Film Feature: Oscar the grouch


It’s that time of year again. Film and TV Editor Jon Hozier-Byrne fills your appetite for Oscars, previewing the delights and thrills to witness this year

Do you like expensive dresses, tiny golden men and James Franco? Then the Academy Awards 2011 might be for you. This year’s ceremony returns bigger and bolder than ever, but with all the politics, vote-canvassing and questionable decisions we’ve come to know and love.

Not all films, in the eyes of the Oscars, were created equal, and 2011 looks to be a clearer example of this than any year in recent memory. Following last year’s dramatic Avatar versus The Hurt Locker build-up, ten films have again been nominated for best feature, the front runners of which include The Social Network, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Inception, The Fighter, True Grit and…oh yes, The King’s Speech.

The Social Network managed to encapsulate the zeitgeist of a generation into 120 minutes. Black Swan managed to contrast the beautiful and the grotesque into one of the most powerful artistic statements of the last decade. Inception changed the way we consider action films, and pushed the technological and aesthetic limitations of the industry as much as James Cameron did a year before, but this time, in the right direction. The King’s Speech is alright.

This is what makes the seeming inevitability of The King’s Speech win for Best Picture all the more infuriating. As much as critics fell over each to slap director Tom Hooper on the back and push anyone with a medical card and a living memory of the king himself into cinema, the fact remains; The King’s Speech was not exceptional in any way.

If you had to make a list of things the Academy loves, it would read something like this; a non-fiction biopic, a historical setting, a disability (preferably one that in no way disfigures the handsome lead), a class dichotomy, and always, always, Nazis. The King’s Speech isn’t so much a film as it is a shopping list of must-haves to walk away with Oscar gold.

There’s nothing about this film that isn’t carefully considered with the Oscars in mind and nothing about the narrative or the characterisation isn’t specifically designed to take advantage of the aging Academy’s particular tastes. The Academy vote-casters have a large Jewish demographic? No problem. Just leave out the real-life main character’s admirations for Mr Hitler, and suddenly turn the third act into one disabled man’s quest to stop Nazi Germany in its tracks.

But how will Colin Firth’s Bertie resolve the overhanging dramatic question: his terrible stammer? Well, with the help of a member of a lower class, of course, thankfully played by a credible stage actor and previous Oscar winner. Best of all, it can’t be criticised as emotionally manipulative, because the film can hide behind the always-flimsy premise of being based on a true story. Throw in oft-snubbed British actors pretending to be monarchs, and you’ve got yourself a full house as far as Oscar is concerned.

Why then has so much time and effort been put into making a film specifically to win gold statuettes? The film is a bare-faced plea for Oscars as is, but that’s before the inter-academy lobbying and ‘for your consideration’ advertising starts. Executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein are notorious for doing almost anything to gain the academy’s favour, and have been described as “master Oscar campaigners”, with all the spurious associations that title implies. The answer, of course, is money.

While the big summer releases, like the fantastic Inception, fade into the background of the Academy’s memory, smaller ‘serious’ films are saved until the precious few months before the deadline for Oscar consideration: December 31st. With these films’s buzz fresh in the Academy’s mind, a small film’s chances are exponentially raised, which means a longer stretch in cinemas, and crucially, a golden sticker to attach to the DVD box art.

Which is why, defying all logic, Tom Hooper has earned himself a nomination for Best Director, in place of the infinitely more deserving Christopher Nolan. Love or hate Inception, you cannot deny it to be one of the most extravagantly directed films of all time, and Nolan undoubtedly makes bolder and better directorial chances than the by-the-numbers filming of The King’s Speech.

Ultimately, Best Director and Best Picture should go to Black Swan and the The Social Network respectively. Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher are both superb directors with outstanding filmographies, both previously ignored by the Academy in the past. Fincher’s Fight Club was possibly the best film of the 90s, and was nominated only for Best Sound Effects Editing. Aronofsky’s extraordinary The Fountain was largely slated by the press, and was booed at Cannes.

Will the establishment see through The King’s Speech’s flagrant manipulations, or will the Academy, generally fearful of the new-media outlet The Social Network represents, fall for the Oscar bait so carefully disguised as a historical biopic? Tune in on Sunday, February 27th to find out – but my money’s on the one where the English guy with the stammer stands up to the Nazis.