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Tuesday, January 18, 2011
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A “SPEECH” IMPEDIMENT

I am writing this post because I feel compelled to respond to the strange resurgence of interest in — and insinuations about — something that I wrote on this site more than six weeks ago. (See The Daily Mail, The Metro, The Independent, The Telegraphone and two — and a Tweet from one of my heroes, Roger Ebert.)

On December 5, I wrote a post entitled “‘The King’s Speech’ Targeted: Smear Campaign or Just the Hard Truth?” In it, I shared an email that was sent to me by a person claiming to be an Academy member who wanted me to know that he or she — and “a lot” of others — would not be voting for “The King’s Speech” because, he or she had read, King George VI was not the noble man that the film makes him out to be, but rather an anti-Semite who sought to prevent Jews from leaving Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. This person pointed me to his or her source, a November 28 article on New York Magazine’s Web site, which drew its information from a 2002 article in The Guardian, which quoted from some of the late King’s private papers that had been released upon the Queen Mum’s death earlier that year.

Upon receiving this information, I agonized over what I should do next. I realized that sharing this information would create aggravation for my friends who were working on the awards campaign of “The King’s Speech,” which was not something that I wanted to do, but I also realized that not sharing it would be journalistically irresponsible, since it pertained to the subject of one of the films at the center of this year’s Oscar race. Eventually, my thoughts turned to the recent WikiLeaks news dump. I realized that the way that the New York Times handled that story offered a good model for how I should handle this one. I’m certain that the New York Times editors who decided that the paper should describe those documents knew that doing so would create aggravation for American officials, and that that’s not something that they took any pleasure in doing, but at the same time they knew that doing so was the only journalistically responsible option, since those documents directly pertained to the subjects that they cover on a regular basis.

When I wrote my post a month and a half ago, I made it very clear that I had not been able to confirm the identity of the person who emailed me the information about King George VI, but that the information nonetheless checked out. I also shared the long history of Oscar “smear campaigns,” and openly acknowledged that my source could just as easily have been “someone with a vested interest in stunting the awards prospects of ‘The King’s Speech’” as “an Academy member who would like others to take note of documented facts about the film’s subject that are not reported in the film.”

At no time, however, did I suggest — or endorse the suggestion — that this information about King George VI was a legitimate reason to not support a film about King George VI that focuses on completely unrelated matters. It is not. Florenz Ziegfeld, T.E. Lawrence, George S. Patton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Oskar Schindler, and John Forbes Nash, Jr. weren’t saints either, but that should not have kept — and did not keep — films about them from receiving the awards recognition that they deserved.

If you had read only the aforementioned sensationalist news items in the British media, you might have gotten the impression that (a) my initial post has provoked some sort of a great debate amongst Academy members that has jeoparized the awards prospects of “The King’s Speech” and its star, Colin Firth, and (b) I was and/or am personally working against or urging others to vote against them.

The facts of the matter, however, are quite different: I have yet to meet a single Academy member who has changed the way he or she plans to vote based on my post — or any of those that came before or after it — about this matter. Moreover, I do not campaign for or against films; I do, however, have personal opinions about them, and in this case my opinion is that “The King’s Speech” is one of the top 10 films of 2010. Moreover, I am very fond of Firth, who I have interviewed and come to know a little over the years — in fact, I ran into him and his publicist in a hallway on Sunday night after the Golden Globes, and we stopped and had a friendly chat, during which I congratulated him on winning the best actor (drama) Golden Globe for “The King’s Speech” and shared with him my belief that it should have been his second win in a row, since nobody gave a better performance last year than he did in “A Single Man” (2009). Finally, I have a pretty good idea of what Harvey Weinstein is all about, having interviewed him once and met him on numerous other occcasions, and I know that he is just about the last person who would make a movie that he felt celebrated anti-Semtism or anti-Semites in any way — he is tremendously passionate about his Jewish background and Jewish causes, and he has made more high-profile movies about Judaism-related topics than anyone I know, from “Life Is Beautiful” (1998), to “The Reader” (2008), to “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), to “The Concert” (2010), and the list goes on.

King George VI may have been an anti-Semite, or he may just have been slow to appreciate the extent of the problems faced by the Jews of Germany as Hitler rose to power, as most people were at the time. Either way, those personal shortcomings had nothing to do with the way that he overcame his speech impediment and became a more effective leader, and should therefore have no bearing on the way that people evaluate a film that is about those aspects of his life. Voters are being asked to consider whether or not “The King’s Speech” is the best picture of the year and whether or not Firth is the best actor of the year, not whether or not “The King’s Speech” is the best picture of the year about a likable character and whether or not Firth gives the best performance as a likable character.

Take it from me, as someone who monitors the awards race every day, that “The King’s Speech” is far from the only major awards contender that has been embroiled in controversies of this nature this year. At the end of the day, though, Academy members should make their voting decisions based on the merits of the films themselves, rather than on any other considerations, just as they have done in similar situations in the past. I am confident that they will.

Photo: Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech.” Credit: The Weinstein Company.

