And the Nominees Are... British

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Last week, Helen Mirren won the Oscar for best actress with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet rounding out that category. In his op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Jonathan Last asks the question, "What do British actors have that U.S. film actors don't?"

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.

You couldn't lose money betting on Helen Mirren for best actress last week. In fact, betting on any Brit in that category is pretty safe, as Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were both nominated as well.

In an op-ed in Sunday Currents section of yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Jonathan Last asks the question that might rankle every American actor: What do British actors have that U.S. film actors, generally speaking, do not? Consider the evidence. Here's a scene-chilling Kenneth Branagh as Henry V.

(Soundbite of movie, "Henry V")

Mr. KENNETH BRANAGH (Actor): (as Henry V) And gentleman in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

CONAN: Articulate, eloquent. Well, how about the Americans?

(Soundbite of movie, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (as Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella.

CONAN: The great Marlon Brando, of course, chewing up Tennessee Williams. Jonathan Last is the online editor for the Weekly Standard. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JONATHAN LAST (Online Editor, Weekly Standard): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And, of course, this modest proposal begs some input from you. Are the Brits generally better actors? Miles better? Why? Or why not? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

And Jonathan, first of all, there's plenty of great American actors. You name a few in your op-ed.

Mr. LAST: I name a few, I can think of others. I hope this doesn't rankle people too, too much. These are always meant to be conversation starters, I think, and not enders. I'm a voracious consumer popular culture myself. I embrace everything from "Veronica Mars" and "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" to "Hamlet" and "Midsummer Night's Dream".

One can appreciate and really enjoy the gifts of American actors, I think, while still also understanding that when you're really are bloodless and ruthless about it, the Brits are just better.

CONAN: Not merely just better in your opinion, you say, make up their - your list of top 10 actors of all time - we're talking about the world of movies, so in the past 100 years or so. And you say you don't have room for many Americans there.

Mr. LAST: Yeah. I think you probably don't. If you were to make a quick and dirty list of the top 10 British male actors - film actors of the last, you know, 50, 60 years or so - you would have to have, I think, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, whom we heard, probably Richard Harrison, Michael Gambon. I would also throw in Ian McKellen, probably Alec Guinness, Jeremy Irons, Richard Burton, David Niven. And it leaves out so many people. It leaves out the great Peter Sellers of the world. It leaves Ray Fiennes and Colin Firth, who are, you know, very fine young actors.

CONAN: Bob Hoskins.

Mr. LAST: Bob Hoskins is fantastic, and Albert Finney. Really, the list can go on. Of course, you don't want people to get too upset. Lists are, by very definition, exclusionary. They are always going to be great people who were left off.

When you look at that, that great classical list, I think it's very hard to find many American actors - if any - who really would be able to crack that top 10. Brando is certainly one of the greats, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, contemporary great actors who…

CONAN: Al Pacino. Yeah.

Mr. LAST: …Al Pacino - lions in winter. And there have been many, many great American actors who, and we can embrace again and celebrate and cherish in all (unintelligible).

CONAN: But you're leaving out Keanu Reeves.

Mr. LAST: No. I would probably leave out Keanu Reeves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAST: Any, you know, one of the times that these is you look at what happens in the just a very modern commercial movie when you drop a British actor into the middle of it, like Alan Rickman in the "Diehard" movies or "Robin Hood" or Alfred Molina in "Spiderman" or "Boogie Nights".

Even Hugh Laurie, you drop him in the middle of an American TV show like "House", and all of the sudden, it really classes the joint off a bit. You know, you really raise the level of the entertainment and the production around them. And I think there are a few examples of the converse when you drop Americans into, you know, British productions. But when that happens, even a wonderful actress like Laura Linney, whom I, you know, I'm quite supportive and quite a fan of, you drop her into a middle of "Love Actually" - she doesn't do a whole lot to really raise the level and sometimes looks like she's - really struggling to keep up.

CONAN: And you do a similar kind of list for female actors, and find the list even more prohibitively pro-Brit.

Mr. LAST: I do, and you know, I foolishly - when I wrote this column, I listed a handful of great British women: Emma Thompson, Joan Hickson - my beloved Miss Marple - Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith. I did not go much further than that. I left off the Redgrave sisters and all that in the interest of space.

I did not list any American women in that list, and I've heard from the vast legions of the Meryl Streep fan club over the last 24 to 48 hours over e-mail…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAST: …that were furious with me for leaving her out. I mean, no disrespect to Meryl Streep, who is a wonderful actress in her own right, and there are, again, great American women who we watch in movies and on television who really, you know, are very fine at their craft.

But overall, when you look pound for pound, it's very hard to see Americans holding their own at the highest levels as Brits, and that's not even taking into account population disparity. You know, America is five times larger than Britain, but yet, you know, they invented the stage. They invented the language. They have some home-field advantages.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest on the Opinion Page this week is Jonathan Last. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Jamie. Jamie's calling us from Londonderry in Vermont.

