It really did come to pass that the race came down to two movies. They sit on opposite sides of the world. They impact us in completely different ways. They will face off in history as far apart as two movies can get. The King’s Speech is now the film that can’t lose. The Social Network was once the film that couldn’t. Since the critics groups formed in mass — going back twenty or so years, but even earlier if you count only the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes — you have rarely seen such a complete disconnect between the film the critics went for unanimously, and the film the larger guilds, and most likely, the Academy will go for. It has never happened to this extreme. What does that mean ultimately? Nothing, really. This is how the Oscar race has gone for 83 years with a respite here or there. The problem isn’t with the Academy itself. The problem is with those of us who think we can make them act differently.
LA Confidential was taken down in the last act of that year’s race by Jim Cameron’s Titanic, which became too big to ignore. But more than its bigness, Titanic was a movie you feel. When the Weinstein Co. branded The King’s Speech with that tagline it was mocked by some. I saw it as a stroke of genius. It both backs up the idea that it’s okay to love a movie just because it makes you feel something, while at the same time, it quietly disparaged the film that didn’t make you feel anything, or supposedly didn’t. In a year with many movies you didn’t necessarily feel good about, that made the King’s Speech a standout.
If you had put “Some movies you feel” on either Black Swan or 127 Hours, voters would recoil in horror – can you imagine? True Grit, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, and of course The Social Network are not movies you could ever put that tagline on either. That made The King’s Speech stand apart from the rest. It was a great stroke of ad campaign polish that still resonates.
It may be a shimmering example of the better qualities of mankind that large masses of people are voting for the King’s Speech – the audience award at Toronto, 4,000 PGA voters, 9,000 DGA voters, and 120 SAG voters. It shows that people can care about a character, or characters, deeply enough to want to see them succeed — they pity and root for King George VI, which translates into love for a film which translates into votes. The same thing went down with Slumdog Millionaire – the film makes you love the characters and that love translates into votes. Are they great movies? Sure. They’re movies that move people at a specific moment in time. Will they stand the test of time? Doesn’t matter, does it? We’re voting on the right now, but even if we were to try to answer that question we couldn’t be able to; no one ever knows what films will resonate decades from now. We just have no way of knowing. Films age in peculiar ways. Out and out bombs of their time can be rediscovered years later. Look at what happened with The Big Lebowski.
Everyone has their own idea of what is “best.” And that makes it a tough little nut to crack. The consensus vote represents the film most people agree upon is best.
I wanted to discuss the two films and why I think they are so alike and yet so different, and why I think choosing between one or the other may tell you much about who you are and why you go to the movies at all. One is a movie for optimists, the other for cynics. Both movies make you feel things, however. Both movies change the way you think about things.
Where I sit, I see the Oscar race as mostly a popularity contest. It is a contest that is run at a specific point in time by very skilled publicists and Oscar strategists. It is about mood, timing, and various other ultimately inconsequential things. Most of the 83 years of Oscar history have been examples of the right films at the right time – a brief but intense romance that can’t be denied (or an incredibly powerful studio or producer). Once it is all over and the dust clears you wonder how you ever felt so overwhelmed by something you couldn’t exactly explain. The Oscar vote prior to 2005 was almost always about “favorites” and “emotional reactions.” After Crash, things seemed to shift ever so slightly. The Academy giving their Best Picture prize to great and critically acclaimed films as opposed to films that are emotionally effecting but don’t last more than that year?¬† What in the world could have gotten into them?
As some readers have pointed out, their hearts WERE involved. Awarding Bigelow over Cameron was a heart-y decision. Finally giving Scorsese the long-awaited Oscar he’d deserved many years prior was a heart-y decision. And the Coens? There is no explaining that one other than the fact that No Country for Old Men was undeniably the best film of the year, dark or not, uplifting or not, heart-light turning-on or not. It was a great film and everyone knew it. Slumdog Millionaire is more along the lines of the King’s Speech except where the pedigree of the director was concerned. Crash and Chicago are really the only recent examples of fairly newbie film directors guiding a film into a Best Picture win. Other less well known directors would include Sam Mendes for American Beauty, Anthony Minghella for The English Patient, etc. Most of the time, though, a Best Picture/Best Director win, going back decades, is given to a director with a richer body of film work.
This is one of the big lessons for me this year: the director doesn’t have to be a heavy hitter to win the DGA or the Oscar. Yes, he’s going up against the most prolific and daring directors of our time — chief among them, David Fincher, but also Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, and Joel and Ethan Coen. They can’t win against Hooper but one cannot help but be dazzled by their having been chosen for nominations at all. It will be one of those crazy years we will look back on and marvel at.
