Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (Helena Bonham Carter) encourages her husband, the stammering King George VI (Colin Firth) in The King’s Speech.
Members of Congress? American Idol judges? Nope. Try the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that for 83 years has been handing out Oscars for outstanding achievements in the film industry.
Such accusations routinely are hurled by those in the entertainment media and movie lovers who watch at home as they question the choices of the 5,755-member group that decides who wins those coveted gold statuettes.
This awards season, an especially contentious debate has been raging over the widely perceived front-runner for best picture at Sunday’s ceremony (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET). That would be The King’s Speech, which relates the back story of how England’s King George VI conquered his stammer as World War II loomed with the aid of a sympathetic therapist who became a friend. The feel-good biopic starring Colin Firth leads the field with 12 nominations and is expected by oddsmakers and most Hollywood prognosticators to claim the grand prize.
Blogger and self-described Oscarologist Stephen Holt is one of the period piece’s most avid proponents.
“The King’s Speech is one of the best films I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It was a profoundly moving cinematic experience on every level. I think the academy is in the mood of sending a message this year: ‘We like films like this. We want more of this!’ “
Jesse Eisenberg plays the friend-free founder of Facebook in The Social Network.
Standing in opposition to the populist period piece, however, is the favorite of nearly every professional critics group that handed out a year-end award: The Social Network, David Fincher’s incisive expos of Facebook founder and socially inept boy genius Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a film that burrows into the self-centered psyche of an app-happy generation.
Of course, eight other titles are vying for best picture: Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, Inception,True Grit, Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone. However, all of the usual signposts including box-office momentum, number of nominations, reviews, pre-Oscar awards and general anecdotal evidence indicate that the main event has essentially boiled down to two: The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network.
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Vote: 83rd annual Oscar ballot
The discussion over each movie’s merits has generated a steady stream of grumbling during the past few weeks among the online community of film bloggers and reviewers, whose predictions of likely Oscar contenders began last fall. They would view a triumph by The King’s Speech as a shunning of the new, as reflected by The Social Network‘s topical subject matter and jazzier storytelling style.
Jeffrey Wells, who runs the website Hollywood Elsewhere, is among the most vehemently appalled by the prospect that the academy an institution that many have characterized through the years as a bunch of fuddy-duddies often reluctant to support cutting-edge cinema could play it safe by choosing the warm-hearted King’s Speech over the cold-blooded Social Network.
For Wells and others in The Social Network brigade, it was an ominous sign when the three guilds that represent producers, directors and actors whose annual honorees are considered solid indicators of which way Oscar is leaning because academy members can belong to all three went with The King’s Speech.
“Comfort, contentment and middle-class Masterpiece Theatre milquetoast values have prevailed,” Wells groused in his blog while reluctantly facing what he now sees as an inevitable win for The King’s Speech.
“They ‘liked’ The King’s Speech better, so there. Kick me, shoot me, run me over with a double-decker bus.”
USA TODAY’s examination of how the best-picture selections have stacked up over the past 30 years, however, shows that such generalizations are more than slightly off-base, especially recently.
True, back in the 1980s, academy voters tended to be swept away by panoramic epics and biopics (Chariots of Fire,Gandhi, Out of Africa) or tear-jerking family dramas (Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Rain Man).
The 1990s, however, was a decade of transition for best-picture picks.
Runaway blockbusters such as Titanicand Forrest Gumprepresented business as usual, but academy voters also recognized a horror thriller for the first, and still only, time: The Silence of the Lambs. Plus, they honored two Westerns long after the first, 1931′s Cimarron, rustled up a statuette with Dances With Wolvesand Unforgiven.
It also was a decade in which independent, low-cost releases that placed art above commerce made a considerable dent in the best-picture contest. It all came to a head in 1996 the so-called Year of the Independents when the Oscar winner, The English Patient, with its epic-size scope done on a relatively limited budget, duked it out with even scrappier titles: Fargo, Shine and Secrets & Lies. Meanwhile, Jerry Maguire was the lone major-studio release in the category.
After the turn of the century, Oscar took a step backward by rewarding such standard fare as the neo-Roman epic Gladiator and the traumatized-mathematician biopic A Beautiful Mind. Since then, however, the academy’s palate has gotten increasingly sophisticated, varied and even daring.
First, the variety of genres honored by the academy expanded. Chicago, the 2002 film that was the first musical to win best picture since 1968′s Oliver!, is not exactly The Sound of Music, with its celebrity jailbird chorines.
The next year, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King paid overdue homage to the rise of geek culture as the first fantasy film to win best picture.
