We have entered the Oscar season in full, and the pundits have spoken. In what promises to be an epic showdown come Oscar night, the two frontrunners for Best Picture this year are now Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech and David Fincher’s The Social Network. While such titles as 127 Hours, starring James Franco, GRD ‘16, and Inception gained buzz earlier in the year, these films are no longer frontrunners in the race. More importantly, this year’s Oscar race indicates shifting currents of thought and artistic modi operandi in Hollywood as well as its long and honoured traditions.
The King’s Speech and The Social Network are equally good films from an artistic standpoint. With its classical cinematography and static shots of various historical buildings, The King’s Speech is royal in scope and execution. On the other hand, The Social Network is both slick and sleek. Digitally shot and re-colored, it is the champion of current filmmaking technologies, appropriate for a film that is itself about technology. Both films, however, suffer from a certain self-conscious style: They take themselves very seriously as works of art, and much like the rest of today’s current cinema, place an enormous emphasis on style and presentation. Generally, our best contemporary filmmakers sacrifice storytelling for visual appeal.
But a film doesn’t win Best Picture for its style. What makes a film Oscar-worthy? It’s all in the Americanness of its story. For instance, the underdog fighting against impossible odds—Slumdog Millionaire—won Best Picture in 2008. And though The Social Network does capture today’s cultural zeitgeist, I bet that Oscar voters, generally older and more conservative—politically and artistically—will hesitate to vote for a film with a protagonist who is anything but likable, like Zuckerberg in The Social Network. They won’t see a film about a loner computer-geek asshole as the Best Picture.
On the other hand, The King’s Speech is set in Britain, its protagonist upholds American values in a way that Zuckerberg just doesn’t: King Goerge VI has to overcome a great personal difficulty, which makes for an uplifting tale of personal endurance, the kind of story that Oscar voters traditionally embrace.
The current showdown between The King’s Speech and The Social Network is somewhat reminiscent of 1998’s face-off between Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love, which ended in a controversial and much panned win for the later film. In this analogy, The Social Network is Private Ryan, the hip child that stretches the boundaries of what can be done on film, while The King’s Speech is Shakespeare, a safer, classic effort with great performances.
In a less crowded Oscar race, The Fighter, which tells a distinctly American story, might have been a viable contender. Likewise with Inception, a great idea-film that lacks a meaningful message. And please, don’t even get me started on Black Swan. It’s an Art film gone wrong, a shipwreck of a story that simply doesn’t work.
There are the other nominated films, such as The Kids Are All Right, written by Stuart Blumberg, ES ‘91, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone. With ten Best Picture nominations to fill, these films are good enough to compete, but not to win. The Kids Are All Right is a good melodrama, but Douglas Sirk’s Oscar-less career has proved that melodramas no longer win Academy Awards. True Grit will not win because the Coen brothers already won Best Picture with No Country for Old Men in 2007, and because their new Western is a direct retelling of the novel on which the film is based. Winter’s Bone is too gritty and thus, will alienate Oscar voters.
If there was any justice, Toy Story 3, also nominated, would win—do you know anyone who didn’t cry at the end, when the toys are reunited? But Academy voters like to spread the Oscar love, and will probably settle for just naming Toy Story 3 the Best Animated Film.
My prediction: The King’s Speech will win, as it should. But if the only criteria needed to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was how American a story a film tells, the Academy forgot one of the most important films of the year. This year’s reboot of The Karate Kid should have been nominated. It’s a fish-out-water story starring an underdog African-American kid who goes to China to beat the Reds. How much more American can you get than that?