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PANORAMA: 1996

Emma Thompson's Oscars Make Hollywood History
by Jim Kelsey

Emma Thompson, the 38-year-old English actress made history in Hollywood when she received Academy Awards - Oscars for both acting and screen adaptation. Her second Oscar was awarded recently by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences for her screen adaptation of "Sense And Sensibility" in which she plays the leading role of Elinor.


Pictured to the right are Hugh Grant as Mr. Ferrars and Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood in her adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense And Sensibility".

An accomplished and versatile professional, she has amazed movieland's moguls by her ability to write a screenplay that is as dazzling as her smile. Its economy in depicting characters and investing the movie with a graphically concise dramatisation remains true to its 19th-century creator, Jane Austen.

A marvellous illustration of superb screenwriting is seen in the opening of "Sense And Sensibility" in which Ms. Thompson establishes the plight of the Dashwood family in precise film bites; the film audience knows much about the widowed mother and her three daughters before the opening credits have concluded - a remarkable achievement.

Ms. Thompson, who took four years to complete the script, has brought out the comedy as well as the romance and pathos of her favourite author's first novel.

After studying the writer's letters, she came to regard Austen not only as a vivid observer of family life and rituals but as a wonderful biting satirist, full of irony.

She believes that the elegant commentator was a comedian and although all her books are concerned with ladies in difficult circumstances trying to find a husband, they are also about the social etiquette of the day and the rigorous standards of a genteel society long since vanished. That is the universal appeal of Austen that still fascinates the public today.

Ms. Thompson has served her apprenticeship both to academia and the theatre. The daughter of actress Phyllida Law and the late Eric Thompson, a man who created many popular television programmes for children, she began acting with the Cambridge Footlights Revue when she was an undergraduate.

She graduated in English Literature from Newnham College and, as a Professional actress, began on television as a comedienne, writing and playing in her own sketches. Her first Oscar was awarded in 1992 for her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel in "Howards End."

Twice Nominated
Ms. Thompson was nominated twice in 1993 for her sympathetic, knowing housekeeper in "The Remains Of The Day" and the defence lawyer in "In The Name Of The Father", More recently she played Carrington the controversial painter in the movie's version of the notorious Bloomsbury set's mŽnage ‡ trois, and the witty, acid-mouthed Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing". On the stage she has portrayed numerous Shakespearian heroines with her former husband, Kenneth Branagh.

She also proves to be a humorous raconteur in the diary she published about the making of "Sense And Sensibility," a beautifully illustrated volume that also includes the shooting script. The book tells, in intimate detail, the full horrors of movie-making, the pre-occupations of the director, the obsessions of the players, camera angles, acting with animals and the backstage boredom of endless takes that the audience never see.

Ms. Thompson records: "The beginning of a film is like watching a huge newborn centipede trying to get up on its hundred legs and go for a walk. Keeps tripping up until it's worked out how to coordinate. Any film will take two to three weeks to get into its stride - some never do... "

Hilarious Anecdotes
In hilarious anecdotes she captures the near madness of film-making, recording the ups and downs of the shoots as well as the chocolate and alcoholic binges that keep the adrenaline flowing.

She recounts how the Taiwanese director, Ang Lee - unused to British actors or customs - initially began the film with a Buddhist ritual of meditation and exercises for the actors with them massaging each other's "pressure points".

It made 18-year-old Kate Winslet, who plays the pretty and middle Dashwood daughter, scream. Ang, who was used to having no input from the actors, was somewhat surprised to receiving a lot of back chat about interpretation.

The director took to eating pink iced buns for breakfast. He then began teaching everyone t'ai chi and sending them notes.

One missive to Ms. Thompson said: "Endearing smirk please. Don't look so old", Another said: "Try rigorous smirk" that made Emma go purple with effort.

Rock-and-roll apparently liberated the pelvis and to be constantly strapped into tight corsets for l5-hour days not only caused fainting fits but proved almost impossible for the ladies to ride side-saddle. It also changed their walking ability to an 18th-century mince.

Marvellous Showcase
Although she adheres to Austenesque propriety throughout the film, Ms. Thompson does depart from the original by allowing Elinor to kiss Edward Ferrars.

"Sense And Sensibility" is a superb production and a marvellous showcase for English character actors whose formidable talent bring Austen's remarkable insight into humanity vividly to life. The film looks beautiful as it tours the National Trust's stately mansions set amid the romantic English countryside.

In the hunt for husbands, Kate Winslet is all youthful beauty as Elinor's impetuous sister, Marianne, who ultimately is taught sense by experience and finishes up on the arm of Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon).

The men are admirably cast with the Greg Wise as the dashing fortune-hunter John Willoughby; Robert Hardy, knee-deep in dogs and bonhomie, is a benevolent Sir John Middleton, and Hugh Laurie - whose ominous droll one liners are delivered with admirable timing to Imelda Staunton as his empty-headed wife.

Ms. Thompson is considering starring with Robert Redford in the screen adaptation of The Horse Whisperer, British novelist Nicholas Evans's story about a man who heals horses.

However, her future may not be acting, which she loves, but writing screenplays for which she has an obvious talent, and directing plays and films.

  

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