The sweet sound of success

Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Mazzello in 'The Social Network.' Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Mazzello in "The Social Network." (Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures)
By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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NEW YORK — In one corner we have a lofty British film about a stammering monarch who struggles to communicate and reluctantly opens himself to friendship and trust. In the other, we have a brassy American movie about a generation that “friends’’ indiscriminately and gives voice to virtually every thought and opinion.

So if, as many are predicting, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to choose between “The King’s Speech,’’ which opens Friday, and “The Social Network’’ for the best picture award, it just might give the nod to the British film because it will make the voters feel like they’re taking the high road, according to experts.

Tom Hooper, who directed “The King’s Speech,’’ does not want to discuss a possible Oscar race. “I don’t know if I want to get drawn into comparisons of the two films — you can imagine why,’’ he says on a recent Sunday morning in a Manhattan hotel room.

But his film’s highbrow tone could be attributed to the fact that he refuses to talk down to his audience. “I suppose when I made ‘The King’s Speech’ I saw my audience as smart and made the film in that way,’’ Hooper says. “And I think there is a terrible tendency in American mainstream cinema to kind of put a cap on how smart they think the audience is. I think the audience is a lot smarter than people give them credit for.’’

His belief that the public will embrace intellectually challenging films stems from his work at HBO, where he directed “Elizabeth I’’ (2005) and “John Adams’’ (2008). “The assumption [at HBO] was that the audience was very clever,’’ Hooper says. “I think that period gave me the confidence to make that assumption about mass-market America, rather than a less kind assumption.’’

“The King’s Speech,’’ which stars Colin Firth, tells the true story of Bertie, who is crowned England’s King George VI when his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. The country is on the brink of World War II and Bertie, who suffers from a lifelong stutter, must speak to the nation through the newly developed medium of radio. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finds an eccentric Australian-born speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Despite the king’s initial reluctance, Logue’s unorthodox methods prove effective and the two forge a lifelong working relationship as well as a true friendship.

Firth believes the story has universal appeal because each of us worries about public humiliation, even if it’s not on a grand scale.

“We all have fears, we all underestimate ourselves and we all want to be our best selves,’’ Firth says. “I have to be in front of an audience which leads to the anxiety dream where nothing comes out. Imperfect communication is a frustration of all of us. I think this film is a heightened version of that.’’

The subject is well presented, he says, and if the film is honored, he believes it will be because of its merits, not its Britishness. “I hope people will respond to the quality, not the aura,’’ says Firth, sipping a Coke in a hotel suite. “You can make a film like ‘The Social Network’ or ‘The King’s Speech’ badly. I’ve seen, over the years, people talk about the kind of film that gets the academy’s attention. But films don’t come in a kit for you to assemble. A good film has to be made right.’’

And certainly, “The Social Network’’ cannot be dismissed as a schlocky contender targeted toward the unschooled masses, says Hooper, who praised the film. In fact, Oscar voters looking to tickle their intellectual funny bones could be satisfied by the academic elitism portrayed in “The Social Network,’’ which is set against the rarified backdrop of Harvard.

On the other hand, sometimes a fancy accent goes a long way in wooing Oscar voters, says Richard Walter, chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting and author of “Essentials of Screenwriting.’’

“I think there is a sense of the Academy wanting to reward pictures that are viewed as more important,’’ says Walter during a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, a subject might be unfairly rewarded by well-intentioned people, even though the artistry might not be as exceptional. The other thing is, when a lot of people hear a British accent, they think that’s real acting.’’

English films have enjoyed a number of Oscar victories over the years, including the 1981 award for “Chariots of Fire’’ over “On Golden Pond’’ and “Reds,’’ and the 1966 victory for “A Man for All Seasons,’’ which beat out “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’’ And, perhaps most glaring, according to Walter, is when “Gandhi’’ bested Steven Spielberg’s “E.T — The Extra-Terrestrial.’’

Both “Gandhi’’ and “E.T’’ depict small healers. One is prone to fasting and the other prone to eating Reese’s Pieces. But ultimately, Walter says, “E.T.’’ was the more powerful film and was shortchanged simply because nobody wanted to mess with Gandhi.

“I think they’re both great movies, but I think ‘E.T’ is vastly superior,’’ he says. “Perhaps because of [the movie’s] British roots, and perhaps because it treated the subject of Gandhi, which people thought was important, they didn’t choose ‘E.T.’ which I believe is really, truly a timeless and eternal classic. My prediction is that hundreds of years from now people will be looking at both those pictures, but more ‘E.T.’ than ‘Gandhi.’ ’’

Hooper says he picked his subject because he’s always been interested in the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward, but wanted to present a side of the story most of the world didn’t know.

“In America, of course, the abdication is famous for being a great romantic gesture. What could be more romantic then a king giving up the throne for love?’’ he says. “I remember when I was preparing the film, I was talking to John Patrick Shanley, the author of ‘Doubt’ [the 2004 play and 2008 film], who had a strong working-class upbringing in the Bronx. He told me that his mother used to berate his father if she felt he wasn’t helping enough by saying, ‘the king of England gave up the throne for love, and you can’t even help with the washing up.’

“So I was aware what it meant in American culture, but if you tell the story from the younger brother’s point of view, it’s a hugely selfish act. Bertie’s brother never checked with him. He just casually assumed his brother would take on the throne. And that’s why the Queen Mother famously disliked Wallis Simpson and Edward — she never forgave them for what they did to Bertie.’’

From Firth’s perspective, “The King’s Speech’’ was an opportunity to take on a substantial, dignified role. “Every so often something happens that’s exhilarating enough to renew the love of acting — like a job like this,’’ he says.

Is that to say that some of his roles have made him question his decision to act professionally? Indeed, he says, although he won’t name names. “I’m not going to go there,’’ says Firth, with his trademark stammer. “But it probably wouldn’t take too much guesswork from a look at my oeuvre.’’

British accent or not, it’s probably safe to say that dancing around in leather pants in “What a Girl Wants,’’ a 2003 Amanda Bynes vehicle, didn’t make him feel terribly lofty.

Judy Abel can be reached at

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