JAMIE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JAMIE: It's Jamie Campbell calling from Londonderry, Vermont. Well, I have to say that maybe the largest problem with American actors - at least currently -not being able to function as well as British actors is there is a great difficulty for them to work consistently, to study consistently. There is no real academic training. There's no RADA. There's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but comparatively speaking, I would have to say that the two do not equate.

CONAN: RADA, of course, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

JAMIE: Royal Academy.

CONAN: And those rounded tones, Jamie - you're an actor?

JAMIE: I am an actor.

CONAN: And you…

JAMIE: I'm an Equity actor, SAG, AFTRA, everything.

CONAN: And so simply one of the differences is the amount of work that's available.

JAMIE: I think the amount of work. I think the quality of the training. I think the guardians at the gate, so to speak - i.e., agents and producers and the commercial aspect, especially at the lower levels of just getting started in this business seem to be much harder. It's much more like a salmon swimming upstream here than it is in England.

I went briefly to acting school in England, Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I noticed a lot of my friends going off to the Watney(ph) Rep and Leeds and wherever. However, having returned here and moved to Hollywood, I found myself stymied. I did all right with commercials and that sort of thing, but I think as far as developing a quality of acting, America just does not have it. It's not ingrained in us. Broadway is a very hard ticket.

I've known a lot of shows that have come over from England. I mean, Arthur Miller's last play - I forget what it is right off the top of my head - ran for six weeks. A friend of mine was in it. He ended up painting houses in Rhode Island. I think it's a very, very different life for actors in the United States.

CONAN: But it sounds, Jamie…

JAMIE: Nepotism plays a large part in it here. So…

CONAN: But it sounds, Jamie, as if through the size, you're agreeing with Jonathan Last. The British actors are better.

JAMIE: Well, I think the British actors have more opportunity to be better. I think they give - you know, look at Kevin Spacey. He's over there at the Old Vic right now. I mean, I think there are some great - there is some great, wonderful talent here, people like Cherry Jones. I mean, there are just some wonderful actors who lack the exposure and the opportunity to get their craft to a point where it can compete with British actors.

CONAN: All right, Jamie, we wish you the best of luck.

JAMIE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, appreciate the phone call. Lack of opportunity. Would you agree, Jonathan Last?

Mr. LAST: Certainly. And not just lack of opportunity, but lack of also the imperative to embrace those opportunities. The American, you know, dramatic industries are very much largely geared towards television in film, where over in England, actors and young actors are pushed and encouraged to embrace the stage. And many of the, you know, the top British actors that we were talking about are really stage actors who find time to do film work and TV work on the side, and those industries are also very different.

Over in Britain, you have TV series which don't have that golden carrot of syndication hanging in front of them, pushing them to get to 100 episodes. You don't have $120-million movies that have to be big tent-pole science-fiction movies that'll play well across the globe in order to make enough money to sustain the studio.

And so what you have is you get entertainments which are more geared towards writers, more geared towards actors, more geared towards human emotions, and these I think are all good things and things which help actors and writers and all the people who are really in it for the art and not just the ICM contracts.

CONAN: And let's get another caller on the line. This is Sara, Sara with us from Jacksonville, Florida.

SARA (Caller): Hey, there. I just wanted to say basically what the other guy just said but more simply. Hollywood is so commercialized. It's good to get good vehicles for our actors to really show their talents, and also I wanted to say Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks.

CONAN: Tom Hanks has class wherever he goes, wouldn't you say, Jonathan Last?

Mr. LAST: Absolutely. I heard him just a few months ago on, I think it was "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me", and he was good even in that.

CONAN: Even in that, which is not easy, believe you.

SARA: Even in his bad movies, he's wonderful.

CONAN: All right. Sara, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

SARA: All right, thanks.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from our blog. I think it's a false choice. The point is best actor may not shine if the role does not fit. Helen Mirren has much to be proud of in her career, but she also has the Penthouse-produced "Caligula". She shares that film with Malcolm McDowell and Peter O'Toole. Likewise, Marlon Brando has had many award-winning performances, but he also did the awful "Island of Dr. Moreau".

Actors can rise to the occasion or fall to the depths of mediocrity. One nation doesn't have a monopoly on good actors. It's evidence of weak self-esteem of Americans that this is a question for discussion. All that from Gary Anderson off the Blog of the Nation, our first contributor from the Blog of the Nation. So really, what do you make of this point, Jonathan?

Mr. LAST: I think it's funny for a guy from the Weekly Standard to be accused of weak self-esteem for America. I come the bastion of neoconservative imperialism, so I think that's probably not the fairest charge against me.

CONAN: Let's talk more. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jonathan Last wrote, "Why the British Outclass us in Acting". You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Isabel(ph) on the line - Isabel calling us from Hamilton, New Jersey.

ISABEL (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ISABEL: My comment is that it seems to me that in England or in the U.K., actors, are chosen on how well they act, whereas in the United States, they're chosen on how they look. So you have, you know, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They're beautiful, but that shouldn't matter, whether you're a good actor or not.

