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The British are coming? Decoding the 'King's Speech' win

February 28, 2011 |  7:10 am


If you were watching the Oscars on Sunday night, the narrative of "The King's Speech" beating "The Social Network" played out on several levels. The Tom Hooper film won in four major categories -- best picture, director and actor, as well as in one of the two screenplay categories -- the first time since "American Beauty" 11 years ago that a single movie walked away with that quartet of prizes.

If you were a follower of Hollywood politics, that kind of haul had a David-toppling-Goliath feel. This was a small film with a director whose lone previous feature grossed less than $1 million, and that starred the second lead from "Bridget Jones's Diary," triumphing over a movie made by a major studio, directed by the filmmaker behind "Seven" and penned by the creator of "The West Wing."

But it was also hard to avoid a more cultural subplot in Sunday's events: the British-ness of Oscar's biggest prize.

The motion picture academy is sometimes perceived as favoring movies with a British tilt. But it doesn't, in fact, show them that much love. Productions from across the pond can win at the Oscars, but despite a history of paying them respect, it hasn't happened much in recent decades. Before "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009, you actually have to go back to 1987 ("The Last Emperor") to find a best picture winner with mainly Britain-based producers. (One of the three "King's Speech" producers is Australian-born but is based in London.)

"The King's Speech" was also the first best picture winner in more than a decade to be set in England. ("Shakespeare in Love" last did it in 1999.)

And the "King's Speech" win on Sunday night marked the first time the academy chose for its best picture a movie that also won best British film at the BAFTAs (essentially the British Oscars) in the modern history of that organization.

But maybe more important than any of these statistical landmarks were the themes of "The King's Speech." Though universal subjects such as loyalty and responsibility ran through the film, there was also an unmistakable British hue to the movie, what with its exploration of an evolving monarchy and its view of an British empire as the best bulwark against Nazism. (The point was highlighted backstage when an English journalist asked the producers if they were in fact monarchists; the question elicited an elaborate answer whose nuances were lost on many of the American journos in the room, this one included.)

This was, in the end, a season when movies with a distinctly American tone shone brightly for audiences. "The Fighter" and "Black Swan" took place in highly particular stateside settings and explored quintessentially American themes (the role of the underdog and the price of over-achievement). And that epitome of American stories, the redemption Western, was one of the season's biggest hits. ("True Grit" tallied nearly $170 million in box office.) Yet the combined Oscar count for those movies was exactly three.

On top of that, of course, came "The Social Network" losing out in its bid for best picture, a category in which a period movie about kings and prime ministers bested a story of Silicon Valley ambition.

There's been much made in recent months about the rise of British actors in blockbusters, with performers from across the pond, such as Andrew Garfield and Henry Cavill, being cast as American superheroes. True, Sunday night was mainly about one film. But when it comes to heralding the arrival of things British, the academy is back to riding that horse.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Red carpet photos

Oscar scorecard

Complete coverage: The Oscars

Photo: From left, 'King's Speech' producers Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin and Iain Canning. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (14)

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I think you are missing an extraordinarily American component in all this: Harvey Weinstein.... The Oscars after all, are campaigned for, and Harvey is the best campaign manager.

I was shocked that the show would actually run the entirety of the final climactic speech from “The King’s Speech” while doing the Best Picture montage/rundown. I suppose winning the award is somewhat of a compensating factor, but still, why would the academy effectively ruin the climax of the film in such a manner?

Perhaps Mr. Zeitchik does not realise that several of the "British" people portrayed in The Kings Speech were played by Australian actors and that Geoffrey Rush's character was an Australian speech therapist. Questions of the monarchy and its relevance are hot topics in Britain and Australia.

don't forget The English Patient. or Gandhi. or Lawrence of Arabia. on paper they seem to involve Britain or a Brit as protagonist or antagonist. Those are just off the top of my head.

2010 the king's speech
2008 slumdog millionaire
2003 lord of the rings
1998 shakespeare in love
1996 the english patient
1995 braveheart
1985 out of africa
1982 gandhi
1981 chariots of fire

leaving aside who the producer is...the reason for the perception of a strong British performance is because of the number of best pictures featuring British characters or themes.