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  • http://twitter.com/robert_hamer Robert Hamer

    Personally, I never thought you had ulterior or sinister motives in posting that information.

    Where I somewhat disagree with you, however, is the idea that the whitewashing of history that happens in The King’s Speech shouldn’t be a factor in its Oscar prospects. In fact, it is one of the biggest failures of most Hollywood biopics to scrub clean all of the flaws, ambiguities, and complications of a historical figure to make them palatable to mainstream audiences and Academy voters. It presents a fantasy version of that history that is not only dishonest, but often dramatically inert. I can only imagine how much more fascinating The King’s Speech would have been had King George VI been presented not only with his (in my opinion relatively minor) problem with public speaking but also his much more severe flaw of bigotry and/or failure to stand up to Nazi Germany in time. But, following the example of such squeaky-clean biopics as The Hurricane and The Pursuit of Happyness, George was perfect! Virtuous! He had absolutely nothing about him that would make audiences uncomfortable! I don’t think anyone should begrudge a voter if they snub Tom Hooper’s film for *that* reason.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AN7GWT7UK2GLV6NGQG7CW4XLIE sarah

    Are you actually trying to equate the “importance” of spreading this smear with the Wikileaks situation? Seriously?

    You published a smear from someone who didn’t have the guts to reveal their name. Gee, I wonder why? Could it be it came from a competing film and not an aggrieved Academy member? You went ahead and posted it before even trying to establish its veracity.

    You say you’ve yet to meet an Academy memeber whose vote was changed based on what you posted. So, you’ve spoken to all 6,000?

    Of course you never suggested that this was a reason to not vote for the film or for Firth. But did you honestly fail to see how it could very well have that effect?
    Note that the film is no longer considered the front-runner. Maybe a coincidence. Maybe not.

  • Yair Raveh

    I find all this very amusing. I am Israeli. A Jew. Most major cities here have streets named after George V, George VI’s father, who was the monarch when the White Paper, which legitimizes the right of the Jews to establish a homeland in what was then known as Palestine, and under British rule, was published. Yes, in George VI days the British mandate in Palestine tended to be rather ruthless and inhumane to fugitives of the war (see, for example, EXODUS). But whoever tries to spin this to tarnish THE KING’S SPEECH can easily be refuted with the simple fact that it was still in GEORGE VI days as king that the sate of Israel declared independence, and the British left the region,. So now are we supposed to hail him as a wonderful Zionist? It’s propaganda, and an ignorant one at that. The King’s Speech is a glib film, dealing with trivial anecdotes in times of great turmoil. But if you disqualify glib from the Oscars, you’d be left with vety few films.

  • Yair Raveh

    very few…

    • Peter Krauliz

      Colin Firth didn’t produce the typical behavior of a stammerer or stutterer. But the one who acted as his brother did when taunting him at a certain occasion in the film. I can’t understand what would have been so superb with Colin Firth’s performance that deserved an award. The one who deserved one was his tutor.
      Peter Krauliz

  • Pkeough

    I think it would have been a much better film had it confronted this ambiguous area in George VI’s life and made him a much more interesting character. But then the film probably would never get any Oscar nominations, or even have gotten made.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AN7GWT7UK2GLV6NGQG7CW4XLIE sarah

    Every film about a real person should not have to, and cannot, focus on every aspect of that person’s life. Filmmakers have every right to focus on the ways in which a man overcame a debilitating problem (stutterers would agree it’s debilitating, not minor as someone here callously suggested). Should every film about Roosevelt examine what he did or did not know about events in Europe at that time? Films have been made about his struggle with his physical problems, and that’s perfectly legitimate. C’mon.

  • Sam Negin

    Scott –

    Bravo to a brave man on a brave subject. Thank you for being one of the few true journalists out there with the chutzpa to put out the information that needs putting out without adding any spin to it and, more importantly, not appologizing for doing what needs to be done. If only there were more like you.

    Sam Negin

  • ssa

    I generally like your blog. However, I was troubled by your original post of the anti-semitism charges leveled against George VI and, by extension, The King’s Speech filmmakers, in an anonymous letter sent to you by a purported member of the academy. I was disturbed by your willingness to publish such sensational charges made by a source whose identity was unknown to you at the time (and still is unknown to you today). “Anonymous sources” are controversial in journalism. Traditional journalism has come down on the side of publishing information from sources who wish to remain anonymous to the reading/viewing public, but who are not allowed to remain anonymous to the journalist and his/her editor. The reason for this is quite simple – journalists must know their sources in order to assess and verify the information provided by their sources before they publish it (if for no other reason than to protect themselves from publishing libelous articles). By your own admission, you did not know the source of the letter you published. Without knowing your source, you could not possibly assess or verify the information he (or she) gave you. For these reasons, I thought you should not have published the anonymous letter or the information it contained.

