Way to Oscar's Heart? An American Accent

Being John Malkovich isn't the half of it. The key to landing an Oscar nomination Tuesday seemed to rest in being American — no matter where you're really from.

Last year's Academy Award crop included senior Britons Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench at their oh-so-most English, while best picture winner Shakespeare In Love paid tribute to Britain's most famous writer.

This year, however, the prevailing accent was the American one uniting British nominees Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds), Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules), as well as such Australian Oscar first-timers as Russell Crowe (The Insider) and Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense).

Blame it on Gwyneth? That was the theory of veteran nominee Caine, who received his fifth Oscar nod for playing a pro-abortionist New England doctor in The Cider House Rules.

"I think Gwyneth Paltrow playing English gave us all the confidence to play American," said Caine, 66, referring to her Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare in Love.

"I hope it's just coincidence," said McTeer, 38, the theater-trained actress who made a splash playing a blowsy American mom in Tumbleweeds. "It would be a shame to think all the British actors are migrating to America to play Americans."

In a category all her own was supporting actress nominee Samantha Morton, a Brit whose performance as the mute laundress in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown required her to play an American — without speaking a word.

"I think we're all actors, all international actors," said Morton, 22, breaking off from feeding her 9-day-old daughter, Esme, to field a reporter's call.

"If you're a competent actor," she added, "you can play someone from anywhere."

Still, this year it seemed to help if the character and/or setting involved the good ol' U.S. of A.

Consider first-time nominee Sam Mendes, whose film directing debut on American Beauty puts the country of choice in its title.

"I wanted to bring an objectivity and an alien eye to bear on a world where I only sensed what it was," explained Mendes, 34, a Brit whose dark comedy led the Oscar race with eight nominations.

America also allowed "a sense of scale that is sometimes very difficult with a contemporary English film," Mendes said.

Other films — and filmmakers — seemed to stray from the United States at their peril.

That may explain the relatively short shrift given to Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is set mostly in Europe and was passed over for best picture, actor and director.

Or critics' darling Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh's biographical film about those most English of music-makers, Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite winning best picture and best director from two of four leading American critics' organizations, the film was nominated only for Leigh's screenplay and a few technical awards.

"I don't think it's actually Anglophobia or anything," said Leigh, whose quintessentially English Secrets and Lies was a major Oscar contender three years ago.

"American movies, on the whole, are the ones people over there naturally vote for," he said.

At least one Briton, meanwhile, was exulting in geographical difference.

First-time filmmaker Paul Morrison's Welsh-language Solomon and Gaenor, nominated for best foreign film, is set in 1911 and examines an illicit love affair between a young Jewish man, Solomon, and a Welsh girl, Gaenor. Some of the dialogue is in Yiddish as well.

Said Morrison: "We're very Welsh, very Jewish, very un-American."