Is there really a formula to writing an Oscar movie? (Hint: 'The King's Speech')
When I interviewed David Seidler, the screenwriter of "The King's Speech" was feeling on top of the world. After all, what are the odds of being a hot 73-year-old screenwriter in youth-hungry Hollywood? But even though Seidler is having an enviable late-career revival with a film that's been hovering near the top of nearly every pundit's Oscar best picture list, he had one bone to pick. Or as he put it: "We writers are funny creatures. We get 99% positive reviews and all we remember is the one pan."
Seidler didn't mention the one pan by name, but he provided a helpful hint: He was peeved by a review that accused him of writing an Oscar-bait movie. It didn't take too long to figure out exactly what he was referring to, especially once I took a glance at Time magazine critic Richard Corliss' review of the film. Corliss makes the case that Oscar-winning films are a genre with conventions just as formulaic as any superhero or fantasy film. According to his math, of the 50 films nominated in the best picture category from 2000 through 2009, nearly 60% were set in the past; 15 of the 50 had historical figures as their subjects; 6 were set in Britain and 7 took place during or just before World War II.
Corliss argues that to make your movie a sure thing, focus on a British monarch (as in "The Queen") or a leading character with a severe disability ("Ray" or "A Beautiful Mind") that he can overcome or learn to live with. And when in doubt, cast a lot of plummy British actors. As Corliss writes:
"The King's Speech" adheres to every rule in the Oscar playbook. It's a fact-based drama about a British monarch with a crippling vocal handicap, set in the years 1925 to '39 and climaxing with Britain declaring war against Nazi Germany. It's also a very effective example of the noble weepie.... It should play well among the real target audience--Academy members."
Of course, if writing British royalty into your story really was such catnip for Oscar voters, then "The Libertine" and "Lady Jane" would've done just as well during awards season as "The Lion in Winter" and "The Queen." Hollywood is often infatuated with stories with convenient obstacles for its hero to overcome, but if you really think that "Ray" is just a story about a blind guy making it to the top, you probably missed out on the best stuff in the movie, starting with the dazzling music.
At any rate, when I asked Seidler whether he thought you could really write an Oscar-bait movie, he let out a raucous peal of laughter. "If I could've done that so easily, do you really think I would've waited this long?" he said. "If screenwriters could just put all those things into an simple equation, everyone would have had a shelf full of Oscars a long time ago. Trust me, it ain't that easy."
Photo: Colin Firth as King George VI in "The King's Speech." Credit: Laurie Sparham / The Weinstein Co.