For a while in this awards season, The Social Network seemed to be the favorite for the Best Picture Oscar. But the later opening of The King’s Speech has served it well. In the crucial nomination and voting period, The Social Network’s domestic box office slowed down, and it has earned less than $100 million. The picture has been hard to find in theaters, in part because it appeared on DVD in January. But, in the Christmas and New Year period, The King’s Speech picked up surprising momentum—because of the royal family angle; because stuttering has led to several background stories; but chiefly because Colin Firth has been such a charm in publicity events. So The King’s Speech has now gone over $100 million, and its presence in theatres (and press advertising from the Weinstein Company) has probably impressed voters. It has also picked up crucial awards along the way: the Directors’ Guild award; the Screen Actors’ award; and a Golden Globe for Colin Firth.
The Academy Awards have never been a science. They are a matter of feeling, and, in and around the film business (admittedly a harder entity to find than ever before), there’s no question that people like Firth, director Tom Hooper, and the portrait of hard-luck royals doing their best with one of life’s silly problems.
I should admit my prejudice. I stammered badly in childhood and youth. I only attained anything like fluency in my forties—and I know I should be stopped now. It’s not that I have a soft spot for the royals, or even the Queen Mother. I much prefer Helena Bonham Carter. Like Colin Firth himself, I prefer voting, democracy, and the thought of a republic. That matters less than the way audiences care about Bertie, King George VI, or HRH (whatever you feel about him), and they are responding to a film that sees every artistic reason for making a movie with a lot of the style and attitude of 1937 (when the action takes place). As a matter of fact, 1937 was a better year for the movies than it was for Bertie—The Awful Truth, Stage Door, A Star is Born, Camille, Stella Dallas, not to mention Shall We Dance?, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Pepe le Moko, and Carnet de Bal.
Who cares about 1937, you ask. It’s a long time ago when people were still pretty scared of the telephone as well as looming political figures in the world. But entertain this thought: The large audience knows very little about stammering or stuttering (the Atlantic changes the word itself), and modern Americans are happy to be tourists when it comes to royalty—they’ll give an amused glance, and they may raise their hats, but they don’t take the thing seriously. Yet they do still enjoy movies in which they are able to like some of the characters and say, “Well, sure, I can understand that.”
David Fincher’s The Social Network deserves to be called brilliant, smart, tricky entertainment, and it’s as instructive as it is alarming about the personality of some of our brightest young people. If you know less about Facebook than your children know, it is a very educational picture, and it may even lead to a useful conversation with the kids if you see the movie in a family situation. But try finding someone to like in the picture, or trust. Try finding a female character who isn’t trashed. Try caring.
Your kids may tell you, “Well, come on, dude, we don’t do caring any more,” but I don’t know if I believe them. I think most of them in 2011 are scared shitless about what they’re going to do, and what will become of them. That’s one of the reasons why they cluster around Facebook—but don’t ask too closely whether membership brings them comfort or ease. I daresay Jesse Eisenberg gives a remarkable performance as Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. It may be a lot closer to the reality than Firth’s Bertie is to the king—indeed, as I recall, Firth is more robust and vigorous than the real George VI, who looked like a nervous wreck.
It doesn’t matter. The Social Network doesn’t like Zuckerberg. Indeed, a striking characteristic of David Fincher’s films is his predilection for characters he doesn’t like. This may amount to artistic identity (a pinch of salt is provided at the bottom of the page) or it may just be that Fincher is a contented misanthrope. He has that right, just as audiences have the right and the habit and let us call it the need to look for people they like.
No matter that a lot has changed since 1937, and much of it for the good (though there is still no cure for stammering, feeling insecure and lonely, or even for unemployment), the public—ourselves—have not lost the pleasure in following stories and identifying with characters we like. They don’t have to be Shirley Temple or Lassie. But they have to nurse enough hope or energy or good will to bring us out at night. The King’s Speech takes due advantage of punctured pomp, period clothes, and British supporting actors (shameless attributes of cultural tourism), but it is written, directed, and played as if personal unhappiness matters and stimulates the attempt to get better. That is actually as much an American tradition as it ever was alive and well in Britain.
You probably won’t get better. You will fail. No one survives. We know these truths. But movies live and die on the hope. Mark Zuckerberg is a crushing, ruinous success—that’s why we don’t like him and why The Social Network can find not a glimmer of comfort. Little distresses the rest of the world more about Americans than their hysterical triumph and self-congratulation in success. It’s a dismay creeping into more and more smart Americans, too. That is why The King’s Speech will win Best Picture. Is it a good film? It doesn’t matter.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.