The Oscars: or Why I Don’t Want The King’s Speech To Win
February 25, 2011
It seems that every year since the rise of the blogosphere, without fail, there are innumerable articles, posts, comments, and diatribes about how the Oscars don’t matter and the serious film lover/critic doesn’t care a jot about whom upon the philistine Academy deigns to bestow its golden statue of approval. These same people still watch, or at least pay attention, to the show and often write predictions and boo-hoo over the disappointing outcome. I think they’re right to not care and they’re right to pay attention, because I personally see it as both self-congratulatory nonsense that only occasionally celebrates anything truly great and as an important (to the film world) cultural touchstone. Rarely in its history has the Best Picture winner been the best picture of its given year, but we’ve all accepted that. My cynicism tells me that the most we can hope for is that it is at least a good film, and one that we can satisfactorily call “deserving”. My cynicism is wrong, though, because when I look at the best picture list from this year and last year I see not only some very good films, but a couple of the absolute best pictures of the year. The strange side-effect of expanding the category to ten nominations instead of five – a move designed to allow the inclusion of more popular fare to get the plebs interested – is that it has allowed the inclusion of some really great stuff. A Serious Man was among the top two or three films of its year, and though you’d never expect a small (granted, Coen bros.) movie featuring an unknown lead in a tale of co(s)mic farce in a tight-nit Jewish community to be recognized with a Best Picture nomination, there it was. It never had a chance in hell of winning, but its inclusion made for a much more…credible?…category than the year previous where the decidedly mediocre Slumdog Millionaire was the best of the bunch.
The year before that, No Country For Old Men won, and it was in a race against There Will Be Blood, which were two of the best films of that year. 2008 was the first year I had really paid attention to the Oscars in a while, and perhaps I got my hopes up about what they’d be willing to recognize, because this year I’m thoroughly disappointed that early front-runner The Social Network is almost assuredly going to lose to The King’s Speech. This is grating for a number of reasons, and here I will outline the reasons why I really, really, really don’t want The King’s Speech to win big at the Oscars.
1. The British Film Industry and the British press
BBC News 24 coverage of these sorts of things always emphasizes the British connection, no matter how tenuous. It’s to be expected, of course, but I don’t like the fact that they feel the need to play it up in order to appeal to the audience or to hold it as some sort of national pride. Yes, the UK produces a great number of excellent actors and makes some good films (unheralded ones, in most cases), but please Mark Kermode, not everything that comes out of that island is pure gold. In Scotland, the tabloids dub anyone with a vague connection to the country one of their own, and while it’s annoying that David Byrne is known as “Scots-rocker David Byrne”, the level to which UK media only talk about the British connections in regards to awards is ten times more grating. While I admit that a film that was helped along by the sadly departed UK Film Council gaining a lot of money and plaudits gives me a certain satisfaction (suck it, Cameron), this is most certainly not the film of which the nation should be proud. Understated British dramas about royalty (and royalty connecting with a commoner to boot!) is a stale genre all its own, and I am quite frankly tired of it. The best British film of the year was Mike Leigh’s masterful Another Year, which emphasized all the greatest parts of the national film identity without resorting to cliché and bland pandering. It was an understated character drama that was honest, relatable, fascinating, funny, and heartbreaking. It also said more about class than just about any other film in 2010, and it did it without being reductionist and unfairly positive. We can understand these sorts of things without needing a King to talk to an Australian, thank you very much. In the end, especially given the torrent of uplifting working-class dramedies we got in the wake of The Full Monty, we really don’t want to encourage the British industry to make any more of these types of things.
