'Wasn't she the one in Knots Landing?' asked a costumier. 'No, wait, that was Emma Samms, wasn't it?'
'Who?' asked the production assistant, 'Nope, never heard of her. Howards End? Isn't that a chick movie?'
'Isn't she Kenneth whatsisname's wife?' asked an Oscar-nominated movie actress.
Yes, I know that not only was Thompson also nominated for an Oscar, but that tomorrow night she'll probably win. This means nothing. Virtually no one in America has seen Howards End. It has had no impact on the consciousness of the country. It just happens to be English, and so we figure it must be very tasteful. Just like Masterpiece Theatre, which we all pretend to watch.
We Americans just dote on the English. We don't take them seriously or anything, but we think they're so damned classy with their civilised ways and quaint accents. When your basic, cigar-chomping Neanderthal of a movie producer wants to add a bit of tone to a dinner party or the cast of his film, he pops in someone English. They make great accessories.
The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are predominantly these same Neanderthals. Old, male, stupid and greedy, they devote their lives to making Police Academy V and then, to prove what classy guys they are, they vote for Gandhi. Or for Jeremy Irons, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson.
English actors win academy awards, but hardly ever make it into American consciousness. Unless they're sexy. Michael Caine springs to mind. Julie Christie. Daniel Day Lewis was given a chance to be sexy when they put him in The Last of the Mohicans, where his main job was to gallop around on a mighty steed with his shirt hanging off. Pity only men went to see him.
Over here, Emma Thompson is not sexy. I know you call her 'the thinking man's crumpet' (you sexist pigs), but we don't think and we've never heard of crumpets. The stakes for sexy are very high if you're an actress these days. Basically you have to be naked and blonde. You have to be Sharon Stone or Madonna.
Or a man. The movie from the across the Atlantic that has captured the imagination of America is The Crying Game. Neil Jordan's IRA love story, starring Jaye Davidson, which has a mystery at its heart, resolved by a most evocative twist. Everybody's talking about it. It's mentioned on every television talk show, sitcom writers are putting jokes about it in their scripts. It's the first topic of conversation at parties and at the supermarket.
'I knew the minute I saw that Adam's apple.'
'Hey, that's nothing, I knew when I saw the photograph.'
'Poor John, he didn't even guess until he saw the actual penis.'
'It was so clear to me right from the start that I figured the twist was going to be that it was really a woman.'
The nation is so titillated by this film, this little movie which is quite good but doesn't have near the depth or soul of Howards End. But Howards End is basically about the class system, something which is alive and well in America but which we refuse with all our mights to acknowledge. If we believed in the class system, then we couldn't believe that absolutely anyone could become a rich and famous movie star or even president and we would start feeling helpless and hopeless in our little lives. So forget Howards End, we don't want to know.
But we do love a penis. Some of my friends have told me that the popularity of The Crying Game is due to the primal resonance of its subject matter - we never really know the person we love, we can love people who are fatally flawed, etc, etc. But I personally think that the appearance of a bigger-than- life penis right in our faces is what got everyone excited.
Don't believe me, look at the money: after 374 days on release, Howards End made dollars 21m. The Crying Game, after 117 days, made dollars 43m. And, while this is neither here nor there, Teenage Ninja Turtles III made dollars 13m in five days.
What with our current fascination with penises, this has been a disastrous year for women in movies. Traditionally, the big, action-packed, Schwarzenegger-starring movies (with fashion models as romantic leads) are released in the summer and gross a skillion dollars. The 'women's' movies, about feelings and relationships with no car chases whatsoever, are released in the autumn and maybe make Schwarzenegger's lunch money. It's from these little movies that the best actress nominations are usually culled.
But there weren't any this year, what with the preponderance of the testosterone-laden A Few Good Men and Unforgiven. They had frantically to scrape around through almost invisible art-house releases such as Indochine (dollars 3m) and Love Field (not even on the charts) to find any suitable female performances at all.
So Emma Thompson will probably win, but I hope she doesn't get too thrilled about it. What, really, is the use of tepid accolades from a bunch of old guys with hair transplants who won't pay her more even if she wins? Meanwhile, the rest of us are much more excited about the real issue of Oscar night: What will Jaye Davidson wear?
Cynthia Heimel's latest book, 'Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye', will be published by Macmillan on 23 April.
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