    In today’s post you say that although you did not know your source for your initial post, “the information… checked out.” What information checked out? That George VI was anti-semitic? That TKS filmmakers knew George VI was anti-semitic and deliberately ignored it? That your anonymous source/academy member will not vote for TKS for these reasons? That numerous academy members (as claimed by your anonymous source) will not vote for TKS for these reasons? I do not see how any of this information could have “checked out.” First, the anti-semitism charge against George VI is based on one highly speculative article written eight years ago by the “society” editor of the Guardian, which does not constitute persuasive or even particularly credible historical evidence, let alone generally accepted historical fact. (In fact, there are virtually no other articles on this topic on the web.) Second, since the allegation that George VI was anti-semitic is not an established historical fact, then TKS filmmakers did not ignore or whitewash this spurious “fact” in their film. Third, since you do not know your source, you cannot know whether or not your source, or any other academy members, will withhold their votes from TKS due to this spurious charge against George VI and, by extension, against TKS filmmakers. Indeed, you do not even know that your anonymous source is, in fact, an academy voter.

    I don’t think you meant to harm TKS or its filmmakers, but, in fact, I think you did harm their reputations and Oscar prospects by (1) publishing a nasty allegation about George VI as if it was a well-known historical fact that the filmmakers deliberately ignored; and (2) publishing an anonymous letter claiming that numerous members of the academy will not vote for TKS precisely because its filmmakers deliberately ignored and/or whitewashed this spurious “fact.”

    In today’s post you say that failing to publish your anonymous letter and its charges would have been “journalistically irresponsible.” I think you are wrong about that -publishing the anonymous letter and its charges was journalistically irresponsible. Not publishing it would have been the responsible thing to do. You should have withheld publication until you knew the identity of your source and verified his (or her) allegations.

    I think you were in hot pursuit of a story and it muddled your thinking about your ethical duties as a journalist/blogger. I think traditional journalists have an advantage over bloggers – they have editors and publishers to remind them of their ethical duties; to engage them in ethical discussions in situations like this; to remind them that publishing negative information which they have not verified could result in a lawsuit for libel against both the journalist and his/her news organization; and ultimately, to say “no, we can’t publish that” to them.

    I sincerely hope that you have someone in your professional life who can serve as a sounding board for you in the future, so that you do not step into this type of hornets’ nest again.

  • Benjamin Freed

    First, Scott, whoever sent you that email is not Julian Assange. And you are not Bill Keller. That analogy is quite a stretch. But publishing it, much like most leaked documents betraying someone’s true sentiments, was the correct journalistic decision.

    That you have interviewed Colin Firth and Harvey Weinstein or chatted them up in a hallway is irrelevant to this argument. The group of people offended by the soft portrayal of George VI in “The Kings Speech”—and I would guess that there are far fewer in reality than suggested in the letter—sound like the same people who protest, for example, the use of racial slurs as satire in “Blazing Saddles” or more recently Robert Downey Jr.’s skewering of hardcore method acting in “Tropic Thunder.” I’ll admit those are extreme instances, but Hollywood is a dream factory. And the hallmark of many prestige biopics and historical dramas is to soften the subject’s nature to win audiences. At no point in “Ray” did we hear of Ray Charles’ children born out of wedlock. (There were about a dozen, I believe.)

    King George VI was at worst a cotton-mouthed bigot who openly dismissed the the plight of Jews in the Third Reich and at best a stuttering fool who gave little thought to persecuted Jews’ attempts to flee the Nazi regime for British Palestine. His brother, Edward VIII, became quite chummy with German leaders before and during his brief reign.

    All of this is absent from the film not to whitewash the moral wrongdoings of the House of Windsor, but to gussy up the film to make it more palatable for awards voters. “The King’s Speech”—the story of a sick royal being healed by the uncommon commoner—is the most blatant form of Oscar bait. The entire film, however charming, is entirely predictable. But that’s a knock on the director and writer. Firth’s performance is terrific and perhaps only with “A Single Man” has he done better. (Though I think Jeff Bridges’ turn in “Crazy Heart,” another predictable heap of Oscar lure, merited everything he won last year.)

    But Nazis, anti-Semitism, and World War II are afterthoughts in “The King’s Speech.” Were those details relevant to Bertie’s speech therapy and omitted, then we would all have plenty of reasons to dismiss the film. But they weren’t vital to the story, and thusly omitted. The war speech at the very end is just a simple denouement.

    It’s not about who you’re chummy with or even, in this case, what details are left out. Colin Firth gave the best performance in what will likely be one of the strongest Best Actor fields in a long time. That he gave it in a so-so picture that may have given his character a bit too much moral polish is less important. Hell, Kate Winslet was terrific in “The Reader,” and that movie was garbage.

    Chalk it up to the price of admission, but if I had a vote, it’d go to Firth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PreVayl Christopher Brandão

    Retarded it is only a damn film. If the guy was a asshole in real life, it renders irrelevant do to the fact that movies can only have so much truth. Do to the fact that when the real events happened for which the movie was based on, there was no camera fallowing every single person around, to know exactly what happened. Its a movie showing the problem and how is got solved, the details are irrelevant for any other reason other then just entertainment. Releasing the “breaking” news about the real King during the release of the movie would probably have a reverse affect on people. The movie probably would have gotten more attention, or not affect it at all point is. Would people care about the real king when the movie is JUST a movie, entertainment that entertained me. It did what it supposed to do.