‘The King’s Speech’ and the Weinstein formula for industrial conquest

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Harvey Weinstein. ()
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The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as a stammering King George VI and directed by Tom Hooper, was receiving advance buzz involving the words “Oscar” long before it officially opened. This happens a lot, and I tend to have a cynical response to it. I know when I’m being manipulated.

I finally saw it this weekend, in a sold-out matinee in a giant multiplex. There were kids there, and people had brought in lunch. It was a huge and mixed crowd. Yet from the opening scene, you could have heard a pin drop in that theatre, except during the funny moments, when the audience would burst into responsive laughter. Some woman’s cell phone went off, and she actually answered it, and people all around the theatre called at her, annoyed, to shut up. The huge crowd had cohered into a group. When The King’s Speech ended, and the credits began to roll, a man sitting beside me, who had silver feathered hair, shirt tucked into his jeans, and big white sneakers, said, with apparent emotion, “If that guy don’t win an Oscar, then there is no justice in this world.”

Produced in part by the Weinstein Company, headed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, formerly of Miramax, The King’s Speech has all the earmarks of Miramax Oscar-bait: It is a film about a real person, and about overcoming obstacles. It is smart enough to please people who like smart fare, but it is also crowd-pleasing on a deep and visceral level. The reason to see it is the scene-work between Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who plays speech therapist Lionel Logue. The characters are funny with one another, cagey, and sometimes cranky; it is a meeting of the minds. Firth plays the stammer so realistically that you forget he has ever spoken otherwise, and Rush is marvelous, as the commoner who suddenly finds himself training the King of England to overcome a debilitating impediment.

The film is not perfect (the final section with the actual speech is drawn out to shameless lengths), but it works on an emotional level. The power of the acting, and of the story, makes sure of that.

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The Weinstein Brothers have spent a couple of decades muscling their way into Oscar season. Their tactics are aggressive and unseemly, if not brutal, but Miramax’s run of success in the 90s had a transformative impact on the industry. Miramax championed smaller films, foreign films, difficult-to-sell films, and they got these so-called art-house films into the multiplexes. The independent scene changed forever.

When these films were challenged by the MPAA (and they often were), Harvey Weinstein was vocal and contemptuous in his objections, bringing a blitzkrieg of publicity to the film, whatever rating it eventually received.

Scandal (1989), a Miramax film about the Profumo affair, starring John Hurt and Joanne Whalley, came in originally as an X-rated film due to an orgy scene. There was a big controversy about it, lots of publicity, and then a two-second cut was made in the scene, satisfying the MPAA, and the film was released as an R. The film grossed $8.8 million in the U.S., a huge amount of money for a film of its kind, and Miramax was satisfied. In Down and Dirty Pictures, a book about the indie movie scene of the 90s in which Miramax naturally plays a large part, author Peter Biskind writes: “Harvey’s strategy was always the same: come in as an X, make as much noise as possible, and go out as an R.”

We saw this identical situation most recently with Weinstein-produced Blue Valentine, which was threatened with the deadly NC-17 rating, bringing an avalanche of publicity to the film before it even opened. Of course, it was finally released as an R-rated film. It was just business as usual with the Weinsteins.

The King’s Speech also had its ratings issues, due to one scene where Rush makes Firth shout out profanities in one of their therapy sessions, because the King does not stammer when he swears. The scene is hilarious, Colin Firth playing two things at the same time: manly gusto in shouting out the words “bugger, bugger, shit, shit, tits, tits …”, and also mortification at what he has been asked to do. The MPAA objected to the language of this scene, another example of how ridiculous context-less objections are. Weinstein, once again, did his publicity-garnering routine: “While we respect the MPAA, I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same rating as films with so-called inappropriate language.”

Miramax’s films were not often obvious crowd-pleasers, at least to those who were used to sitting in gleaming conference rooms watching Power Point presentations showing demographic information. Their films were not easily classified. They were often esoteric, and had subtitles on occasion, all things which would have relegated such films as Life Is Beautiful to limited runs in smaller artsy cinemas. But the films struck a chord with wide audiences. Miramax marketed to the masses. The Weinsteins were not above re-cutting films to make them more accessible to American audiences, and directors who refused to go along with this found themselves shunned by Miramax. Their Oscar campaigns are by now notorious. If you were not aware that Shakespeare in Love was up for every Oscar under the sun then you were not at all paying attention to the world around you. That kind of thing can get tiresome, obnoxious, and it made you wonder what other films were out there, more difficult films, perhaps, that weren’t getting a shot because of the domination of Miramax.

The Weinsteins, since the sale of Miramax, have formed The Weinstein Company, and have distributed and produced such diverse films as Inglourious Basterds, Persepolis, I’m Not There, Rambo and A Single Man. Oscar-bait can be annoying fare. It can be blatantly manipulative and calculating, like a politician shaking your hand and telling you he really cares about you and your issues.

But the Weinsteins, with the one-two punch of the gritty-realistic Blue Valentine and the more elegant-worldly The King’s Speech, show that they are back at the forefront again, bringing challenging and yet also crowd-pleasing films to the cinemas of this country. The King’s Speech may very well be “Oscar bait”, and there were moments in the film when the heart-strings were too obviously tugged at. There is certainly a conversation to be had about the strong-arm tactics of the former Miramax in getting their films distributed and showered with Oscars. Biskind found that many people (former employees of Miramax and others) were afraid to talk to him on the record for his book because they feared retribution.

But these are business conversations, exclusive to the world of corporate gladiatorial combat. It feels very different out there in the dark at the multiplex, surrounded by a silent rapt crowd. Being a crowd-pleaser doesn’t necessarily mean that a film plays to the lowest-common denominator. It can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. If a film works, it works, and if it works for a large number of people, so much the better. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings in the pit as well as the aristocrats in the balconies.

The Weinsteins have managed the trick of winning on the ground and in the air, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes brutishly. At the end of the day, though, it’s what’s up on screen that matters. All the marketing in the world can’t make a film that an audience truly loves. But the Weinsteins can, apparently.

*The original version of this article said that the rating of The King's Speech was changed from R to PG-13. It is still R.