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Is Mordecai Richler Too Good for Canadians?
…the Canadian film biz seems to think so


There seems to be a peculiar trend in movies based on novels by Canadian literary legend Mordecai Richler -- three of which were turned into big screen sagas: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Joshua Then and Now, and most recently, Barney’s Version. And that is, these Canadian movies, based on the writings of a Canadian author, and set undeniably, explicitly in Canada…tend to star Americans. Indeed, they tend to star Americans in the same relative roles (Richler’s novels often seeming to revisit similar themes and relationships -- as someone supposedly once cattily remarked: “I love Mordecai Richler’s novel…I love it every time he writes it”). Anyway, Americans always seem to be cast in the roles of the central character and his irascible father: Richard Dreyfuss and Jack Warden; James Woods and Alan Arkin, and now Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman. And often a few of the supporting roles are also filled out with non-Canadian actors (American and British). In fact, an ironic anecdote is that the director of Joshua Then and Now wanted to cast yet another American -- Cybil Sheppard -- in the role of the love interest, but Canadian funding executives balked, feeling a multi-million dollar Canadian movie should feature at least one Canadian in the principal cast. So then, either to thumb his nose at said executives, or to make the “point” that no single Canadian could match the talents of Ms. Sheppard, two Canadians were cast in the role -- francophone actress Gabriella Lazure to play the part on screen, and Anglophone actress Susan Hogan to provide the voice of what was, after all, supposed to be a WASP character. Get it? His message: it took two Canadians to equal one American!

It’s hard to argue with the casting of the Hollywood heavy weights, of course. In all cases, the lead actors were often singled out in reviews for their sterling performances. (Though interestingly, in a CBC radio adaptation of Barney’s Version from a few years ago, it did feature a Canadian cast, including Saul Rubinek as Barney).

At the same time, the curious thing about these Richler adaptations…is they aren’t usually that successful at the box office. Even Duddy Kravitz, I believe, raked in only a modest amount of money. So if the “rule” in Canadian film is that American actors simply must be brought in to star as fathers and sons in Mordecai Richler adaptations (like a golfer wearing his lucky pants before hitting the links) shouldn’t such a superstition evolve around something that has proven successful? At least once?

Even critically these Richler adaptations have never quite lived up to the expectations heaped upon them by the industry, and the cheerleaders in the press. Don’t misunderstand -- they usually enjoy decent reviews (I liked both Duddy and Joshua -- haven’t seen Barney, yet). But often newspaper articles and reviews will herald these films as destined for greatness, perhaps even mounting the stage at that Promised Land of Canadian film…the American Oscars. And just as often…such commentators will be dumbfounded when the films achieve, at best, a ripple, rather than a wave -- Barney’s Version is no The King’s Speech. One or two token nominations, at best, but with no one -- other than Canadians critics -- seriously thinking they’re on a shortlist for actually winning in the major categories.

Which then brings us to the recent Genie Awards for Canadian film, in which Barney’s Version took home statues for three of the four acting awards -- all by the American and British performers. The only exception to the Barney streak was a Best Actress win…by Lubna Azabal, a Belgium actress, for the film Incendies.

Whatever Hollywood may think, dagnabit -- says the Canadian film biz -- we think these people are winners. And maybe they are. Maybe Paul Giamatti was better than Canadian actor Jay Baruchel in The Trotsky (for which he had been receiving some good critical reviews himself). Indeed, that’s perhaps the significant thing. Barney’s Version, for all its accolades, didn’t win Best Picture or anything. The Genie Awards weren’t saying that Barney’s Version was the best film, merely that it was the best acted…thanks to its mainly imported cast.

But isn’t there a cause for concern when at a night to celebrate greatness in Canadian film…not a single Canadian actor walked away with an award?

Once upon a time the Canadian film awards had separate acting categories -- for Canadian actors, and for “foreign” actors. Of course this had a stigma about it, as it seemed to be throwing in the towel before the bell had even rung, suggesting the only way the Canadians could hope for a trophy is if they didn’t have to compete with the “real” talent. I believe (though I’m just going by memory here) there was even a time when non-Canadians couldn’t be nominated -- but that carried the same whiff a insecurity. And it was unfair to the American (and other) actors who were emoting their hearts out and legitimately deserved a chance at industry recognition.

And for a while, the playing field seemed to have levelled out -- as it should. Acting nominations were doled out, regardless of citizenship, and sometimes non-Canadians deservedly won, and sometimes the Canadians deservedly won. Politics and hidden agendas played their part -- as they always do at awards shows -- but not enough to egregiously tip the balance one way or the other.

And then we come to the 2011 Genie Awards -- not only with non-Canadians taking home all the acting trophies, but also plumping out the nominees.

So what’s the message to be inferred from that? Obviously, one could argue either side.

1) The best actors won, and the fact that they were non-Canadians shows the maturity of the industry, that it isn’t wrapped up in tired parochialism, where second rate Canadians are “rewarded” over more deserving imported actors.

Or 2) The Academy voters were star struck, giving the trophies to the imported glamorous celebrities, rather than letting talent dictate the choices. The Canadian actors never even had a chance, because the industry had decided it was more politic to award the international stars (and so make it more enticing for foreign celebs to work in Canada in the future).

Either way, it’s a problem.

If the best actors really were the American, British and Belgium imports…what does that say about the Canadian talent pool? Or at least, the choices made by filmmakers and casting directors, and the Canadian actors who are leap frogged into starring roles over other performers?

Conversely, if an imported actor can come in and practically walk away with an award just because they are imported, it suggests an industry that still isn’t comfortable in its own skin, unable, or unwilling, to say, hey, we are as good as you. It further encourages producers and directors to skip over Canadian actors and import Hollywood talent for their movies, dragging us back to the bad old -- financially disastrous -- days of the Hollywood North era when good Canadian actors sat on the sidelines while Hollywood celebrities were brought up to star in ill-fated vehicles.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Mar. 31, 2011

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