2. The Posterity Factor
If you read my best of the year list, you’ll know that I ranked Black Swan ahead of The Social Network. Though those types of things are always arbitrary, and I do slightly prefer the demented ballet picture, I also think that The Social Network should win the prize. The importance of the Oscars really isn’t to determine what the best film of any given year is. If you want to look into that, I suggest you find a favoured critic, or even a group of them, and look at their end of year list. Sample the films that look interesting and decide for yourself because I guarantee you that as good as the ten films nominated by the Academy are, you’re best bet for the actual best is on those lists. They are always going to be much more reliable on the whole, especially considering that somewhat safe, middling taste that the Academy often demonstrates as well as the amount of money the PR companies push behind the bigger films’ campaigns. The importance of the Oscars – and specifically the Best Picture Oscar – is posterity. No matter what happens when something like Titanic or Rocky is critically reassessed down the years, those films will still be sitting on that select list of 80-odd films that the casual observer will come across from time to time when they’re looking for something to watch or, more importantly, for that 12 year old kid who decides he wants to watch more than the big-budget fare that Hollywood thinks he or she (though mostly “he”) will like. Because of this, a Best Picture winner should reflect upon its year as well as the ability of the format itself. The Social Network slides perfectly into this category, perhaps even more so than The Hurt Locker did last year. It is timely not only in that it is about Facebook, but also about capitalism, the West, and definitions of success. At the same time, it is a decidedly classic, almost old-fashioned story. From a purely storytelling and technical standpoint, it is virtually flawless. It is without a doubt the finest collaboration of director and writer of the year in that they both complement and counteract each other in interesting and exciting ways. The King’s Speech, well…
3. The King’s Speech Just Isn’t All That Good
Colin Firth is excellent, and although Jesse Eisenberg gives the best performance of the year, I have no problems with Firth winning the Oscar. That said, he’s good almost in spite of the material. He transcends the obvious crutch that the stammering affords him by giving depth and inner-struggle to a character that could easily have been just an affectation. Aside from that, and the sound design in the opening scenes, there really isn’t much to get terribly excited about here. It’s pleasant and amusing enough, sure, and I enjoyed my time watching it, but as I said earlier, this is basically a genre piece. If I had to give an award for 2010’s Best Genre Film That Breaks No New Ground And Has Indifferent-To-Bad Directing And Cinematography That’s Only Real Claim To Excellence Is A Transfixing Central Performance, I would give it to Easy A. It is grey and dull, Rush’s home/office looks over-designed, and the characters are given tossed-off moments of depth by the screenplay that Firth and Rush have to stretch out pretty far beyond what was on the page to give off any resonance. Perhaps worst of all, the film climaxes in the Westminster scene, and the entire speech to the nation about the Nazis that ends the film feels like a tacked-on bid for importance. A perfectly fine character drama is almost completely undone by its saccharine, unnecessary, and cynical attempt to pull emotions (and elicit applause) from the audience. Excepting 127 Hours, which I haven’t seen, the only film in the nominations list it bests is The Fighter. In a year with that many good-to-great films in the running, a win for The King’s Speech is a travesty. Of course, it probably will win, which is why (finally), I believe it shouldn’t because…
4. The Academy Needs To Demonstrate Better Taste
Perhaps the Academy’s biggest problem is its own conflicted sense of taste. It routinely ignores anything too “genrey”, like comedies or action or science fiction in favour of films it deems to be “important”. They’re just too good for such lowly, plebian fare. At the same time, they rarely demonstrate an interest in genuinely challenging, artistically audacious films. They do manage to get it right from time to time (aforementioned No Country for Old Men and even The Hurt Locker being recent proof), but overall the cliché is right. They want haughty, self-important movies that feel big and dramatic and classy. It’s like the most clueless middle-class pretender trying to sound smart in a hip café by loudly proclaiming how the crap on the radio is terrible and how Mumford & Sons/Fleet Foxes/Bon Iver are the end-all-be-all of current music. Perhaps the most classic example is Chocolat, which didn’t win much of anything but what was still nominated for a lot. In it, Juliette Binoche moves to a small French town and opens a chocolate shop, much to the chagrin of the local priest and village elder. The town slowly erupts with the passion for life they had been missing and so on and so on. Replace the small French town, Juliette Binoche, and chocolate with, respectively, Bormont, Kevin Bacon, and dancing and you’ve got Footloose. The reality is that even though the Academy want to seem smart and knowledgeable, they often just want the same crowd-pleasing fluff that everyone wants, they just won’t admit it to themselves. The King’s Speech is the same kind of shallow entertainment they so often laud even as it does absolutely nothing better than a trifle like The Mechanic. It’s all well and good for what it is, but it’s nothing special, and I’d appreciate some honesty about that.
I think the Oscars actually do mean something, and I’d hate to think that the Academy was only awarding decent films Best Pictures because the Weinsteins had to reconstitute themselves with a new company and find some middling fare to promote to death. I think we’ve moved on from Shakespeare in Love, and I’d like that reflected in the finale to the Awards season.