Road To The Oscars: ‘The King’s Speech’

Thursday, January 20 by

In this week’s column we’ll take a look at the Oscar prospects of T-t-he K-k-k-ing’s S-p-p-peech. And now that I’ve gotten that easy gag out of the way let us get down to brass tacks. On the surface, The King’s Speech seems to have it all: It’s a Weinstein-produced critical favorite, a period drama starring British Commonwealth actors, a smash hit on the art house circuit (carrying the highest per screen average of 2010) concerning one man’s struggle to overcome a disability in order to achieve greatness — and it even has anti-Nazi subtext.  All of this makes The King’s Speech a shoe-in to sweep the Oscars… in the year 1993. But unfortunately we’re on the other side of the Y2K Virus. “Twin Peaks” is off the air and The Spin Doctors are no longer touching the hearts and minds of a generation with anthems like “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” Will Academy members give in to nostalgia and cast their votes for a film tailor-made for the Clinton years? Or will they favor decidedly more 21st century fare such as The Social Network?

Like previous Oscar winners Schindler’s List, A Beautiful Mind, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The King’s Speech is based on true events. Specifically the struggle of King George VI to overcome his speech impediment in order to become a more effective figurehead of Britain’s archaic and mostly powerless monarchy.  The King is forced to enlist the help of an Australian speech therapist, here played by an actual Australian, Geoffrey Rush.  Rush of course is no stranger to the Academy’s night of razzle-dazzle, having taken the Best Actor shiny gold dude for his performance in Shine, in which he played a man struggling to overcome a disability in order to achieve greatness… sound familiar? If it were swathed in flannel, sporting a soul patch and carrying a dog-eared copy of On The Road under its arm, The King’s Speech couldn’t be more of the 1990s. And while this might work against it come Oscar time, it does serve to remind us of that there was once a time when films were made for adults, and when “independent film” meant more than just casting Michael Cera and slapping a hand-drawn font on the poster. Colin Firth’s performance as the titular tongue-tied sovereign is nuanced, human and undoubtedly Oscar-worthy. But then that’s why Hollywood leaves its dramatic heavy lifting to Brits; British actors tend to be classically trained professionals, whereas American actors tend to be narcissistic pretty kids with IQs low enough to eliminate other professional options and trust funds large enough to afford apartments in Hollywood. Especially after getting snubbed last year for his Oscar-deserving performance in A Single Man, I have little doubt that Firth will take this year’s gilded doorstop for Best Actor. But will The King… get the Best Picture crown? Let us consult the runes.

RETARD STRENGTH (5/5): Of all this year’s likely Oscar contenders, only The King’s Speech boasts a bonafide gimp.  Sure, Jessie Eisenberg’s character in The Social Network seemed to have a touch of the Asperger’s and 127 Hours’ protagonist, by cutting off his own arm, gained some self-inflicted retard strength.  But only George VI would’ve taken the short bus to school. More importantly, he overcomes his handicap in order to better himself. As far as the Academy’s concerned, its not enough to simply be a tard; otherwise Keanu Reeves would win Best Actor every year. The tard’s tardedness must serve as an obstacle (or “tardstacle”) which the tard conquers by film’s end, as is the case with Colin Firth’s mouth-tarded monarch.

SOCIAL RELEVANCE (4/5): While a film set 75 years ago concerning turn-of-the-LAST-century class divides and a royal family that’s since been relegated to tabloid fodder might not seem particularly relevant to movie goers circa 2011, there is a contemporary subtext to The King’s Speech that should not be ignored. King George VI was not working to overcome his speech impediment in order to pursue a voice over career, or to be a contestant on “Jeopardy,” or to give his mistress better phone sex; he was doing it be a more effective leader. We Americans would do well to remember, in these potentially-apocalyptic times, that a leader’s greatest strength is often his or her ability to speak clearly, succinctly and intelligently.  What we don’t need are more leaders who babble incoherent yokel-approved catch phrases using broken English and faux redneck accents. In other words, while you may not grasp all of our President’s fancy talk — what with them big words and stuff – there’s a reason he’s the goshdurn leader of the free world and not working the Stuckey’s night shift like you.

EPICOSITY (3/5):  Okay, The King’s Speech is not exactly epic.  It is well shot and directed, but does carry some of the same cinematic flatness as the Merchant Ivory powdered wig dramas of ye olde. However Alexandre Desplat fancies things up a notch with an excellent orchestral score reminiscent of the work he did for 2006′s similarly royal The Queen. In fact it won’t surprise me if Desplat winds up beating out Trent Reznor‘s bleeps and bloops for Best Original Score.

UPLIFT (5/5):  Not only does King George VI conquer his stutter and give a speech that rallies his subjects against an evil tyrant with a Michael Jordan mustache (and if cinema has taught us anything, it’s that Nazis = bad), he’s able to befriend a lowly Australian whom he views as, if not an equal, then at least a human.  Which is more than could be said of me with regard to Australians.

BONUS POINTS (1): BRITISHNESS : Hallo Gubna! Like a middle-aged bachelorette who owns too many cats and reads too many Jane Austen novels, there are few things Academy voters find more irresistible than English accents. I have to give The King’s Speech an extra point just for its sheer Britishness. It’s like a bag of crips with bad teeth, it’s so British.

TOTAL POWER RANKING (4.5/5):  Based on my power rankings alone, The King’s Speech is a good bet for Best Picture. However zeitgeist does not always defer to objective reason. I’m not sure the strengths of The King’s Speech will be able to trump The Social Network’s hype, and we do live in an age where hype is everything. As good a film as it was, The King’s Speech seems more like a relic from another time.