It takes a Cher to grab them by the glands: Britons act, Americans act like kids. does that make us superior?

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HELEN MIRREN, it emerges, is not to be employed as the star of the Hollywood remake of Prime Suspect. She was the star of the British television original, but for the big screen the Americans are rounding up the usual suspects: Cher, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts - anybody, apparently, except our Helen.

Mirren is said to be angry, though, in truth, she probably knows better. There are certain risks that Hollywood does not take. Films in the US live or die within two days of their general release on about 2,000 screens across the country. This and the strange demographics of movie-going mean that in practice their fate is decided almost entirely by a few million testosterone-crazed 16- to 24-year-old American men. Producers grab these hoodlums by the glands or go bust.

Of course, none of them will have heard of Helen Mirren. Even if they had, she would not have been their type: too subtle, not pouting and probably awkward with anything larger than a .38. So Cher - or whoever - it has to be.

The polarity underlying this absolutely routine showbiz story is clear - classically trained British actress with lived-in face equals 'quality'; hyped US bimbo with surgery equals 'box office'. Everybody knows perfectly well that Mirren is the better actress and our experience of previous British-television to American-movie heists - such as Fay Weldon's She-Devil - suggest catastrophe. But somehow we just have to accept that when the big money moves in our precious quality has to stand aside.

But worse even than such affronts is when Hollywood rubs it in by employing the Brits in supporting roles. Both Sean Connery and the late Denholm Elliott acted Harrison Ford into oblivion in the Indiana Jones movies, but Ford knew perfectly well that all he had to do was turn up with his hat and his whip. Similarly I was on the Moroccan set to see the wonderful Timothy Spall annihilate the American opposition before the dazed and admiring eyes of Bernardo Bertolucci during the shooting of The Sheltering Sky. But on release everybody spoke about the posturing John Malkovich. Finally, perhaps we should simply draw a veil over the spectacle of the mighty Michael Gambon deferring to Robin Williams's ghastly whimsy in Toys.

Face it: the strange fact is that much of the nauseating, luvvyish self- congratulation of last weekend's Bafta awards is justified. We do consistently produce whole generations of the best actors in the world. Indeed, we have so many that they seem to lie about the old, rotting country like Titians on a skip. Turn on a sitcom and you might find Dame Judi Dench; Gielgud idles his way through mini- series and Dinsdale Landen knocks off bits of Light Ent.

They may drive you crazy with their preciosity - Emma Thompson, in particular, can reduce otherwise sober, charitable people to paroxysms of loathing - but the fact is they tend to be far better than we deserve. No West End play ever fails because it is badly acted and Eldorado is astonishing in being a British soap foundering because of acting incompetence.

Yet still, in spite of this mountain of talent, it is our destiny to live in the shadow of a small, self-regarding suburb of LA.

So now, with the Oscars coming round again, the British acting profession finds itself once more looking to Hollywood for justice, for a balm for our burning resentment. Sure enough we're in the running with five, sorry, four women: Emma Thompson, Jaye Davidson, Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson. And sure enough, in spite of the long history of patronising slights, we are displaying pathetic gratitude and grovelling expectation. We may think we know that we are the best, but secretly we need the Americans to confirm it.

Perhaps this is all simply because the Americans have the money and make the big movies - 80 per cent of the pounds 300m taken at British box offices last year was attributable to 20 US films. At any one time it is safe to assume that all of the top 10 grossers at British cinemas will be American. And it is said, probably truthfully, that the first 30 seconds of Terminator 2 cost more than the entire British industry spends in a year.

Certainly the money is why no British actor, however good, can afford not to play the Oscar game. From Olivier downwards they have trooped off to endure the ritual humiliations of the ceremony - flicking over their shoulders, as they leave, glances of weary irony for the British fans, but turning to face the Americans with the widest and most innocent of toothy smiles.

Money is only half the story, however. There is a deeper point about the divergence of the two acting cultures and about the chasm that exists between what being an actor means in Britain and the United States.

American acting is based on film, British on theatre and, latterly, television. Theatre and television demand, above all, skill. They are intimate and either continuously performed in the case of theatre or made relatively rapidly in the case of television. What counts is experience and education.

As a result, for the British, acting is a craft that is handed down, like violin playing or landscape painting.

We do it particularly well because, as it happened, Shakespeare, our greatest artist, was a writer who lived at a time when writing plays was the thing to do. Had he been a Victorian novelist or Georgian painter, the West End of London would now have a handful rather than a mass of

theatres and Dennis Potter would be writing scripts for klutzes.

Film, however, demands something that you cannot learn. It is made slowly and a decent director has the time to make almost anybody look vaguely competent. But what gets you noticed is screen presence or soul. The ability to smoulder or pout on camera, or to make your co-stars look like holes in the screen, is money in the bank.

This is not to denigrate screen stars. Marlon Brando, in spite of the early hype about his 'method' approach, has no acting talent whatsoever. Yet he is a genius of the cinema. When he appears as Colonel Kurtz at the climax of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now, he does not make the slightest effort to become the character, he is simply Brando-as-Kurtz. Yet those scenes are magnificent - Kurtz as a more skilfully acted creation would have ruined them.

What Brando intuitively knows is that movie stardom is not about the skill to become the character, it is about the gift to do so while remaining the star the fans have come to see. Brando-as-Kurtz provided a peculiar frisson because the 'actor' was as big a legend as the fictional colonel, so the drama was, in some strange sense, 'true'.

Similarly Jack Nicholson's grin does not belong to a character, it belongs to Jack Nicholson; and nobody goes to see Bruce Willis in the hope that he will be anybody other than Bruce Willis.

This explains the frenzied American adoration of movie stars and the quite bewildering sums they are paid - dollars 15m a picture for Arnold Schwarzenegger, dollars 12m for Tom Cruise and so on. This little gilded crew are sacred, not because they can impersonate others, but precisely because they cannot. In some sense, in the imagination of the fans, the violence and the drama really does happen to Bruce or Arnie, Tom or Jack.

This validates fame, placing it well beyond the customary British sense of its meretriciousness. A film star is famous not because he is a craftsman but because he has become a fantasy embodiment of his public self. Their personalities are sanctified and they are permitted to be holy innocents - making stupid, inconsequential remarks or being idiotically capricious.

I have seen entire movie sets grind to a halt as everybody froze in a rictus of fake helpless laughter because the star made a joke that would have bored an eight-year-old. Movie stars are licensed kids. The Oscar reception speeches are the parroted 'thankyou for having me's of a children's party.

The British are too good - in the sense of skilful - for this. They are trained to become the characters they play, so they do not know how to hold back enough to develop a repertoire of personality cues for the fans. Instead they become either 'character' actors for the movies or they play a British type - Michael York's plummy pretty boy at one end of the competence scale or Denholm's Elliott's daft old bugger at the other. They can never lie back and just be the star because back home they are not properly worshipped and adored. They are technicians. Even the British popular press gives them a hard time while writing about the Pacinos and Nicholsons in the American style as if they were gods, which in effect they are.

This should not, however, encourage us to feel too superior in defeat, or after whatever crust of success comes our way next week. For the truth is that the Americans understand something about film that we do not. They accept the strange and terrible magic of stardom for what it is - a natural aspect of the movie culture. As a result they can attain heights on the big screen denied to us. We have nobody who can leap from the celluloid like Robert De Niro or Gene Hackman. In them, soul and talent meet.

Our consolation prizes can be the embarrassment of acting riches in theatre and television, the odd grudging Oscar and the happy certainty that we shall never have to support the vast, trashy, infantile swamp that Hollywood requires to sustain its surprisingly numerous moments of greatness.