Canada at the Oscars: They like us, they really like us!

Brian D. Johnson on the Canadian Oscar conspiracy: William Shatner, ‘Argo’ and ‘Life of Pi’

Right off the top, you knew something fishy was going on when Canada’s own William Shatner, in full Captain Kirk regalia, loomed above Oscar host Seth MacFarlane as a retro patriarch from the future, putting that young upstart in his place. Sure, the 85th annual Academy Awards belonged to Hollywood, and to America—right down to Michelle Obama announcing Best Picture from the White House. But Canada was the surprise winner in this strange spectacle, as the Great White North kept usurping the limelight throughout the evening.

Spielberg’s Lincoln led the pack with 12 nominations, but it won just two of them, for Production Design—shared by B.C. set decorator Jim Erickson—and Best Actor. (Spielberg got more notice from the orchestra, which used the theme from Jaws to amputate acceptance speeches). In the end it was Life of Pi, based on the novel by Saskatchewan-based author Yann Martel, that won the night’s biggest haul with four Oscars. They include Best Original Score for Canadian composer Mychael Danna, and a Visual Effects Oscar for Vancouver-based Guillaume Rocheron. And when the film’s director, Ang Lee, accepted his Best Director prize (favoured to go to Spielberg), he said “I need to thank Yann Martel for writing this incredibly inspiring book.” Ang also took care to thank his Canadian crew—most of the movie was shot on a Montreal soundstage.

A more back-handed Canadian triumph lurked behind Ben Affleck’s Argo, the tale of Canada’s embassy rescuing six American hostages from Iran in 1979. The movie won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yes, Argo does insult the story’s real hero, former Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor—demoting him to a concierge while giving CIA spy Tony Mendez all the credit for rescuing the hostages—but that didn’t stop Canada from getting lots of play at the ceremony.

First there was that clip of Mendez (Affleck) quizzing the hostages about the pronunciation of Toronto, and on all manner of Canuck trivia, so they can sneak out of the country masquerading as a movie crew financed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation (Telefilm’s predecessor). The CFDC!! Even the time-travelling Captain Kirk could not imagine a future where the CFDC would get mentioned in a 2013 Oscar show. And when Argo writer Chris Terrio got up to accept the screenplay award, he begrudgingly mentioned “the Taylors” in his breathless string of thank-yous, even though Ken Taylor has been slamming his script as fiction ever since the movie premiered last September at TIFF.

Finally, when producer/director/star Ben Affleck accepted Best Picture for Argo, he said “I want to thank Canada and Iran . . . and my wife, who I don’t normally associate with Iran.” Canada, Iran, his wife . . . strange bedfellows. It’s to say which of the three he seemed most guilty about, but he talked like a man with survivor guilt, praising his competitors with a sweetly tortured  modesty that was almost . . . Canadian.

And  I’m pretty sure this was the first time Affleck has actually thanked Canada in his torrent of Argo acceptance speeches at various awards pageants. For those paying really close attention, he also flicked at the controversy over his film’s mistreatment of Taylor with one emphatic syllable, as he thanked Tony Mendez, “who let us tell his story.” Since Taylor first branded the film “fiction” in my Maclean’s interview last September, Affleck has done considerable damage control, flying Taylor to Los Angeles to rewrite the movie’s insulting postscript and record commentary for the DVD. Those efforts have placated Taylor up to a point, yet on the eve of the Oscars, he rekindled the controversy in the New York Times, as the U.S. media finally caught up to a story that has ricocheted around the Canadian media ever since the movie’s TIFF premiere.

Canada also had a foreign-language film nomination with Rebelle (War Witch) by Quebec director Kim Nguyen, who had no chance against Michael Haneke’s Amour. And three of the five filmmakers nominated for Live Action Short were Canadian—Montreal’s Ariel Nasr (Buzhkashi Boys), Toronto’s Mino Jarjoura (Asad) and Montreal’s Yan England (Henry)—though they lost to Curfew.

On balance, however, during the evening, Canada and Canadians did get thanked more than God.  I was reminded of a mockumentary called The Canadian Conspiracy, produced by my pal Bill House back in 1985. It was a satirical expose of how Canadians basically pull all the strings in Hollywood, with a genealogy that stretches from Lorne Greene to Ivan Reitman, Lorne Michaels and SCTV. It seems not much has changed. Take that Seth MacFarlane dude. Sure, he was putting on a good American front, cracking wise Castkills-style about women, gays, and foreigners with funny names. But I swear he was hiding something. The jokes were so lame, he could have been a Canadian mole on a covert mission to sabotage American pop culture from within. With that bland Mr. Nice Guy smile, he certainly looks Canadian. And as he peered into his near future as a failed Oscar host, he had our self-deprecation thing down so pat he could have been one of those American diplomats masquerading as Canadians in Argo .

Besides, MacFarlane was in cahoots with Shatner, who was clearly running the show, and acting circles around him with an unfair edge acquired eons ago as a Shakespearean actor in Stratford, Ont.—just one diabolical degree of separation from Christopher Plummer, who presented Best Supporting Actress to Anne Hathaway while wearing an Order of Canada pin in his lapel.

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