For months, “The Social Network” seemed to be sailing toward an inevitable “Best Picture” Oscar. It won top honors from the mysterious National Board of Review, the dubious Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the prestigious National Society of Film Critics. Then, the next thing you know, “The King’s Speech” walks off with prizes from the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild, prefiguring a sweep at the Academy Awards. (“The King’s Speech” was ineligible for a Writers Guild Award.) What happened?
The easy answer is that Hollywood is falling again, as it has before (“Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan”), for the lure of a costume drama performed by distinguished actors with perfectly articulated English accents. The very name of the film—“The King’s Speech,” for goodness sake!—is Oscar-bait. “The King’s Speech” is charming and entertaining and expertly acted. Its screenplay is carefully crafted and witty enough to invite, if not merit, comparisons to Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but, fairly judged, it is really just an especially well executed episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” with the emphasis on theatre, rather than masterpiece. It is barely a movie. What has been filmed would fit comfortably on a TV screen, where its impact would hardly be diminished, and it might, in fact, find its ideal form as a stage play in which the actors playing George VI and Lionel Logue, the King’s speech therapist, could zing their lines back and forth like Ernest and Algie or George and Martha. (A staged version is, in fact, reportedly in the works, and a musical version can’t be far behind.) “The King’s Speech” deserves an Emmy for best TV movie or mini-series, but an Oscar for best motion picture?
How did it become the front-runner—and over “The Social Network,” a real movie composed of scenes too short and a structure too complex to play well on TV, with Aaron Sorkin’s too-clever dialogue for once put in the mouths of characters who are actually smart enough to converse in Sorkin-speak, a movie directed, edited and scored with astonishing precision, and every bit as well acted (if not as well articulated) as “The King’s Speech”? Is it simply that Harvey Weinstein, the primary promoter of “The King’s Speech” knows a thing or two about running an Oscar campaign, and Scott Rudin, the primary promoter of “The Social Network,” only knows a thing (or that Rudin’s attention is diverted by the fact that he has another film, “True Grit,” in the Oscar race)?
I would argue that the apparent shifting of voter sentiment from “The Social Network” to “The King’s Speech” is not about the campaign; it’s about the candidate. What happened is simply this: “The Social Network” ran head first into the Zeitgeist and crashed. This is surprising since a film about social networking seems so very topical, so hip, so very much of the moment, and perhaps when it was released in the fall, “The Social Network” deserved its status as the “it” film of the year. After the November elections, however, the national mood shifted, and, with all the buzz in the media about deficits and budget cuts and unemployment and difficult decisions to be made both by cash-strapped families and cash-strapped governments, suddenly “The Social Network” seemed bizarrely out of step with the times. It is, after all, the story of a man—a boy, really—who becomes a billionaire overnight, almost by accident, certainly without great effort, by arguably stealing someone else’s concept and freezing out the best friend who initially bankrolled his project. Even though we know that the movie’s “Mark Zuckerberg” isn’t fully the real-life Mark Zuckerberg, it can hardly be said that either Zuckerberg’s success was the result of a long, painful struggle. “The Social Network” celebrates the luck of people who are born smart and fall into an opportunity they are able to exploit, not the struggle of people who work hard to achieve a difficult and specific goal. It is a film about people for whom success comes too easily.
“The King’s Speech,” on the other hand, is all about the struggle to succeed. George VI may have been born a prince, but he is hardly one of nature’s noblemen. He stammers horribly and can barely get out a simple sentence without gasping for air. When he becomes king, however, he must deliver a speech—the fate of western civilization or, at least, of the British people depends on it. And so he practices, he perseveres, he struggles—and, in the end, he manages to get through his address to the British people, haltingly, with great effort and little poetry. This is a far distance from Henry V rallying the troops at Agincourt, but it will do—and the fact that it will do is presented as an inspiration to the King’s subjects and to the film’s audience. Unlike “The Social Network,” which ends with its king, Mark Zuckerberg, financially successful but emotionally bankrupt, “The King’s Speech” ends on an unconditional note of triumph.
