The Dark Side of Oscar Bait

by Eric Freeman

This week, The King’s Speech — the story of King George VI’s attempt to overcome a crippling stammer in the years leading up to and during World War II — became the most Oscar-nominated film of the year. Given the film’s pedigree, this high mark should come as little surprise; The King’s Speech is a first-class example of the “Oscar bait” subgenre. All the traits are there: subject matter dealing with an affliction rarely depicted in cinema, at least not with seriousness; a setting with great historical significance, especially to an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences obsessed with World War II; a lead performance that requires a transformation, in this case vocally for star Colin Firth; an unobtrusive style; and a heartwarming story with a clear emotional arc. It was deemed a surefire Oscar contender even before anyone had seen it — its almost entirely positive reviews validated, rather than created, its reputation.

The dark side of Oscar bait is that these sort of movies usually get significantly worse upon examination. Crash, which wasn’t even much-loved at the time, has since been accepted as a manipulative piece of trash with little to say about racism in modern America. The same can be said of A Beautiful Mind and its relatively simplistic treatment of paranoid schizophrenia. While Oscar bait is successful — as in, bait often does win Oscars — these accolades also suggest they deserve to be mentioned among the greatest films of their respective decades. But Oscar bait is typically quickly forgotten — rewatched The Hours lately? Flashed-back to last year’s painful Oscar bait season? — as it turns out it should be.

I don’t know if the same fate will befall The King’s Speech, but I can say that it has a leg up on its genre-fellows by getting its subject matter pretty much exactly right in all the most important ways. I should know, because I’ve been a stutterer (or stammerer — the terms are typically used to mean the same thing, except the latter is more British) since as far back as I can remember.

In fourth grade, one of the compulsory “elective” courses at my school was to learn the building blocks of drama by staging a short play with about 10 other classmates and our patient, presumably overqualified instructor. After showing only modest abilities during my audition, I earned a dual role as a tavern regular — yes, we were in fourth grade — and innkeeper in a severely abridged version of Rip Van Winkle. If memory serves, I had about ten lines of varying length, most of which involved telling the freshly awoken Rip what year it was, and that the one-time general George Washington was now running for president.

These were not difficult lines, but I nevertheless had intense difficult saying them during even the earliest rehearsals. This was perhaps the worst period for my speech in my life, most likely because I was old enough to have some sense of our emerging social hierarchy. When I couldn’t speak my assigned lines, I felt a deep sense of embarrassment, a feeling that was only compounded by my classmates’ attempts to finish the lines for me. At the time, it seemed like they were mocking me, although it now seems obvious that they just thought I’d forgotten my lines, and I yelled at them for it. Eventually, my shame and inability to handle the pressure of the play forced me to quit. I spent the rest of these elective sessions in isolation with our class teacher’s aide engaged in some other form of academic enrichment.

I tell this story not to elicit sympathy but to give some sense of the world of the chronic stutterer. The play was only about 40 minutes long and wouldn’t be seen by any more than 50 people who already knew me reasonably well, but, to me, it was the potential end of the world. When you stutter, each social interaction becomes an opportunity for embarrassment, a chance to show your social peers — or, even worse, strangers — that you are somehow incapable of expressing yourself as a “normal” person should be able. In a sense, you think that everyone will assume there’s something wrong with you. Since speech is often the basis of interaction for two people, there’s an attendant fear that people will simply think you are not worth respecting.

One of the greatest traits of The King’s Speech is that it understands this feeling extremely well. Prince Albert, or Bertie, the future King George VI, has to deal with issues far more important than putting on a play for a bunch of disinterested 10-year-olds, but he doesn’t only struggle with his speech in moments that would put pressure on any person. When he tells his daughters one of their favorite stories, he stammers. When he gives a fake radio address in front of his short-tempered father, he stammers. While each of these people is intimately familiar with his impediment, the fear is still there; despite their love for him, his daughters may not come to respect him, and his father may believe that his son is unfit for the title he was born into. For him there’s very little difference between a speech in front of a mass audience and an interaction with those who love him most. In each case, shame lurks closely by, ready to pounce. More than anything, this is why Colin Firth is about to win the Oscar for Best Actor — he absolutely nails the simultaneous fear, shame, exasperation and effort of those who have trouble saying what they already have perfectly formulated in their heads.

