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