risky business


In the most level playing field for an Oscar competition in years, Academy voters parceled out awards to movies from all over the globe. While big winners "The Departed," "Dreamgirls" and "Little Miss Sunshine" were as American as apple pie, the truth remains that this year Oscar took on a decidedly foreign accent.

"This is the most international Oscars ever," host Ellen DeGeneres declared in her opening remarks. There were "record nominations for Mexico, Spain is in the house, and Japan is represented. I think I see a few Americans as well," she added. "Of course I'm talking about the seat fillers."

Suddenly this year's Oscar nominations revealed a new flat world of filmmaking perhaps best illustrated by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's polyglot Mexican-American-Japanese-Moroccan "Babel," in which he and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga were somehow able to communicate authentic characters and emotions across multiple plot lines, languages and continents.

In accepting this year's Oscar for best score, Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaolalla, winning his second straight Oscar, this time for "Babel," said: "In our soul rests, I think, our own true identity, beyond languages, countries, races and religions. I'm so proud to work on 'Babel,' a film that helped us understand better who we are and why and what are we here for."

The first two awards of the evening went to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's Spanish Civil War fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth," shot in Spain with Spanish actors. The third award of the night was won by Norwegian Torill Kove's animated short "The Danish Poet," starring Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. In fact, director Ari Sandel, winner of the live-action short film Oscar for "West Bank Story," was the only American in that category.

Director Clint Eastwood's early experience in the 1960s starring in a series of spaghetti Westerns in Spain under Italian director Sergio Leone helped to make it possible for him, some 40 years later, to tell "Letters From Iwo Jima's" story in Japanese about "the other guys, what was going through their minds," he said. "Letters" picked up one award, for best sound editing. During the Oscar telecast, Eastwood even translated for his old friend, Italian Ennio Morricone, this year's honorary Oscar winner. The Italians also were cheering as costume designer Milena Canonero picked up a surprise third win, this time for "Marie Antoinette."

Pity the hundreds of scribes in the backstage press room at the Oscars who couldn't make heads or tails of all the languages being spoken, from Spanish ("Babel," "Pan's Labyrinth") and Italian (Morricone, Canonero) to Chinese (documentary short "The Blood of Yingzhou District") and German (best foreign film "The Lives of Others"). "We only get half of the speeches," one reporter complained. "It's like the United Nations back here. If this keeps up, they are going to need translator headsets." Perhaps the Academy should admit its true international nature and borrow a few pages from the Festival de Cannes.

Even the presenters were from all over the place, from "Babel" star Gael Garcia Bernal and "Volver's" Penelope Cruz to Aussies Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts and "The Last King of Scotland" star James McAvoy, whose Scottish brogue was thicker than molasses.

When Al Gore accepted on behalf of the winning documentary feature "An Inconvenient Truth," his appeal was truly planetary, to save the world. "My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis," he said. "It's not a political issue, it's a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started — with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource; let's renew it."

By evening's end, "Babel" had won one Oscar, "Pan's Labyrinth" had won a surprising three out of six awards (for art direction, cinematography and makeup), and Australia's George Miller, working closely with Australia's Animal Logic, had stolen the animated feature Oscar ("Happy Feet") from America's own John Lasseter ("Cars").

Just as America always has been a melting pot, Hollywood has lured many emigres over the years, especially during World War II, when the likes of Alexander Korda and Erich Wolfgang Korngold fled war-torn Europe to practice their craft in Los Angeles. "Maybe Hollywood needed new blood," said French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was nominated this year for his score for "The Queen." His director, Stephen Frears said he tried to hire as many foreigners as he could on "The Queen" to mix things up.

Technology has made it much easier for movies to travel around the globe, with lighter camera equipment and computer editing. "You can work from Paris and send music in a blink to L.A. or London," Desplat said.

But is Hollywood still Hollywood? "I still think of the '30s and Norma Desmond and the Paramount gates," Desplat added. "It was created here and still is here. As long as talented directors and producers come here to create something, it will be Hollywood."

And as long as a Forest Whitaker can pull himself out of South Central Los Angeles or Jennifer Hudson and Michael Arndt can take the high dive into new careers, Hollywood remains the land of opportunity for people with the talent and determination to grab the spotlight.