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The Oscars are a lesson in how to turn failure into success

I am struck by the profound difference in psychology that divides the British from the Americans…

The Oscars are a lesson in how to turn failure into success

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 24 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am struck by the profound difference in psychology that divides the British from the Americans, or maybe that divides me from the American film industry. Take the Academy Awards. Those who are up for an award, even if they do not get it, will henceforward be prefixed by the adjectival term “Academy Award Nominated”. I salute this attitude. I see only failure to win the award, where others celebrate the achievement of having got to the final round.

This dilemma became personal when I bumped into the novelist Bella Pollen. Bella is a remarkably talented woman; I remember when she was Arabella Pollen, fashion designer, and now, remaining irritatingly good-looking and chic, she writes fiction and finds that she has been entered for the Orange Prize, the Ondaatje and, as far as I recall, the Nobel Prize for literature, for her well-reviewed and commendably long novel The Summer of the Bear.

I then mentioned that my last book, Gentlemen & Blackguards, has been put in for the Samuel Johnson. The thing is, we could not decide what to do about it. Both of us professed the remote likelihood of our winning, and we immediately fell to competing about who had the least chance. This gave me the subsidiary problem of whether I should let her win this micro-argument or not, because if I did the gallant thing, I’d be admitting that my book had a ghost of a chance. Had it been entered for the prize given to the best book on the subject of gambling and horse doping in 1844, I would feel more sanguine, but alas the Samuel Johnson takes a lamentably panoramic view of non-fiction and I find myself up against people who actually know what they are doing.

So the question was, did we allow ourselves the pleasure of letting people know that we had been entered for prizes that people have actually heard of, or should we do the conventionally British thing and keep quiet about it? The question was all the more acute because of course my offering was, to use an equestrian term, more liable to fall at the first fence, let alone the Becher’s Brook of actually being read by the judges.

Happily the answer came to me at my friend Charles Finch’s annual pre-Bafta dinner, the greatest concentration of world-class movie stars and directors at any dinner party this side of the Atlantic. I was chatting to a noted director about his plans for the Cannes Film Festival and he informed me that he had a film “in competition”.

Genius. Why did I not think of it before?

“In competition” – it sounds both businesslike and neutral while also conveying an appropriate level of achievement. Bella agreed that it was a gift of a term.

What is more, this neat form of words will also allow me to use another movie industry catchphrase when I fail to make the longlist: Marlon Brando’s deathless line, “I coulda bin uh contenduh”.

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