Before reviewing The King’s Speech’s claim on the Best Picture trophy for 2010, it is worth looking at what the Oscars represent, or more to the point, what they used to represent before our culture fractured into a million pieces and turned the annual ceremony into yet another battleground in the endlessly tiresome culture wars.
Time was—in the middle of the last century, when Oscar came of age—that American culture was dominated by a broad middlebrow that, on the whole, was full of pretty good stuff. Far from being a vehicle for the moralizing of small town scolds, as it is often depicted today, American popular arts of the era could hold in its embrace everything from Tennessee Williams on Broadway to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It included the rhapsodies of George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland’s suites to the common man—the paintings of Mark Rothko (as well as Jackson Pollock), the architecture of Eero Saarinen, the novels of Norman Mailer, Ernie Kovacs’ Dadaist television experiments, and Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. Certainly, there still existed an artistic fringe where players like Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis toiled, and certain elephants in the room (race, for instance) were ignored, but with some notable blind spots, the culture of the period represented the best spirit of the nation, its most ambitious and searching, created not for the tut-tutting discernment of a narrow niche, but for the vast middle of the nation, and indeed of the world.
And atop it all sat the Academy Awards, the highest honor bestowed by the establishment upon the nation’s one true indigenous art form: the blockbuster motion picture. Through that period, films like Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, All About Eve, An American In Paris and From Here to Eternity took home the top honors. If every winner were not the very best film of the year, taken as a whole, it’s a pretty impressive group, and looking from our vantage point today, it almost inspires awe that these were the movies that Americans turned out to see in huge numbers.
Well, we know how that turned out. Casablanca gave way to Bonnie and Clyde, a film that consciously saw itself as an attack on middle American values. Fast forward a few more decades, and the split between “quality” cinema and “popular” cinema is now complete, with films that aspire to artistry speaking to an ever-more-rarified niche audience, while the multiplexes are fed a diet of Transformers. The sort of films that Oscar was once about have all but disappeared. Last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker, grossed $17 million in domestic release. At 10 bucks a ticket, that means it was seen by approximately 1.7 million Americans, or about half of one percent of the U.S. population.
Which brings us, at last, to The King’s Speech. Perfectly composed, beautifully acted, built around simple themes that still resonate, The King’s Speech is precisely the sort of film that would have been a worthy standard bearer for Oscar in its golden age. With three subtle, nuanced performances by Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter at its center, the film tackles Big Capital Letter Themes (Overcoming Personal Obstacles to Serve the Nation) in a way that feels understated; never maudlin; and only once or twice, briefly and expertly, reaches for a tug at the heartstrings.
The King’s Speech ambles down what is perhaps the Western world’s most well-worn soil–the opening days of WWII—via a remarkably personal path, depicting Prince Bertie’s rise to the throne not with the trumpets of destiny blaring, but as an unwanted, horrifying mantle thrust upon him. The painful road he must go down to overcome his stutter, his very private humiliation, is as subtle and sensitive a portrayal of the old “Ask not what your country can do for you…” theme as has ever been put on film.
That theme may not have the post-structuralist density of, say, a metaphor on the meaning of interpersonal communications in the information age, but it is one that, simple though it may be, doesn’t feel particularly oversaid in our times.
Of course, as has been pointed out, both The King’s Speech and The Social Network take some heavy liberties with the historical record. But of the two, the license The King’s Speech takes seems most in service of creating a fable that is thematically, culturally true, even if the politics are a bit jumbled.
The King’s Speech is not the most artistically adventurous of the Best Picture nominees. But if that were the criteria, none of the 10 nominated films would come close to winning the year’s prize. If formal risk-taking and experimentation were what Oscar was truly about, Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void, a psychedelic journey through the orifices of a slain drug-dealing teenager, would be this year’s Best Picture.
But the Academy Awards have never been about daring. Thankfully, we have the Independent Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards, and Cannes’ Camera d’Or, among others, to honor such achievements. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, despite its portentous name, is not composed of film theory professors and alternative weekly critics. This is the Industry boosting board, composed of CEOs and the highest paid entertainment workers on the planet. To return to their roles of honoring the best of their business is not shirking their artistic obligation, but recognizing once again that mass entertainment can be something more than soul-draining spectacle.
This year, both the major contenders are actually fairly popular with the public by recent standards. To date, The King's Speech has taken in over $83 million. The Social Network ended its big screen run having taken in $96 million. So this is not an Avatar vs. Hurt Locker battle of popular schlock versus unappreciated quality. Instead, with both films having made it onto the public radar, it is a question of which film best embodies the values Oscar should hold, of what kind of award one thinks Oscar should be?
The painful road he must go down to overcome his stutter, his very private humiliation, is as subtle and sensitive a portrayal of the old “Ask not what your country can do for you…” theme as has ever been put on film.
The King’s Speech is no over the top spectacular. It is a quiet, intimate, beautifully told story of a man forced by circumstance to overcome private torment to serve a public calling. If the Motion Picture Academy can’t rally behind such an achievement, who in our society can?
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Richard Rushfield is a four-year veteran of the American Idol beat and the author of a memoir, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost. His new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, goes behind the scenes of the most popular TV show of the decade.