Oscar's history of recognizing those from the land down under -- Heath Ledger is only the latest in a long line of Aussie's up for the film industry's highest honor

Quick: Who was the first Australian leading man to conquer Hollywood? The answer: Errol Flynn, the quintessential swashbuckling star of epics like 1935’s Captain Blood and 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. And how many Oscar nominations did he receive over his storied career? The answer: zero. But if Flynn were alive today, he’d no doubt raise a glass — or three — to toast all the actors from Down Under who’ve been filling up the Academy’s dance card over the last decade. And he might hoist a whole keg to Heath Ledger, up for Best Actor for his performance in Brokeback Mountain.

Before 1996, though, the number of Oscar-nominated Aussie actors was scant: May Robson (1933’s Lady for a Day), Dame Judith Anderson (1940’s Rebecca), South Africa-born Cecil Kellaway (1948’s The Luck of the Irish and 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Diane Cilento (1963’s Tom Jones), Brit-born Peter Finch (1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday and 1976’s Network, for which he won Best Actor posthumously), and Judy Davis (1984’s A Passage to India and 1992’s Husbands and Wives). But in the last nine years, Oz imports have scored at least a dozen nominations — four of which have led to wins. Not bad for a nation whose population is roughly half that of California’s. But here’s the question: Why the Australians? And why now? Rachel Griffiths, a Supporting Actress nominee in 1999, has a simple answer: ”Public funding.”

The actress has a point. In 1969, Australian prime minister John Gorton introduced a government-subsidized commission that would fund, market, and distribute films made by Australians. This, along with the establishment of Sydney’s Australian Film Television and Radio School, gave aspiring actors and directors a chance to learn their trade, and also to ply it. For young filmmakers like four-time Best Director nominee Peter Weir who’d struggled in their early years (”There wasn’t even a film industry when I started out in the ’60s,” he has said), it was like being a racehorse getting a jump start out of the gate.

By the mid-to-late 1970s, Australia’s filmmakers were churning out feature films that were showing up at Cannes and other festivals. Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave were among the first to hit the international market, soon followed by 1979’s scrappy apocalyptic thriller Mad Max (starring a young Mel Gibson) and, later that year, by Gillian Armstrong’s robustly feministic period piece My Brilliant Career, which had a long U.S. run and gained an Oscar nod for costume design. But the real story was the film’s star, Judy Davis, whose spirited performance wowed critics and inspired the next generation back home. ”She was certainly my hero,” says Griffiths, who speaks for many of her peers in citing Davis’ influence.

Despite talk of an Australian New Wave, the surge proved to be short-lived because Aussie directors found themselves courted by Hollywood. By the mid-’80s, Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) and Weir (Witness) were making their mark in L.A., along with others like Armstrong (Mrs. Soffel), Fred Schepisi (Roxanne), and Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games). Yet the void they left wasn’t filled. By the time the next generation of Australian actors was ready to test its wings, the Aussie film industry, already hampered by government cutbacks, was growing increasingly sluggish. With only the occasional film — like Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Strictly Ballroom — finding an international audience, young performers began to look elsewhere for viable careers. And where else but Hollywood, which spoke the same language, had a steady supply of jobs, and, as Brits have known since the dawn of the talkies, historically welcomed talent from all over the world?