And it’s worth applauding the Academy, and the DGA, for nominating them at all. It’s a miracle, frankly. Martin Scorsese wasn’t nominated for having directed Taxi Driver from 1976, but Ingmar Bergman, Lina Wertmuller, Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet were. The year before that the nominated five were Sidney Lumet, Federico Fellini, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick. Milos Forman won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In 1975, the directing nominees who didn’t win never won an Oscar in their lifetimes:
Sidney Lumet was nominated for: 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict.
Stanley Kubrick was nominated for: Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon.
Federico Fellini was nominated for: La Dolce Vita, Satyricon,8 1/2 and Armarcord.
Robert Altman was nominated for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park
Does it mean One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is any less of a great film because it beat all of these five magnificent directors? Of course not. It was the movie of the moment – it held the public in its rapture, was perfectly written, directed and acted. It featured likable and unlikable characters, flawed and sympathetic characters – it highlighted the best humanity has to offer by showing the worst humanity has to offer. It just means that we don’t really judge our great directors by whether or not they won Oscars. Not this year, not any year.¬† The title, “Best Picture of the Year” really does mean just that: in 2010, this is what people connected with most.
But let’s get back to the the tale of two movies.
It struck me the other day when my hairdresser asked me about The Social Network, “It’s a great movie but I don’t get what all of the fuss is about.” And then another person asked me the same thing that same night: “What is so great about The Social Network?” The reason for this is that some critics have mistakenly labeled it a “film that speaks for a generation” or “the movie that defines our time.”¬† It is also having to defend its unprecedented sweep of the critics awards. Most films win maybe both the LA Film Critics and the NY Film Critics. Maybe they win the NBR or the Globe. Maybe they win the Southeastern Film Critics or the National Society – but to win ALL OF THEM?
That is when people start to scratch their heads and wonder why the love, especially if it didn’t give them the whammy of an emotional payoff the way The King’s Speech did. Any film lifted to such great heights has a hard time breathing at that altitude. That is why the underdog has a better chance in the Oscar race. Critics were reacting to the King’s Speech being named the defacto frontrunner out of Toronto. They were saying, “it isn’t THAT movie, it’s THIS movie.” Once the critics unanimously celebrated The Social Network, it suddenly became the defacto frontrunner right around the same time people were starting to watch The King’s Speech. And so then voters said, for whatever reason, “It isn’t THIS movie, it’s THAT movie.”
But when you turn film appreciation into a race, a contest, you force people to take sides. There must be a reason to vote for someone because it feels good to do so. This much we can say for sure about the 83 years of Oscar history. No director or film ever wins on merit alone, or critical acclaim alone. The heart has to be involved in one way or another. It’s the nature of taking sides, the nature of the contest, the nature of winning and losing, and the nature of human beings.
No one is ever going to ask why people love The King’s Speech, because it is a film you can’t hate. The worst criticism the film has gotten is that it’s by-the-numbers, unoriginal and something out of Masterpiece theater. The Social Network, by contrast, has the praise of critics and cinephiles, and to a degree you can sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it, but they don’t readily get what is “so great” about it.¬† It also gets attacked for being about Facebook and having unlikable characters – anyone who is already prone to being put off by the new technology or by Facebook is going to feel reluctant about seeing The Social Network to begin with; how many people do you know when you mention Facebook don’t roll their eyes? And yet, it’s the thing they can’t stop participating in. The irony of it all. By contrast, The King’s Speech is about a King and WWII and having a disability; it requires no further explanation. People know what it’s about and it gives them something to care about.
Both films are true stories about real life people. One celebrates history, the other satirizes it. One gives hope to people with speech impediments, the other is a cautionary tale about power, success and winning the game. Both films are about an inability to communicate. The King learns how to speak better. Mark Zuckerberg builds a platform that helps him communicate better.
Loving The King’s Speech is easy; loving The Social Network is hard. One requires a single viewing to absorb everything there is to get. The other requires more thoughtful consideration, gets even better with multiple viewings, and involves engaging our thinking brains. One gives you a happy ending, one leaves it open-ended. One answers questions, the other asks them. One is a film chosen by critics because, after all of the hundreds of screenings of films throughout the year the one that has the most meat on its bones, the ones with themes and subtext aplenty is The Social Network.
One holds up a mirror to our darker natures, the other provides a better reflection to see our greater natures. In one, the narrator is fairly reliable; in the other, completely unreliable. One is told in real time, the other in flashback. One affirms the best personality traits of its historic subject (what Christopher Hitchens called the vaseline lens), the other unwraps the worst characteristics (what Sean Parker called “complete fiction.”) Better, worse, straightforward, satiric.
