Canuck talent has long lacked Oscar glamour

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As we close in on the 79th Annual Academy Awards next Sunday (February 25), you will undoubtedly read an article or two about how Oscar nominations are getting to be old hat for Canadians. This is not one of those stories. Sure, the National Film Board has won 69 nominations over the decades, including this year’s Canada/Norway coproduction The Danish Poet, and London, Ontario, alone has two native sons with nominations: one of them best-actor finalist Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) and the other Letters From Iwo Jima writer Paul Haggis, who won two Oscars and a third nomination for producing, directing, and writing 2005’s Crash. And we have a best-foreign-language nomination for Deepa Mehta’s Water, which has a Hindi-speaking cast.

Four nominations this year certainly seems like a lot, but do any of the nonacting nominations contribute to our country’s profile and prestige internationally? Haggis hasn’t done much here since he wrote Due South in the mid 1990s, and Water, while produced and directed by Canadians and thus qualifying as a Canadian film, was shot in Sri Lanka using mostly Indian actors.

The popularity of the Academy Awards as a television show has little to do with short films, foreign films, or writers. It’s about the glamour that a billion people attach to it, a glamour that comes from the actors who present awards and win nominations. So where do we stand on the list of acting nations at the Oscars? Very low. Gosling’s nomination, the first for a Canadian-trained actor in more than a decade, sees us tied with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Ireland, and Benin for fourth place in terms of 2006 acting nominations. (All are behind the U.S., the U.K., and Spain.) Clearly, Canadians can act; they just don’t get a lot of respect from the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The list of Canadian actors the Academy has rebuffed over the years includes several men whom many Canadians probably assume have won at least one nomination. Donald Sutherland, Christopher Plummer, and Jim Carrey—all of them won nominations in preliminary competitions like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild but failed to get a shot at the big prize.

In truth, Canadian actors have traditionally fared better at the box office than they have with Oscar voters. Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Mike Myers have taken lead roles in some of the most successful films of recent years but have never managed to convert ticket-wicket gold into a statuette.

In fact, Gosling’s 2006 best-actor nomination for Half Nelson is the first time a Canadian male has been nominated for that award since Walter Pidgeon, for 1943’s Madame Curie. Since the Oscars weren’t telecast on the CBC until 1953, it’s unlikely that most Canadians were even aware that he had been honoured. Besides, in the early years of Hollywood, nominations for Canadian actors were not uncommon. Between 1929 and 1943, Pidgeon, Walter Huston, and Raymond Massey were nominated for a total of five best-actor Oscars, while Norma Shearer, Mary Pickford, and Marie Dressler won nine nominations for their performances in American films.

Canadian-born actors have won only that many nominations since the first Oscar show was broadcast to U.S. and Canadian homes. Bragging rights are limited to Anna Paquin’s win for best supporting actress for The Piano, one that should probably be asterisked since she had dual citizenship and was acting in a movie that was shot in her other native land, New Zealand. The others are British Columbia–raised sisters Meg and Jennifer Tilly (for Agnes of God and Bullets Over Broadway, respectively), aboriginal Canadians Chief Dan George (Little Big Man) and Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves), Ontario’s Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy) and Kate Nelligan (The Prince of Tides), and Quebec’s Genevií¨ve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days).

To put the futility into perspective, at least one Australian-trained actor has been nominated for an Oscar every year since 1998. In fact, Cate Blanchett’s 2006 nod for Notes on a Scandal is the 15th nomination received by actors groomed in Oz since 1994—the year of Jennifer Tilly’s nomination, which stood as the most recent Canadian honour until Ryan Gosling came along.

The good news is that Americans are still making movies in Canada, thus creating more work for Canadians. Those roles and larger parts in Canadian films and TV shows have given exposure to several young actors. Canadian film and television alumni Hayden Christensen, Adam Beach, and Rachel McAdams all came close to winning nominations in the last few years, and it would appear they’ll be around a while. Throw in Gosling and it’s possible that we are on the verge of creating a core group that will help promote our own industry and even bring a little Canuck glamour to the Oscars.