I really think you missed the boat with your reasoning for The King's win. Never before has there been spend so much money on promotion.Very specific TV ads aimed only at the Academy members, an almost daily attack on News Paper ads, a large section on 60 Minutes, endless 'geared' interviews and free screenings etc. etc.
It wasn't only the "Weinsteins" who did this. the studios try to follow their lead with very specific ads even for "individual category" nominees.
Never before have the Academy under such an attack from studio's and independent producers for attention. In The King's speech case, it feels like a lot more money was spend on advertising, promoting the movie for the academy than on the making of the movie itself.
Oscar wins have become just another product, like toothpaste, wash detergent or a political campaign. The winners have become nothing more than money winning over art.
Any win these days says more about the size of the "campaign" than about the quality of the movie. Academy voters are just people who react to advertising as much as the rest of the population. The academy would be wise to stop this endless lobbying by producers, before they become as irrelevant as the Golden Globes.

I'm stunned that The King's Speech was even nominated for many of its categories. It's a good film. But next to some of the others, is it the Best? Sadly, it seems it struck that just right sentimental chord with the predominantly older members of the Academy, who are reaching back for something that no longer exists.

The Social Network instead was the first bona fide drama about the world we live in today, one for ever altered by the computer. Even so, its exploration of timeless themes is more masterful. It beautifully re-integrates classic themes about friendship and power in this brave new context.

By contrast, as one New Yorker commentator put it, The King's Speech is "Masterpiece Theatre porn."

Colin Firth deserves it. So do Natalie. love em both.

It's easily been a decade, maybe closer to two, since I've gone to a movie where the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end so I started pulling for "The King's Speech" to sweep the Oscars at that moment. It's more about quality than relevance.

Since speaking and acting requires "fluid speech", do you think that maybe the Academy members were rewarding those with speech impediments that have overcome their obstacle?

Same story, different year.

Every x years the British do a sweep at the Oscars, taking a good number of awards, and every time it's "The British are coming" and other such "British invasion" ways of phrasing things.

No, they're not, it's just another in a continuing series of solid performances from the British film industry. Next year there will probably be little, maybe not even the year after that, but then another film or two will come along and they'll grab a load of Oscars again and we can steady ourselves for yet another "British INVASION!" news article.

Are our memories really so short?

@Chris Curtis

One actor in the film was played by an Australian playing an Australian character, so no British people were played by Aussies, you answered your own question.

Mr. Zeitchik,
Thank you for this interesting and insightful article analyzing The King's Speech and its performance at the Academy Awards last night. While I find analyzing movies interesting, I sometimes find it even more interesting how some films receive recognition over others and what patterns can be picked up from the actions taken by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences when choosing the winners. I particularly found it interesting how you chose to focus on the idea of nationalism having a play in the voting, with, as you put it, the "British-ness" of the best picture prize. I am a big believer in the fact that the best picture of the year should be one that is not only creatively unique and well-made but one that audiences truly enjoyed and that appealed to more than just film students and critics. I think there is a deep sense of merit in a film that can be appreciated by a wide variety of people and I truly feel that several nominees this year fit the mold of being both highly critically acclaimed and largely commercially successful.
Personally, I was a huge fan of several films this year, including The King's Speech that I thought had a strong case for winning best picture. I truly was intrigued by the fact that you brought up how inherently British some of the values in the The King's Speech were contrasted against other films that had seemingly strong "American" values. I feel as though the Oscars is still viewed as primarily an American cinema awards program and thus, I feel like the film that wins Best Picture has a duty to resonate strongly with American audiences. The question I have is whether you think The King's Speech, despite it's heavy British influence still was able to strike a chord with American audiences? After thinking more about it, I truly feel as though it was successful in this endeavor. While several of the themes you presented, particularly the ones with historical significance are very British in nature, I think there are several themes that are viewed as American values that can be found in The King's Speech, such as overcoming obstacles and tough odds, persistence, resilience, and the power of friendship. More than being American values, I think many of these are uniquely human values that were explored and evoked successfully though this film. I think this is perhaps why the film resonated so well with American audiences, since The King's Speech had a higher domestic gross than The Social Network, Black Swan, and The Fighter. For these reasons, I truly do think the Academy made the correct choice in awarding The King's Speech its four Oscars last night. Overall though, I really enjoyed your post and your insight and want to thank you for an intriguing look at the patterns seen in the Academy Awards.



Monish has it. What is the appeal of this film, beyond excellent acting, cinematography, script etc. etc. Its about human co-operation to overcome obstacles and teamwork - not the one man against impossible odds Hollywood-style.

The "enemy" is within and Bertie has a whole support network - his wife, his therapist, and in the end, prominent members of the British establishment, who support him. This is what we all need...a support network - Bertie admitted he had a problem, gave up class protocol and Lionel accepted some condesion and everyone benefited. Sadly at odds with the "everyman for himself" ethos. We can all learn from this. Hence the appeal of the film


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