Friday, January 28, 2011

Oscarbartion: The King's Speech Americanizes the M-m-m-m-Monarchy!

Posted By and on Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 9:39 AM

The Kings Speech
Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out what sorts of movies Academy members are watching over the wireless. This week they discuss Tom Hooper's The King's Speech while everyone else discusses a different king's speech.

Hey, Stewart, did you notice that The King's Speech is basically a sports movie? Except unlike, say, Invictus—which displaced the tensions of its political plot onto the rugby pitch for superior catharsis—Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler fuse the two, turning politics into sport. Bertie (Colin Firth), future King George VI, is on the Royals, who've just lost George V (Michael Gambon) to career-ending dementia and are about to lose Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) to free agency. Bertie has until the fourth quarter/third period/twelfth round/final inning to overcome his handicap—an embarrassing speech impediment. To this end he has a coach (Geoffrey Rush, executive producing as well) with whom he shares training montages and ring-side/sideline strategy meetings. Their objective, beyond the "mechanical" stuff of fixing his voice-box, is to prepare microphone-shy Bertie for the first big speech of his reign. But isn't the larger goal to make the ascendant king more convincing in his performance of proper Britishness, especially after his younger brother signs with the more modern, less morally scrupulous U.S. franchise?

Totally, Ben: when an advisor was asking Firth what name he'd take as king, I was like, "uhhh, how about King Rudy I, of the Bad News Windsors?" (Or, "Mickey Ward"??) But it's funny you should say that about making him properly English, because I felt the movie worked hard to make George VI seem American—or at least, sympathetic to America's awards-voting audiences. As a born and raised subject of Uncle Sam, Ben, I have a deep-seated disdain for monarchy. To help viewers like me feel sympathetic for ol' Bertie, then, the filmmakers try to posit monarchism as a form of malformed democracy. The king's foil—the casually vulgar Rush, introduced on the toilet not unlike Rooster Cogburn—cheekily—subverts the fustiness of formality, but this is a movie with great feeling for the Old English way, a deep conservatism, but also an Americanesque love of the people, for whom it is said that the King speaks—it's less like he rules the people than they rule he. (Just without those pesky elections!) After all, Edward abdicates not because he's a rule breaker, but because as a rule breaker he can no longer claim that populist mantle.

I don't know about your American connection, Henry. For me the film was pretty steeped in Britishness, or at least Commonwealthness (?). I was fascinated by the strange post-colonial meta-narrative, in which a pair of actors from that most uncouth colony (Aussies Pearce and Rush) enable the actually-British Firth to step into the role of king, restoring the British voice of the monarch. This struck me since so much was made—in Danny Cohen's pleasantly fluid cinematography that repeatedly panned all the broadcast boxes for the most distant colonies—of the vastness of the British Empire, and the importance of retaining stiff-upper-lip propriety in the face of the various barbarisms emanating from Germany (war-seeking Hitler), the U.S. (triply divorced society women carrying on!), and elsewhere. That being said, Hooper never glamorizes Britishness (well, except during Rush's Shakespeare breaks); in fact the whole thing looks pretty miserable and drab, making the few moments of extravagance all the more impressive. Monarchy resembles a heavy, foggy gray cloak that Firth wears begrudgingly until his climactic (Swan-like?) transformation. But, kings and (speech) therapists aside, isn't this just a buddy movie, buddy?

Well, Ben, of course it's very superficially British, what with its obsessions over class, accents, acceptable terms of address and whatnot. (Funny that an Aussie, Guy Pearce, should play the king in a movie so contemptuous of Australians, no?) As for accusations of drabness, I thought Hooper created an important contrast between Bertie and Logue through set design. The royal interiors were ornate, but shot coldly to look off-puttingly formal. Logue's home, in contrast, was bursting with character and verve, from his office (which had a hiply ruinous, loft-like under-construction look) to his home (with its wacky wavy rainbow wallpaper). Like I said, this is a movie with a subtle sympathy for the everyman. In fact, one of the film's driving tensions, I thought, had to do with concepts of drama. If I remember my Aristotle correctly (why am I so obsessed with antiquity lately?), classical drama revolved necessarily around regal characters like, uh, George VI, or ol' Oedipus Rex. It took an American like Arthur Miller to create tragedies about schlubby proles, like Logue. I felt, at least on some level, like King's Speech was about the hero of an Aristoltelian tragedy pulled down to a Millerian level. Call it the Americanization of the King.

I don't know that it's superficially British, necessarily—and I definitely think you're making too much of the "Americanization" of the monarchy—just that George VI is compelled to perform a very specific version of British identity (one wrapped up in all kinds of absurd rituals and excessive decorum) that his brother finds too constricting and Logue considers arcane. I was continuously reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day—which is set around the same time and chronicles the crumbling of a less secure sector of British high society—because it concerns another slightly awkward character who, faced with vast, widespread change, sticks to what he knows: the most stoic and repressed invocation of English stereotype that he can muster. But enough about Britishness! What about this Oscar season's pervasive technological anxiety? After the primal punishment of compulsive self-documenter Aaron Ralston, Mark Zuckerberg's internet-enabled class vengeance, and Inception's dubious dream manipulation technology, here's the king of the largest empire on earth cowering before a radio microphone. Are fear and confusion in the face of new technologies just ways of baiting old-fashioned Academy members?

Yeah, the thematic overlap between The King's Speech and The Social Network is fascinating, Ben, because of what it might reveal about the Academy. The two films form a pretty clear competition between two modes of filmmaking that are always at odds in the Oscars: period vs. contemporary. (Look at, say, the 2003 nominees where, still reeling in the wake of 9/11 and drumbeats for war, the Academy only spotlighted stylized visions of the past.) Fincher's and Hooper's films are both about a new medium transforming a culture—Social Network, with social networks, and King's Speech with radio. (Or, really, voice recording—there's also a scene in which Logue shows off the magic of American Silvertone recording mechanisms). The Academy has a reputation for being comprised of gray-haired fuddy duddies: so, will they go for the movie about computers, which they still have trouble figuring out how to turn on and off? Or will they go for the one that touches on similar ideas of technological transformation, but couches them in quaint comforts—back in the days when a duke's radio-broadcasted speech at the close of a colonial exhibition could be world news. I think that whichever of these wins Best Picture will help us understand whether those Oscar-voter stereotypes are true.

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