This is not to say that The King’s Speech gets every aspect of stammering correct. In his appointments with speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by the only moderately hammy Geoffrey Rush, Bertie engages in all sorts of ridiculous exercises like jiggling his limbs while chanting and doing breathing exercises with his wife sitting on his diaphragm. Speech therapy is far more often a dull exercise, and the film doesn’t really get this right until its final scenes, when Logue and Bertie repeat difficult lines in rapid succession to make troublesome sounds familiar. This is a Hollywood film, though, and perhaps some level of dramatic license is allowed for specifics that can only be identified by the most knowledgeable viewers.

The same cannot necessarily be said for historical inaccuracy, though, and it’s there that the film has received most of its criticism from middlebrow critics. (Some cinephiles, including the fine folks at Reverse Shot, claim that it has some of the most annoying uses of wide-angled lenses in recent memory, but they are mostly outliers.) Take Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, who finds it disheartening that director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler would gloss over the Nazi sympathizing of Bertie’s brother David — aka Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, here presented as an annoying and loose woman — or Bertie’s own difficult working relationship with Winston Churchill. These are widely accepted historical facts, things that attentive filmmakers should presumably get right if they’re attempting to produce something approximating a historical document.

However, to criticize The King’s Speech on historical grounds seems like a misjudgment of the concerns of the film. This is not to say that these inaccuracies should just be shrugged off — in an ideal movie, they’d be correct — but saying this film isn’t very good because it doesn’t understand World War II geopolitics is like saying that Black Swan doesn’t accurately depict the life of a ballerina. These issues can be indicative of greater problems, no doubt. Yet, like the Harvard inaccuracies of The Social Network, they don’t explain why a movie is good or bad.

At the same time, personal experience with the subject matter of a work of art cannot serve as a referendum on the quality of the piece — it is a way into criticism rather than its end result. In this same vein, the fact that I find the depiction of stuttering in The King’s Speech realistic is relatively unimportant. Because while Bertie is easy to empathize with, the film itself wouldn’t be worth a damn if it didn’t reflect the realities of life in general. Otherwise, only we happy few who stutter would find anything to like. Who else actually knows anything about what it’s like to stutter regularly?

The most admirable trait of The King’s Speech is that it understands stuttering as an extension of the difficulties of daily existence. To be fair, it gets at this point by also understanding the specifics of the speech impediment. When Bertie gives his climactic speech in support of England during wartime, he has not suddenly overcome his stammer — he speaks with difficulty on several difficult sounds. Importantly, though, he gets through them by learning to deal with the problem, not by eradicating it, which happens to mimic my own experience in becoming more comfortable speaking in potentially embarrassing social situations. To its credit, this is a film of small victories, one in which gradual success is the reality instead of extreme victories. Bertie succeeds not by turning into a different person, but by becoming the best version of himself he can be.

That sort of dogged attempt to become a more capable and comfortable person is part of all lived experience. Bertie’s ability to speak in public is not so different from his brother’s struggles with his sense of duty and his desire to be with the person he loves; nor is it much different than the Queen Mother’s need to support her husband even when it seems like he may never be comfortable with the sound of his own voice. Each person has their own version of this journey: my increasing willingness to go on the radio or speak at public events is not terribly different than a friend’s attempt to maintain a valuable friendship with a longtime-girlfriend-turned-ex.

The aftermath of Bertie’s climactic speech is one of contentment, not eternal triumph. He is greeted by sincere but not raucous applause from advisors and family members, almost all of whom know him well. Likewise, when Hooper cuts to listeners during the speech itself, he does so merely to show that it’s going over well, not that everyone is suddenly agog over the king’s oratorical greatness. It is one successful speech — and not even a particularly important one, given the monarchy’s figurehead status — in what will be a career of many. Bertie will go on to employ Logue’s services for years not just because they’re friends, but because he needs his help. The king will never completely overcome his stammer because no such outcome can exist. He can only improve his speech through practice and remain determined to present himself as best he can.

Eric Freeman is a writer and editor from San Francisco. He is a regular at FreeDarko and one of the authors of the site’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. You can also read his basketball writing at Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie and cultural thoughts at Plasma Pool.