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Scotland at the Oscars: a brief history

'Seawards the Great Ships was a really important film at the time and it is genuinely Scottish'

'Seawards the Great Ships was a really important film at the time and it is genuinely Scottish'

  • by BRIAN FERGUSON
 

It’s the biggest night of Hollywood’s year, and as the stars prepare to walk the red carpet for the 85th Academy Awards Brian Ferguson looks at Scotland’s long association with film-making’s greatest prize

IT is the ultimate cinematic accolade – and one with which Scotland has had an enduring, if unlikely, association.

On first glance at the winners, Oscars glory may appear to have largely eluded Scotland since the Academy Awards were first held in 1929.

The debates will still be raging about the “Scottishness” of Brave, Disney-Pixar’s fantasy, set in the Highlands, long after the red carpet is rolled up on Sunday. But as the film and tourism industries in Scotland wait with fingers crossed, the nation’s track record at the Oscars proves worthy of further investigation.

While most can recall relatively recent winners such as Sir Sean Connery, Annie Lennox and Peter Capaldi, many of Scotland’s early winners are now all but forgotten.

But in fact, the Oscars might not exist today if it had not been for a Scot. Born in Cambuslang in 1886, Frank Lloyd was widely regarded as Scotland’s first bona fide Oscar winner. A celebrated film director, scriptwriter and producer, he was to win two Oscars in the best director category, for The Divine Lady and Cavalcade, but lost out for on his most successful film, Mutiny on the Bounty, although it was named best picture. Lloyd was among the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, which went on to set up the Oscars two years later, and is immortalised with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Deborah Kerr was one of Scotland’s best-known actresses and was a huge star in Hollywood in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, thanks to roles in the likes of From Here To Eternity and The King and I. The Glasgow-born actress, who was brought up in Helensburgh, was nominated no fewer than six times by the Academy, only to be overlooked each time. In 1994, however, she did receive an honorary Oscar, for her work as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.”

One of Scotland’s less-remembered Oscar winners was child actor Jon Whitely, who made five films in a career spanning only five years. Born in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, in 1945, he won an honorary “juvenile” Academy Award in only his second film – along with co-star Vincent Winter – for his roles in The Kidnappers, released in 1953, a drama set in Nova Scotia, about two youngsters who abduct a baby as their pet.

The film was written by Perthshire screenwriter Neil Paterson, who won his own Academy Award in 1960 for the script to the Yorkshire-set romantic drama Room at the Top, which famously prevented Ben Hur from winning a 12th statuette.

A former journalist, who turned his hand to books and short stories after the Second World War, Paterson is also remembered for his footballing exploits playing with Dundee United, who he captained for a spell in the 1930s.

Scotland’s first fully-fledged taste of Oscars glory arguably came in 1962, when Seawards the Great Ships, a documentary about the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde, scooped an Academy Award for best live action short. It was produced and co-written by Stirlingshire-born John Grierson, who became renowned as “the father of the documentary” and had a glittering filmmaking career stretching from the 1920s to the 1960s.

A fellow Scot and contemporary of Grierson, Norman McLaren, who was born in Stirling and studied at Glasgow School of Art, had scooped an Oscar for best documentary a decade earlier with an anti-war film, Neighbours, which he made in Canada, where he had relocated to and was to spend the rest of his career.

English actress Vanessa Redgrave found herself nominated in the best actress category for her portrayal of one of the most iconic Scots of all time. Glenda Jackson, Patrick McGoohan, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Davenport and Trevor Howard were among her co-stars in Mary, Queen of Scots, which was released in 1971.

Redgrave had already played another iconic Scottish figure, this time fictional, on stage, but it was Maggie Smith, who won the chance to portray the titular role in the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, winning her the Academy Award for best actress in 1969.

One of the most famous British wins at the Oscars which Scotland had a couple of genuine claims on came in 1981 when Chariots of Fire won four Academy Awards. Based on the true story of devout Scottish Christian Eric Liddell and English Jew Harold Abrahams and their exploits at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, the film’s famous beach scenes were filmed on the West Sands in St Andrews, while the production also visited Edinburgh, including the Cafe Royal.

A giant of cinema for more than four decades, Sir Sean Connery’s only Oscar glory came in 1988 when he won best supporting actor for his role in gangster drama The Untouchables, the sole nomination of his career.

The modern-day golden era for cinema in Scotland in the mid-1990s was marked when Braveheart won five Oscars in 1996, although Mel Gibson had done the bulk of the filming of the William Wallace epic in Ireland.

In the 1990s, Tartan Shorts, a scheme in association with BBC Scotland, was set up and its first major success was Peter Capaldi’s short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, which won best live action short film in 1995.

Annie Lennox won in 2003 for the song Into the West from The Return of the King, part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Glasgow-born film-maker Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar in 2000 for the documentary One Day in September about the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, also directed The Last King of Scotland, which won Forest Whitaker the best actor award in 2007 for his portrayal of Idi Amin.

MacDonald had earlier had won an Oscar with an earlier documentary film, One Day In September, released in 1999, which depicted the true-life events when 11 Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

And although born in London, actress Tilda Swinton’s Scottish family and long-time residency in the Highlands mean Scotland can claim another Oscar winner after she won best supporting actress five years ago for her role in Michael Clayton.

The most recent close-thing for Scotland came three years ago when The Illusionist, French director Sylvain Chomet’s animated comedy drama, which he made and set in Scotland, was nominated for best animated feature, but lost out to Toy Story 3.

Film historian Andrew Martin, from the National Library of Scotland, responsible for the official Scottish Screen Archive, says: “Scotland really has had a remarkable number of nominees and winners. Seawards the Great Ships was a really important film at the time and it is genuinely Scottish because it was filmed on the Clyde.

“Neil Paterson was amazing because he effectively had two Oscar-winning films and he was also a footballer at one point.

“Other nominees included Mary Ure, for Sons and Lovers, who was born in Glasgow, but met a very tragic end after the opening night of a play [she died aged 42 from an overdose in 1975 after the first night of The Exorcism].

“There were other actors like David Niven and Donald Crisp, who won Academy Awards, who claimed throughout their careers that they were Scottish, even though there was no evidence that they were, but if they said it that would be good enough for me,” said Martin.

VisitScotland, the national tourism agency, was already predicting that Brave would be bigger than Braveheart even before its Oscar nomination and recent BAFTA success.

Chairman Mike Cantlay said: “Scotland’s stunning scenery and amazing cityscapes have made it a magnet for film-makers for many years. Research has shown that one in every five overseas visitors has been inspired to come to Scotland after seeing it on screen and, with our country playing starring roles in recent blockbuster movies such as Skyfall, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, even more people will be inspired to come here and immerse themselves in this, the world’s greatest movie set.”

 

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