One is a British story film made by a British production company, starring British actors. The other is an American story, made by an American production company, starring mostly Americans (except Garfield and maybe some other here or there). One is about inherited wealth, the other about created wealth.
One film has you feeling sorry for a King, for goddsake. And the other has you feeling sorry for the youngest billionaire in the world. As David Mamet says, “never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.” Somehow, though, each of these icons of each nation, make us feel for them nonetheless.
One is sentimental, the other not. One is a period piece, the other contemporary. One is directed by a mostly TV guy, kind of unknown in Hollywood, the other is by a revered director who has yet to win an Oscar. One has a very good script, the other an exceptional one. One you feel, the other don’t. (Unless conflicted feelings count, and I feel they do.)
And yet, both films are about a friendship between two men. In one, it is a pivotal friendship because Lionel Logue helps the King talk about his feelings and in so doing enables him to speak (“I have a VOICE!” “Yes, you do.”) In the other, one friend helps another finance a website but when that friend starts to lag he is cut off, without mercy. (“And I bet the thing you couldn’t stand was that they called me one of the founders of Facebook, which I am. You better lawyer up, asshole, cause I’m not coming back for 30%. I’m coming back … for everything.”)
No, the Oscars aren’t a horse race and never should be thought of that way — but the films themselves, they can be thought of as racehorses, I think. The Social Network as a racehorse IS Secretariat – built for speed, incomprehensibly fast, flawless – you marvel at the agility and perfection. The King’s Speech is more like Seabiscuit, scrappy and imperfect but grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. Seabiscuit is winning THIS race, but oh how Secretariat ran the first lap of it.
The case for The King’s Speech:
The performances drive it completely. So does the story. So does the backstory. ¬† Without the two central performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush it’s hard to imagine such passionate support building for what is essentially a traditional story about a monarch – yes, it’s a side to the picked-over royals we hadn’t yet heard, and one that begged to be told. It was one that needed to be told by David Seidler, a stutterer himself who idolized Bertie from the time he was a child growing up in England. Off the bat you are dealing with a lifelong goal to tell this story. How in the world does anyone compete with that? You don’t. You stand down and watch it win everything in sight.
But I think what drives it more than anything are the performances. One has to remember just how popular both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are in Hollywood – both here and abroad.¬† But to see them do this kind of work? It’s phenomenal. Truly.
Firth, in particular, takes the whole thing to a different level with his King George. When I think back to the film I see the difficult emotional scenes Firth had to deliver – the scene where he must sing his abuse, or when he breaks down because he’ll never be able to face having to give a speech. The odds are stacked against him — mean father, cold mother, weird abusive nannies. Though the film is kind of manipulative in the archetypes it displays — even Wallis Simpson and Edward seem to be mean to poor old Bertie. The only people who are nice to Bertie are his wife, his children and Lionel Logue. Everyone else in the movie is treacherous. How could we not want to love and protect poor old Bertie?
Normally this would simply be too cliche to bear, but it’s Firth and Rush who ground this thing, who make it something more than what it otherwise would be. They are two pros, there is no denying it and watching them together in the film is, it must be said, one of the best things about this year in film.
The movie could have been overblown sap but Hooper, a skilled and subtle director, keeps things from ever going in that direction. He lets Firth and Rush do all of the heavy lifting in that regard. He did the same thing, it’s worth mentioning, with Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti in John Adams. He presented the story and let the actors explode off the screen.
I suspect that is, indeed, what makes him a good director. He also, I’m told, used a wide angle lens throughout, which gave the film an odd look, too. But it is a great way to illustrate the way we view the royals — as if through a fishbowl.
To me, though, the movie belongs to Firth. He is the reason it is as good as it is. And movies have won Best Picture on a hell of a lot less than that.
At its best, The King’s Speech gives hope to many stutterers out there who haven’t really had a film made for and about them before. It is just a silent shame, a gag that people laugh at. I didn’t know whether the film was coming right out and saying that Bertie stuttered because he was abused or not – it sure seemed like it. I don’t know enough about stuttering to know if that is often the cause. I do know that it must be a hell of a painful way to grow up and especially if you’re in the royal family and everyone is supposed to look up to you. Yes, there is much to love about the King’s Speech. It is a moving story and a heartbreaking one. Ultimately, Bertie triumphs, the country goes to war to beat the Nazis and all is right with the world.
All is most certainly not right with the world in many of the films also nominated for Best Picture – into a dark world come the characters in True Grit, Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, Black Swan and of course…
The Case for The Social Network
Exclusivity, winning and losing, born wealth versus made wealth, and that elusive happiness that our protagonist can’t get at is what drives F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, what drives Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and what drives Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s The Social Network. These are themes that pulse throughout American culture – they still drive us and frustrate us, but perhaps nowhere is this frustration played out more spectacularly than at Harvard. I suspect this is what drove Aaron Sorkin to this story – Harvard, a 19 year-old drop-out who built Facebook? The Winklevoss twins? The raw elements are spectacular before you ever even go near then with a pen.
