The Current Discussion: All four Oscars for best acting went to non-Americans. Is Hollywood's cultural hegemony finally breaking up? Or are we Hollywoodizing foreign talents like Javier Bardem and Marion Cotillard?
When non-Americans do well in Hollywood, it’s further proof that the debate on cultural hegemony entirely misstates the nature of culture in general, mistakenly depicting it as something static and one-sided.
Culture, and cinematic culture in particular, has always been about admixtures, optimal blends, the impetus to appeal to as many people as possible—and to make money. That’s why from the outset Hollywood attracted foreigners. Chaplin was British. Von Stroheim was German; Garbo was Swedish, and so on. Far from being an example of American cultural hegemony, Hollywood was a fantastic, equal-opportunity Moloch, swallowing what and who it could to produce art for profit’s sake, and rather often for art’s sake, as the MGM lion informs us.
But for decades the contrary has also been true. Foreign film-makers such as Bergman, Fellini, the later Bunuel, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Zhang Yimou, John Woo, and those Hong Kong action directors whose name nobody can pronounce, let alone remember, and countless others stayed at home and influenced Hollywood from home. Who was the “hegemon” in those particular exchanges?
Of course there will be Europeans who complain that American cultural hegemony is emptying the old continent of its talent. But that’s missing the point that cultural figures, like anybody else, pursue opportunity. If European productions can’t compete with America’s, then why should a director, actor, or anybody else let nationalist stirrings pull him or her down? On the other hand, as talent travels, nothing prevents film-makers who went to the United States from returning home, and thanks to their experience earned abroad provide an impetus to the local film industry.
If one image best expresses the pervasive osmosis in Hollywood, then look it up in Luis Bunuel’s My Last Sigh—probably the best film autobiography ever. There is a photograph taken in 1972, when Bunuel was visiting Beverly Hills, having spent years there during the 1940s. The occasion is a lunch at George Cukor’s, Bunuel as the guest of honor. For the occasion Cukor had invited some of Hollywood’s greatest directors: Ruben Mamoulian, William Wyler, Robert Wise, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford. “A strange reunion of phantoms,” is how Bunuel described it. Most are in that remarkable snapshot.
Whenever someone denounces cultural hegemony, show him or her that photograph, after which nothing they say will ever sound as stupid.
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