And my question is at what stage of the process do people who are plain looking but could be good actors get eliminated?

CONAN: It's called the character role, I think is what you're looking for in that particular - that has to do more with, I guess, your agent and how you market yourself, Jonathan Last, but I think she does have a point. Hugh Laurie might not be the star he is here if he'd not been a star in Britain. It's not easy for somebody who's not conventionally handsome or conventionally beautiful to get a part, a leading part.

Mr. LAST: That's true. I mean, when you look at this, all actors, you know, as a self-selected genetic class, they're all pretty good looking. I mean, even the…

CONAN: And pretty vain about it, too.

Mr. LAST: And pretty vain about it, too. You know, even the dowdiest actor or actress is, you know, much better looking than the average - well, one of me on the street, just as a for instance. But you definitely - I think Isabel makes an excellent point. The commercialism aspect of Hollywood, you know, where we're constantly selling something - we're selling a magazine cover.

We're selling an appearance on Regis and Kathy Lee, which is now no longer Kathy Lee - Regis and Kelly. There is so much commercialism to it and so much of an imperative to open big - you know, you've got to have a - you can't have movies which even grow over the course of weeks as they way they used to. You now have to have that big opening weekend, otherwise you're pushed out of screens, and you're doomed to DVD rentals.

There's so much of that that it really does push to have people who are bankable people who are immediately attractive, and you don't get to have the great characters.

CONAN: I think, actually, Kathy Lee never left that show, just the same way McNeal never left Lehrer. So they'll always be those titles. Anyway, Isabel, thanks very much for the call.

ISABEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is Barbara on the line. Barbara's with us from Northfield, Minnesota.

BARBARA (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BARBARA: I am English, as you may hear.

CONAN: As we can tell, yes.

BARBARA: In considering all these actors who do perform so wonderfully, it seems to me that English actors frequently value the word, the sentence, the context and manage to convey the precision of understanding and the value of those words and their meanings. And this enhances the acting and the reception by audiences here in America as much as anywhere else.

CONAN: That's one of the points you make in your piece, Jonathan Last.

Mr. LAST: It is. I couldn't agree more, actually. You know, so much we get caught up in the visual because, you know, our actors and actresses are so very comely. But really, at least half, probably much more, of what an actor does is with their voices, with the rendering of language - the languages of rendering thoughts and emotions and concepts which are so much bigger than the person.

And the English, this is their language. They invented it. They grew up with it. They still, in many cases, study the greats. They study the canon. They, you know, they know Goldsmith. They know Sheridan. And they also study in many of the finer schools, although not, I'm certain, the normal schools over there. They study classical - they the classics. They study Greek. They study Latin. They know even the roots of their own language in ways which we sadly don't get over here.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I lived in London for four years and went to a fair amount of theater and certainly noticed exactly what Barbara and you were talking about. I also noticed that British actors don't move anywhere near as well as American actors. Once they're walking around on stage, the Brits are just walking from place to place. Americans tell a lot more with their bodies than the Brits do.

Mr. LAST: Yeah, there's a real physicality to it. You know, that's one of the reasons you don't see very many British action stars, I think, because, you know, also, we do hear that there are certain roles - you know, if you're going to be a Bruce Willis - that is about the physicality. And this isn't to denigrate that, it's just a different side of the street, so to speak.

CONAN: Brando, the same kind of deal. He could really do a lot of things with his body that a lot of people surely can't. Barbara, thanks very much for the call.

BARBARA: You're welcome. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And there's also the phenomenon - I guess the Renee Zellweger phenomenon - of American actresses now being cast as British actresses, asking people to use their British accents.

Mr. LAST: And they don't like that much over the pond.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No they don't, no they don't, even when they win Academy Awards with it.

Mr. LAST: Yeah, and it happens, although not as often as the reverse happens. I mean, think of Hugh Laurie in "House", who has that fantastic accent of his. It's not just an American accent. There's even a little Armenian or Turkishness to it, too. You get little twangs, depending on what mood he's in, and it's really - I think it's, again, a sign of the level of the playing field, a sign of sort of the class of acting that they're operating in.

CONAN: He is exceptional, though. We used to identify what we call the I-80 accent, the English-American accent that sort of wandered all across the country, backwards - a little Bronx, a little Louisiana. You take what you get.

Mr. LAST: Yeah.

CONAN: It's an amazing thing, but in general, the quality of the acting just person for person, pound for pound, is better in London, no question about it.

Mr. LAST: I'm glad you think so. The Meryl Streep fans of the world don't.

CONAN: Well, I didn't say entirely, and when Meryl comes back to Broadway, we'll welcome her. Jonathan Last, thanks very much for being us today.

Mr. LAST: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Jonathan Last is - his op-ed appeared in the Sunday Current section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you'd like to read it, there's a link to it on our Web page. Just go to npr.org/talk, and you can also download our Opinion Page podcast at our Web site. Jonathan Last joined us here in Studio 3A. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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