Each of the past five best-picture winners the social drama Crash, the gangster tale The Departed, the crime thriller No Country for Old Men, the unvarnished Indian fable Slumdog Millionaire and the bomb-squad war story The Hurt Locker have tested cinematic boundaries with their R ratings, harsh subject matter, contemporary settings and often less-than-rosy endings.
No surprise that fewer protests by pundits were heard during those years, save for the uproar when the groundbreaking gay love story Brokeback Mountain from 2005 lost to Crash.
As film historian and critic Leonard Maltin observes, “Do those recent winners represent the votes of old fogeys?”
Maltin maintains that it’s wrong to think of the academy which is made up of 15 branches ranging in size from actors (1,183) to makeup artists and hairstylists (118) as sharing a single mind-set.
“They keep referring to it as a monolith. But it is made up of many kinds of people, from working executives to retired actors to every stop in between,” he says. “There is no one way of thinking in this group. It is not like a jury or panel sitting in a room and hashing it out. The same academy voted for Midnight Cowboy in 1969,” the only X-rated film to ever claim best picture.
“But when the ’80s got safer, so did the country and so did their choices.”
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers, who has declared that The Social Network is the film that “defines the decade,” acknowledges that Oscar has broken out of its bubble recently.
“Members are looking for fresh and ground-breaking material,” he says. “My problem is, having done that, they now want to revert to something that is old-school Hollywood. Academy voters can relate to The King’s Speech through their heart. Nothing wrong with that. But what they should be doing is pushing ahead. Sometimes they mistake the Oscar for Valentine’s Day.”
Even the tough guys who fill out ballots have a soft spot for the stuttering monarch.
“I was interviewing Tommy Lee Jones, and he said he was going for The King’s Speech,” Travers says. “Here’s this hard-ass from No Country for Old Men, relating to this movie.”
One person who would disagree that The King’s Speech is simply a Hallmark card writ large is its director, Tom Hooper, whose depictions of iconic figures of the past in TV efforts such as HBO’s Elizabeth Iand John Adams are noteworthy for their lack of sentiment.
“I don’t think I romanticize or idealize the characters,” says the British specialist in historical biopics, whose aim with The King’s Speech is for intimacy rather than pomp. “I take them off their pedestals and reveal them to be messy human beings in all their brilliance. There is a risk in thinking that just because the royal family is an old-fashioned subject that the filmmaking is, too.”
So, just who is the academy? Are the members more apt to be contemporaries of Mickey Rooney, 90, who continues to act and often shows up on the red carpet? Or do they have more in common with another child star, Dakota Fanning, 16, who joined the group in 2006?
Turns out it’s somewhere in between.
“You have to meet certain professional requirements,” says academy president Tom Sherak. “Each branch elects its own members. You have to meet all the criteria, and then you are voted in by your peers.”
No demographic records are kept, but he guesses the average age in the group is about 50.
It is difficult for producers and directors to earn the right credentials much before they turn 40, but the academy which began going public with its annual list of new inductees in 2004 has been actively reaching out to younger actors.
During the past two years, those 35-and-unders who passed muster with the acting branch by achieving distinction in their careers (a nomination counts) include Ryan Reynolds, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Zoe Saldana, Casey Affleck, Michael Cera, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy and Seth Rogen.
“The age has lowered,” Sherak says. “We are not dinosaurs anymore. We deal with the times.”
When those times are as troubled as they are right now, however, academy voters can be tempted to listen with their hearts instead of their heads.
As Damien Bona, co-author of the ultimate Academy Awards guide Inside Oscar, notes: “They are more like regular moviegoers. If something moves them, they vote for it.”
And those moviegoers also have taken to The King’s Speech, as the $15 million film continues to climb beyond the $100 million mark at the box office after 12 weeks. In contrast, even though $40 million The Social Network was re-released in January, it stalled at $96.8 million after 21 weeks.
Kris Tapley of the awards website In Contention, who has strived to be a voice of reason among Oscar watchers, prefers The Social Network to The King’s Speech. But he says he understands the appeal, especially after recently speaking with an academy member whom he does not identify but describes as “a real rank-and-file type with zero connection to the film.”
The upshot: The voter was throwing his lot behind The King’s Speech because the relationship between Firth’s ruler and Geoffrey Rush’s therapist reflected his own experiences.
“He is 26 years sober,” Tapley says, “and he related to how asking someone for help can be very deflating. These people aren’t critics. They are artists, and their passion can overtake them quicker than anything analytical.”
However, he adds, “that doesn’t mean it’s a lesser part of the experience of seeing a movie.”