As it turns out, struggling to reach a goal, striving to overcome hardship is the common theme of virtually all this year’s best picture Oscar contenders except “The Social Network.” In “True Grit,” a fourteen year old girl goes on a quest to avenge the death of her father and finally succeeds with the help of a Texas ranger and a U.S. Marshall, whom she hires because he is reputed to have “true grit,” which we are take to mean a combination of determination and courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles. “Winter’s Bone” is essentially “True Grit” in a modern Appalachian setting but without a sense of humor: a young woman struggles to keep her family together when her father disappears and ultimately turns out to have been murdered. “The Fighter” is about a boxer’s struggle to win the world championship in his weight class, which, of course, he does. “Black Swan” is about a young dancer’s struggle for perfection; although she is ultimately driven to madness by the exertions—the exercises, the dieting, the rehearsals, and so forth, the film is almost admiring of her struggle. Even as they show us the terrible price their dancer pays for her achievement, the makers of “Black Swan” exult in the grandeur of her achievement in a way that “The Social Network” never does. “127 Hours” is, of course, about the story of how one man struggles to escape when he is trapped in a cave; in the end, he manages to survive by cutting off his own arm. “127 Hours” is the ultimate survival story, meant to be all the more inspiring because it is true, and certainly a picture emotionally attuned to the present moment. (In a sense, I would argue, almost seriously, with its message of cut-to survive, “127 Hours” comes close to being a political parable for our times.)
Admittedly, “Toy Story 3” and “Inception” don’t fit as easily into the struggle-and-triumph template, but both are ultimately stories about a successful quest. “Toy Story 3” is the story of toys struggling to find their way back to their owner, Andy, after they’ve been accidentally discarded. (The sequence in which the toys fight their way figuratively through hell—in this case, an incinerator—is truly one of the most harrowing of the year.) “Inception,” for all its technical razzle-dazzle and new-age mysticism, is driven from beginning to end (or is it the end?) by the hero’s struggle to return home to the United States and be reunited with his children. “Toy Story 3” ends the brilliant animated trilogy on a happy and triumphal note: the toys not only make it back but also find a new young owner to play with them. “Inception” seems to end happily; we see the hero returning to the States and see him at home with his children, but then we are left to wonder if this is only a dream. Christopher Nolan, the writer of director of “Inception” may be paying for this ambiguity; while he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay, he was overlooked by the Academy for his direction of “Inception.” The Academy, it would appear, likes its heroes to arrive at their destinations in unambiguous triumph.
It is also possible, though not without some effort, to push “The Kids Are All Right” into the struggle-and-triumph form (an unconventional family, comprised of two mothers and their two children, both conceived with the help of the same sperm donor, survives a temporary crisis caused by the appearance of the sperm-dad in their lives), but, perhaps because the form fits the film so uncomfortably, it is not considered a serious contender for best picture, and even Annette Bening’s pitch-perfect performance seems to have fallen off the Academy’s radar screen.
Although Bening once seemed like a likely contender for an Oscar, she never had the seeming lock on the award that “The Social Network” once did, as it piled up one critics’ prize after another. Given the voting system the Motion Picture Academy adopted last year when it expanded the number of best picture nominees from five to ten, “The Social Network” might still pick up the big prize on February 27. The system works like this: if no picture wins a simple majority on the first ballot, the Academy goes to a second ballot in which the Academy disregards the first place votes of the Academy members who opted for the film that had the fewest votes on the first ballot and counts the second place votes of those voters instead; the Academy then repeats this process until some film picks up a majority of the votes. In this system, a film with lots of second or third place votes could potentially defeat a film with the most first place votes.
Even if “The Social Network” isn’t a picture that warms the hearts of Academy voters, it may be sufficient that the film is widely admired if it garners enough second or third place votes from Academy members who, in their hearts, embrace a more “relatable” film like “The King’s Speech.” On the other hand, the preferential voting system might just as easily work to the advantage of a film like “True Grit” or “The Fighter” or even “127 Hours” that delivers the struggle-and-triumph catharsis that seems much more in keeping with the spirit of a country that is painfully working its way out of a deep economic recession. In this field of contenders, “The Social Network” is very much an outlier, and, if it does win the Oscar, it may well be, ironically enough, because the Academy, in its voting system, has adopted a mathematical formula that, if not quite the type of algorithm that made Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire, is, at least, complicated enough to give the average moviegoer a migraine headache.