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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The King's Speech': The triumph of Hollywood conservative values

As one essayist wrote not long ago, it's become an article of faith in Conservative America that Hollywood is a “collection of hopeless la-la-land liberals — or worse, an elitist gaggle of heartland-bashing snobs.” Conservatives have routinely ridiculed Oscar movies for attacking the military (“Avatar”), promoting homosexuality (“Milk” and “Brokeback Mountain”) and depicting corporate executives as evil villains (“The Constant Gardener” and “Syriana”).

So it must've been quite a shock to watch all the la-la-liberals at the Oscars Sunday night honoring their elders and celebrating tradition on a show where the first clip of the night was from “Gone With the Wind” and the two guys who may have had the most screen time were Kirk Douglas and Bob Hope. Outside of a couple of lesbian jokes and one tiny barb directed at Wall Street from documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson, the awards were drearily free of controversy, outrage or anything remotely resembling lefty sanctimony.

On the other hand, the Academy Awards were true to the spirit of this past year's movies. As this year's show demonstrated, Hollywood isn't so easily stereotyped. It may be a town full of liberals, but when it comes to its most prestigious awards show, the most exalted statuettes went to films that espouse conservative values. “The King's Speech,” which won four Oscars, including the climactic one for best picture, is a profoundly conservative film, paying tribute to King George VI, an aristocratic English monarch who, humbled by a humiliating stutter, develops a deep friendship with a commoner, his speech therapist.

The film portrays the king as a man of noblesse oblige — he sacrifices for the common good by willingly assuming the heavy mantle of leadership, even if it will expose his most embarrassing flaw. He is, in other words, resolutely Old School. Could a movie be any more richly conservative in its values than that? And yet “The King's Speech,” from David Seidler, its writer, to Colin Firth, its leading man, to Harvey Weinstein, the studio chief who masterminded its Oscar campaign, was brought into the world by a host of ardent liberals.

The same can be said for “The Social Network,” which won three Oscars last night and was the season's other prime best picture contender. Even though it is set in the rarefied air of Harvard, “Social Network” is far from a liberal critique of capitalistic excess. It's a thoroughly pro-business film that celebrates the rise of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who for all his new media hip veneer is just as much of a cunning, ambitious, thoroughly cold-blooded entrepreneur as — gasp — Rupert Murdoch.

Yet the film was written by Aaron Sorkin, a flaming liberal who spends much of his time online hurling poison darts at Sarah Palin. And the film was financed and distributed by Sony Pictures, whose co-chairmen, Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, are both outspoken advocates for various Hollywood progressive causes.

This is hardly a fluke. Just last year, the academy gave its best picture honor to “The Hurt Locker,” which many conservatives praised as a pro-military film, and not just because director Kathryn Bigelow, when accepting her Oscar for best director, dedicated the film to “the women and men of the military who risk their lives every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.” That was hardly obligatory podium pabulum — the film's bomb-disposal experts were portrayed as being selfless, heroic and full of masculine cool.

Since the arrival of the “Easy Rider” generation in the late 1960s. Hollywood has been a bastion of liberalism. But the argument conservatives make — that the industry is just a club of pampered rich kids and Ivy League elitists who spurn movies without the requisite liberal credentials — doesn't hold water, especially not at Oscar time.

If you study Oscar history, you see liberal Hollywood has often rewarded films promoting conservative values. That pattern dates at least as far back as 1971, during the height of the Vietnam War, when “Patton,” a stirring salute to World War II's most indomitable military man, not only won best picture, but beat out “MASH,” a defiantly antiwar comedy. The same thing happened in 1979, when “The Deer Hunter,” an evocative portrait of blue-collar steelworkers sent off to fend for themselves in Vietnam won best picture over the openly antiwar “Coming Home,” which costarred antiwar activists Jon Voight and Jane Fonda.

So why does liberal Hollywood often pay its highest tribute to films with such conservative themes? First of all, because people are making movies, not trying to send a message. Artists, as well as the studio executives who finance their movies, are not ideologues. They are storytellers whose work is propelled by emotion, relationships and the dramatic sweep of a script, not its political content.

In “The King's Speech,” the academy, like most of America, saw two men, a lofty king and a lowly commoner, who brought out the best in each other. Even though the film is set in 1930s England, it is, as one critic called it, “a fable of egalitarianism.”

In other words, it's exactly the kind of fable Hollywood has always loved, dating as far back as Frank Capra and John Ford. Perhaps that's why conservatives and liberals all found something to love in the film.


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: "The King's Speech" wins best picture at the Oscars. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (43)

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When will the academy owe one to annette benning ? Might get another nom,
not likely.........probably be life time achievement...............sad

I'm far from being a flaming liberal, but I noticed that it was unmistakably an extremely white affair. i could be wrong, but I can't recall any blacks even being nominated for anything. I might have missed it. They did give Lena Horne a tribute, by Halle Berry, who swears she is black, and we saw Oprah, who is no longer "black", or "white" she's "Oprah". I hope we don't regress to the era of "tokenism", which provoked the flaming liberals in the first place.

That's preposterous, how is The King's Speech a conservative film? I'm totally liberal and absolutely loved the movie. Not once during the film did I think a conservative thought. Maybe you don't really know the meaning of conservative.

While I agree with your conclusion, that the "liberal Hollywood" trope, though eminently successful in partisan politics, is more-or-less meaningless in terms of films' impact, but from my point-of-view you're twisting yourself into knots to establish some films as reflecting "conservative values."

