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Oscars 2011: The Academy and the elderly genuflect to The King's Speech
This year the Oscars revelled in the luxurious Englishness of a film which started with an impertinent request to the royals and ended in the crowning of King Colin by Peter Bradshaw, published on Monday, February 28, 2011 - 09.20 GMT
Kirk Douglas's victory in the Most Noteworthy Moment category easily trumping Melissa Leo's F-word sally was a measure of how undramatic this year's Academy Awards were. The main event was predicted, though not precisely predictable; the success for The King's Speech covered most of the board while not going all the way across it: best film, best director, best original screenplay, best actor.
In a neurotic, not-wanting-to-jinx-it-for-them manner I had been predicting a sudden collapse for this film in all sections except Colin Firth's with a huge swing to The Social Network. That didn't happen. Instead, The King's Speech carried (almost) all before it. Even dark rumours about its historical inaccuracies, including an essay from Christopher Hitchens about its tactful rewriting of Winston Churchill's actual loyalties in the late 1930s, could not affect this film's popularity with Academy voters. They persisted in seeing it as the solidest, most plausible candidate. It had a Reaganesque, Teflon-non-stick quality.
The upset is evidently Tom Hooper winning the best director academy award he certainly defeated some heavyweight candidate nominees. And yet if everyone is agreed that the acting was so great, then a prize for the directing is not so very surprising: it is the director's job to get those performances: this is possibly the most unshowy part of a director's job, distinct from cinematography or art direction.
The most satisfying part of the The King's Speech victory is David Seidler's Oscar for best screenplay: Oscar night is generally a display of younger or middle-youth faces looking stunned, euphoric, unable quite to believe their luck (because of course luck plays its part). Seidler's was different. He is a man in his 70s whose writing has emerged from a lived experience. The movie world now knows how he originally approached the Queen Mother decades ago and asked for Clarence House's help in writing the screenplay; she asked him to wait until she was dead and Mr Seidler decently obliged. I very much suspect that the Queen Mother had no great interest in helping out film-makers with their lèse majesté schemes and was effectively asking him to wait until both she and Mr Seidler were dead: that is, drop dead and stop making impertinent requests. Well, the author behaved impeccably and has been karmically rewarded, and I think Helena Bonham-Carter's portrayal of the then Queen Elizabeth's haughty tendencies was shrewdly judged.
There's something else here: when my mother told me my 80-something aunt had gone to the cinema, on her own, to see The King's Speech, I realised how successful it has been (in this country, anyway) in harnessing the awesome strength of the grey pound. People who haven't gone to the cinema in 10 or 20 years are going to see The King's Speech. Older people are generally ignored or patronised in the movies: so this film's mighty triumph is a modest assertion of their existence.
To balance all those toffee-nosed Brits, the Academy rewarded the all-American and quasi-American performances of Melissa Leo and Christian Bale in The Fighter (the latter technically counts as a British success, but Bale is now more part of the Hollywood global village and these thoughts are arguably parochial anyway.) I had been wanly hoping that John Hawkes might win for Winter's Bone, but like everyone else in that excellent film, he turned out to be the dignified outsider.
In a Hollywood scene in which screenplays are endlessly rewritten, tweaked and polished by dozens of sweating writers, Aaron Sorkin's victory in the best adapted screenplay is a victory for the single authorial voice. I have to keep reminding myself that Sorkin was not a contender in the "original" screenplay category an irony, because this script was the most spectacularly original piece of work, a motormouth masterpiece. It just seemed to pour out of him. Sorkin effortlessly persuaded us to share his love for the sound of his own voice, and the love was more than justified. Sorkin dialogue provided its own ambient feel, like a musical score.
Christopher Nolan's Inception had four Oscars on the scoreboard which will have gone some way towards mollifying its passionate fans who feel that it has been slighted, rather. I myself have been agnostic about it, though I certainly think it is more interesting and daring than Avatar which hogged so many column inches last year.
Inevitably, Toy Story 3 was patted on the head with the best animation prize and also, admittedly, one for Randy Newman's song We Belong Together, and so this remarkable movie series has concluded without, in my view, a proper acknowledgement of its achievement. Well, it doesn't matter in the long run, though I suspect that a similar semi-snub to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 next year is going to occasion a few ruffled feathers among those who feel that the Potter franchise has been the commercial success of the decade: still powering along when Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels are distant memories.
Natalie Portman's best actress prize for Black Swan is perhaps a reward for miraculously perfect casting: her own, faintly annoying "white swan" characteristics as a performer have been visible in other films for some time, but this picture got exactly the right notes of self-doubt and sexual anxiety out of her. Perhaps comparable to Sissy Spacek in Carrie, she carried the film with a satisfyingly diva-ish craziness.
But it is Colin Firth's year, and his performance was hugely watchable. I have to raise a tiny caveat, though. Again and again, I have heard people say how "moving" it was, and how they were choking back the tears. This baffles me and I am an inveterate sniffler and blubberer at sad films. I didn't find it in the least sad; I just enjoyed the artifice and luxurious Englishness of it all. There is some cheek at presenting an English monarch as the underdog, yet even this audacity was part of its charm. King Colin may find, as Edward Fox and Michael Kitchen have done before him, that a big "royal" performance tends to colour how you are perceived for the rest of your career. To shake it off, he may, in the next few years, need to play Sid Vicious, General Pinochet and the Nurse in an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet. But for now, he can relax and enjoy being King Colin.