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British Invasion: A LACMA Retrospective

Courtesy of LACMA

City Lights

As John Adams on TV lengthens into April, and overlaps with LACMA’s series on Brits in Hollywood — “A Sterling Legacy,” some wit has called it, as the pound devours the dollar — it’s worth noting how, in Adams, Jefferson and Franklin are played by English actors (Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkinson), while the series as a whole is entrusted to an English director, Tom Hooper. Is it just that the Brits do history better — or do they develop a more satisfactory history? Of course, the British influence on American filmmaking is far more pervasive than this short series can hint at. After all, from David Lean to Anthony Minghella, Brits have been employed to film epic movies made from American money — in the way that English accents (from Claude Rains to Alan Rickman) have served as a guarantee of silky, well-educated villainy. In other words, with more time and careful mining, LACMA’s series could have helped to show how subtly the British are pushing eastward from Santa Monica in the spirit of reclamation. It’s not just directors working in Hollywood, or writers and actors. It’s a matter of dress codes, table manners, attitudes to virtue and villainy, and familiarity with Premiere League soccer. Yes, you may say, this comes close to encouraging un-Americanness (that very American paranoia). But I have to tell you — and if you haven’t guessed, I was born in London — the Brits gave the U.S. 100 years or so to develop character and tradition, and another 50 years of “grace,” but now they are moving back with a vengeance. (Above all, beware of the humorous approach.) In terms of movies, here is Chaplin with City Lights (which screens in a new 35 mm print next weeekend), Hitchcock with The Man Who Knew Too Much, Charles Laughton with The Night of the Hunter and John Boorman with Point Blank. It’s not exactly an unfamiliar menu — though there are a couple of bold choices, like Alexander Mackendrick’s Don’t Make Waves and Ken Annakin’s Across the Bridge (that’s on Saturday, April 12, with Mr. Annakin appearing in person). There are omissions (like Ronald Neame, Stephen Frears and Robert Stevenson, whose Jane Eyre and Mary Poppins are models for the servant problem in L.A.). Never mind: Think of this as just an opening skirmish. Daniel Day-Lewis in The George Bush Story cannot be far away — DD-L as W, Rickman as H, Judi Dench as Barbara and Tilda Swinton as the Statue of Liberty. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; thru Sat., April 26. www.lacma.org.)

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