Tuesday, 1 February 2011

How to win an Oscar: "It's good to be the king!"

As Mel Brooks always says, "it's good to be the king" and so it might prove for Best Actor hopeful Colin Firth at this month's Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Firth was unlucky not to win last year for his understated performance in Tom Ford's 'A Single Man', being beaten to the prize by Jeff Bridges. But though Bridges is again nominated alongside the Englishman this time around, the circumstances surrounding the "race" couldn't be more different. This year it is Firth who has been earning all the major gongs en route, including the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award (pictured above). Both are reliable Oscar indicators, but the latter is more significant having gone to the eventual Oscar winner on the last six occasions. In fact since its founding year in 1994, the winner of the SAG Best Actor award has gone on to win the equivalent Academy Award on twelve occasions out of sixteen - one of the "mistakes" being when Benicio Del Toro won in 2000 for 'Traffic' and he ended up winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for the same role anyway.

Yet being the winner of the SAG award isn't the only bit of history which suggests Academy Award glory for Colin Firth on February 27th. There is also the matter of what he is nominated for: 'The King's Speech' in which he plays stammering reluctant-monarch George VI. After all, actors portraying British royalty have form when it comes to the Academy Awards. Judi Dench infamously won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1998 for what amounted to an eight minute cameo as Elizabeth I in 'Shakespeare in Love'. Her success in winning that award was attributed by many as a sympathy vote for having been snubbed the previous year for her role as Queen Victoria in 'Mrs. Brown', for which she had been nominated in the Best Actress category. Helen Mirren finally sealed her place among the Academy Award winners in 2006 for her performance as Elizabeth II in 'The Queen', whilst Australian Cate Blanchett was nominated for her breakthrough role as Elizabeth I in the 1998 film 'Elizabeth' and again in 2007 for the film's sequel.

This love affair with the Royals doesn't end there either: Charles Laughton won his Oscar in 1933 for the starring role in 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' and Richard Burton was nominated for playing same monarch in 1969 for 'Anne of the Thousand Days'. One of Peter O'Toole's eight nominations (without a single win) was for playing Henry VII in 1964 film 'Becket' and Kenneth Branagh was nominated for his portrayal of Henry V from his 1989 film of the same name. Indeed Helen Mirren was previously nominated for portraying Queen Charlotte in 1994's 'The Madness of King George', with Nigel Hawthorne also nominated for his role as the titular loon. Don't forget that this year also sees Helena Bonham Carter nominated for her role in 'The King's Speech' playing the late Queen Mother.

Of course, many of those mentioned didn't win the ultimate prize - although I most definitely think Colin Firth will - but they still prove that, if you want to be recognised by the Academy, playing a member of the British royal family has never hurt anybody's chances. I predict that when the inevitable film about Princess Diana is made that role will be one of the most coveted in all of Hollywood for this very reason. So Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Emily Blunt and all the other young British actresses need to start pestering producers and getting their names out there now if they want a golden statuette of their very own - for a feature that is practically guaranteed fourteen Oscar nominations and destined to be the toast of middle-England somewhere in our not-too-distant future.

Why this is is open to debate, but I think it has something to do with the assumption across the Atlantic that clipped Britishness is synonymous with "class" - that is in terms of style and not just social standing - and that British actors are automatically brilliant screen actors due to their inherent stagecraft, brought with them from the birthplace of the Bard. A good example of this curious assumption can be seen in the fact that Laurence Olivier was nominated for nine acting Oscars, winning one, despite the fact that he was as hammy a screen actor as there has ever been. It is the reason why it's OK to nominate Sir Ian McKellen for playing a wizard in 'Lord of the Rings' and Alec Guinness for playing a space-wizard in 'Star Wars' despite the fact the Academy wouldn't traditionally nominate those types of movies in acting categories. "Doesn't he speak beautifully?" Academy voters must say to one another all the time as they cast their votes.

It is ironic then that Colin Firth is nominated for playing an upper-class monarch without the usual eloquence. But don't be fooled by the stammer, Firth's King George has still been afforded a much nicer, cleaner British accent than his arrogant, playboy brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) who has a much more gratingly posh (and more realistic) aristocratic accent. It could also be said that the principle joy of 'The King's Speech' is born from the unusual sport of watching a man learning how to speak so pleasingly - and to the great approval of cheering crowds. This pleasure, when married to assumptions of British class and stagecraft and applied to the gravitas of playing royalty (which comes imbued with vaguely Shakespearian overtones by default), in part explains why 'The King's Speech' is not only an Oscar favourite: it is a highly exportable commodity for those in the former colonies basking in an unseemly collective nostalgia.

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