But when people ask me, “I just don’t get what’s so great about it,” I want to sit them down and talk about it — because what’s great is that it’s worthy of a thoughtful conversation. The Social Network is about winners and losers. It is about WINNING and LOSING. It is about American innovation, inspiration, creation and delivery.¬† The last thing it is about is Facebook and yet that is the most readily accessible thing people latch onto. It is about desire, dreams coming true but coming at a high price. It is about climbing the ladder of success and cutting the rope underneath you so that you can survive while others fall. It is about regret at having ever thought that way. It is about the bittersweet aftertaste of your own transformation into success.
The film is driven by three forces. Mark Zuckerberg is in the middle of decency and the road to success. On one side is Sean Parker with the keys to the kingdom. On the other side is his only friend, Eduardo, someone who has been there and would always be there. The seduction scene in the night club is one of the best things Fincher has ever filmed. When asked, he will discard any notion than it means something more than what it is: the transformation of a soul. But that is what it is. The character is forever changed when he drinks in all that Sean is offering him — Facebook put on two continents. Eduardo is then a liability, and he has to cut him loose.¬† Is Mark any happier at the end of the film than at the beginning? No. Why? Because after all is said and done, he’s still just the kid in the hoodie hunched over the computer screen. He is no king. But baby, he’s a rich man. By the time the Beatles song swells in the background, the irony drops off every line, “how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” It feels like nothing so much as the Greek chorus asking him a question we all probably know the answer too. Some of the best films give us a character trapped in a world of his or her own making and as the credits roll we wonder, along with them, whether it has all been worth it. All About Eve ends this way. Citizen Kane ends this way. And The Social Network ends this way.
Sorkin, Fincher, the actors, the designers, the composer, the editors – everything in the film serves the story. When David Fincher cut The Social Network for the first pass his editors told him he’d cut it down to two and a half hours. He thought, okay, that’s good, now we need to go in and cut it down to a reasonable length. But then his editors called him back and said, no, it’s actually 90 minutes. The first sloppy edit was only 90 minutes! So he looked at the footage carefully and they figured out where things needed to be better explained, enhanced, given some deeper meaning. So they went through it again. Then they went through it yet again. They added and took away, added and took away. They edited it line by line, and eventually syllable by syllable. Why? Because ever single word in that film, every gesture, every expression, every edit was treated with an equal amount of importance.
I don’t really need movies to make me feel better about myself or to give me a jolt of inspiration or happiness. The best movies for me are works of art that enhance my understanding of human nature, the mind of the artist, and the function of art itself. But mostly I am dazzled by those who do it really well. I feel that The Social Network is the film of the year because it looks unflinchingly at our lives the way we are living them now and it dares to question that. It forces us to look into our urge to dive right into this new technology without questioning it. It dares to ask the questions: if building Facebook was indeed a treacherous achievement, are some achievements worth the treachery? what is it we are really doing when we decide to live this alternate reality otherwise known as social networking? What is that anyway? Is it a way to imagine we have friends without building face-to-face friendships? Is it a way to communicate without ever looking up and out from own comfort zone? When we stand on the subway checking friends on Facebook but don’t notice people right next to us, is that a technological step forward or a social step backward?
Because we pay a price for the way we’re living now — linking a thousand virtual friendships together can pull us apart in a thousand ways too. The Social Network goes there. It doesn’t try to show us the world through an ideal lens; it helps us see the world through a dirty one. With beautiful Fincher grunge soaking every frame, and Sorkin’s words that rattle out like a drum solo – this is the movie. It has it all. Maybe it isn’t pretty. Maybe it isn’t idealistic or optimistic. Maybe it doesn’t make me think better of myself or my fellow man. But it makes me think.
In the end, Best Picture is a matter of preference. The Oscar voters will have their say, and it will reflect a specific moment in time, a decision made from a selection of films presented to them by movie studios.¬† Somehow this year’s staggering turnarounds will find their rightful reading in Oscar history. We’ll all see it the way we saw it. Some of us will say “I knew they’d never go for the Social Network,” or “The King’s Speech is textbook Oscar.” Or if neither of these films wins and another takes its place, like True Grit or The Fighter – people will start building theories about the preferential ballot and the split vote.
If a film wins more than 50% in the first round they won’t even get to a second round. I don’t think I am wrong in thinking there will never be a second round. Whatever The King’s Speech has it is enough to warm the hearts of people everywhere. And that, my friends, may ultimately be how you define Best Picture of the year.