewed recently about the success of his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon used the word "bizarre" to describe the fact that Brad Pitt's production company was co-producing the movie. Well, again - success has mugged him from behind this year and he can be forgiven for feeling a bit dazed - it's not as if there are no precedents for successful British authors providing raw material for Hollywood, and one can't suppress the suspicion that the bizarreness would have been greatly diminished if Brad Pitt hadn't been involved. What's consistent in all these remarks is the sense that non-American success is a magical anomaly, a moment when deities condescend to talk to mortals over the transatlantic lines.

The kind of people who like to use the word "hegemony" presumably find all this deplorable - a shameful capitulation to the cultural power of Hollywood - both in film and television. As someone who would have been filing for Roman citizenship about 10 seconds after Caesar's keels crunched into the shingle, I can't get quite as worked up myself. Yes, Hollywood exercises a kind of imperial sway at the moment - but if you really want to resist, it's frankly never been easier - and some of the most interesting centres of resistance are in America.

In any case, what's odd about these ritual tributes is that they are so out of touch with the reality of empire, which has probably never been more cosmopolitan in its make-up, or more dependent on the vigour of its provinces. Look at this year's Oscar nominations. A Brazilian, an Australian and a New Zealander for Best Director, up against two Americans. Two out of five in the Best Actor award are English (Ben Kingsley and Jude Law). In the Best Actress category, only Diane Keaton represents the home team. The same is true in the best supporting actor category, where Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins will fidget in their seats alongside hopefuls from Benin, Spain and Japan. English talent is everywhere - which suggests that it's really time we gave up being quite so astonished and grateful when it gets its due.

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