You seem to render conservative as being synonymous with "establishment," a device which might have made short-hand sense when double-LP album covers did yeoman's service separating the seeds from the good stuff but in substantive terms was wrong then and is wrong now.

In terms of the most readily identifiable elements of conservative ideology -- law-and-order, regressive social values, the exaltation of religious dogma over individual thought, laissez-faire economics, aggressive foreign policy prescriptions, and the reification of an imagined "real America" that conservatives "remember" -- none of the films you mention is at all conservative, not even "Patton."

In "The King's Speech," the monarch overturns convention and defies tradition, even in the face of that most conservative of institutions, the Church (of England), by insisting that Logue sit in his box in Westminster Abbey. Logue defies convention by calling the king, "Bertie," and invoking the "my bar, my rules" mantra. Worse -- at least from the perspective of a stereotypical "conservative" -- King George VI commits that most liberal of sins, blaming his parents for his fear and uncertainty.

In my viewing, the triumphal note of the picture was Logue's and not the King's -- the unorthodox, modern (i.e., "liberal") ways of a colonial -- an Australian, to boot! -- prove themselves to be fit for a king.

Even "Patton" was hardly "conservative," unless we assume that war-making is an inherent conservative undertaking. I disagree with your assessment that "Patton" took the Oscar because "M.A.S.H." was "anti-war." The problem for "M.A.S.H.," I suspect, was a common one with films like it when nominated for Academy Awards -- its "fit." Was it a war story? Was it a comedy? Like "Catch-22," which also came out in 1970, "M.A.S.H." famously rejected standard film conventions like plot and alternating dialog -- hardly the thing to endear it to an Academy comprised largely of individuals associated with the "old" Hollywood.

In "Patton," for every instance of George C. Scott's Patton reveling in the "glory" of war, there is an instance of Karl Malden's Omar Bradley reacting in, variously, mild embarrassment for his friend and sometimes horror. When Bradley tells Patton the difference between the two is that he soldiers because he trained for it, but "you do it because you love it," it's not a compliment.

And that picture ends on a note that is hardly exalting in the way a Sarah Palin might want it, flags waving while Patton reloads instead of retreating. Instead, Patton is alone, again in disgrace, and relieved of command, and in the final shot -- in which the character, walking his dog, shrinks before our eyes -- in voice-over reminds us that "all glory is fleeting."

You undermine your own argument with "The Deer Hunter." You write that the characters played by Robert Deniro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken are "sent off to fend for themselves in Vietnam." Nothing could be more "liberal" than that, reflecting as it does the sense of that war as a misbegotten adventure in which men were sent into the jungle for no reason at all. "Hamburger Hill" (1987) and "The Green Berets" (1968) are far more identifiably conservative takes on the war.

I think, then, that a better way of looking at last night's returns is that Hollywood ultimately reflects our national narrative, one that is shared -- at least in its main points -- by left and right alike. Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue is iconoclastic, to be sure, but he's not an iconoclast. At the end of the day, Logue loves the order that King George VI represented. He doesn't demean it or devalue it or try to overturn it. He wouldn't object to brushing some of the dust off it -- but we can be sure he wouldn't trade it for something else.

That is indeed conservative. But it's also profoundly liberal.

Since you have chosen to politicize the oscars this year (which is stupid and poorly supported in this article) please get your facts straight. Its news to me that conservatives value "sacrifice for the common good." Since when? That has always been a liberal position. Just read conservative writing, conservative legal positions and listen to conservative speech.

This movie was propaganda, it's old fashioned and totally conservative. In the rest of Europe people went to see it but if you read papers from those countries most critics can't understand the fuss of such a traditional film. It's nothing new. The British have nothing else to offer but the monarchy(and who cares but them?) or their gritty dramas who only them understand but i believe this movie won because Harvey W was backing it and he has a lot of power, but i'm sure and let's hope he comes up with something a bit more real and interesting next, set in the real world not in the stuck up world of a blue prince. Colin F was good but saw was Bardem in Biutiful and more charismatic too.

That "barb" was not tiny. Very glad to see that "Inside Job" won the Oscar as it will encourgae more people to see this film which expains in considerable detail the Wall Street criminality that has ruined our economy. And I agree with the previous poster. You're really stretchign things to claim that "The King's Speech" represents the triumph of "Conservatism." It's a very nice film about two dudes in love.

"Even though the film is set in 1930s England, it is, as one critic called it, “a fable of egalitarianism.”"

Right, so, um, would it be too rude to point out that egalitarianism is not exactly a conservative value?

Conservatives represent the WORST of the American people- Hollywood only cares about MONEY!- which is the ONLY thing conservatives value- everything else they say they value is just PR and propaganda!

This article completely misses an important subtext. The King's Speech would never have made it to the big screen if it were not for £1 million (about $1.6 million US) from the UK Film Council in seed money — money which has now been repaid and then some due to the film's success. And last November Britain's Conservative-led coalition government announced it was beginning the process of closing down the UK Film Council as part of broader government cuts. I would not be the least bit surprised if in part, this was a way for the Academy to send the British government a message, along the lines of "this is what your public spending can do, and this is what you'll likely not be seeing again if you don't have someone investing startup money in the movies, and in Britain, who is going to invest it privately?"

If so, it's a message that may well be valid, but it definitely isn't conservative. Yes, the Academy likes conservative, marketable, popular movies that happen to also be pretty good — but I'm not so sure that's the only thing going on here.

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