Forget the Critics; Here’s Why Oscar’s Voters Liked ‘King’s Speech’ Best

Analysis: Oscar season is long, the road is uneven but Tom Hooper’s royal drama came out on top — even after losing eight of the first nine categories in which it was nominated

Last Updated: February 27, 2011 @ 10:30 PM

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ANALYSIS

It wasn't a sweep by any means. In fact, if you go by the numbers, it wasn't even that impressive a showing.

But in the end, after critics' awards and momentum swings and dueling pundits, it came down to one very simple factor: The Academy's near-6,000 voters cast their ballots for the movie they liked best.

Sometimes — often, in recent years — the movie they liked best has been the movie the critics liked best. But this year, even as all the critics' groups told them they were wrong and naysayers screamed that they were returning to the old, conservative Academy, they liked "The King's Speech" best.

Tom Hooper's royal drama started the night losing eight of the first nine categories in which it was nominated, with only a win for David Seidler's original screenplay keeping it in the game.

But two hours and 40 minutes into the show, Hooper won Best Director. Then Colin Firth won Best Actor. And then "The King's Speech" took home the big one, as Steven Spielberg announced that Academy voters had chosen it as the Best Picture of 2010.

The win was the culmination of a path begun when the film screened at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in September, drawing immediate raves (yes, most critics liked it, even  if they liked "The Social Network" better) and immediate talk of Oscars.

But Oscar season is long, the road was uneven and "The King's Speech" came out on top for several reasons:

First, it had the right materials. The film tells a classy story of struggle against infirmity and obstacles against a canvas of war. It has a trio of acclaimed actors, including one who was due after a distinguished career and a Best Actor loss last year. It has English accents, and beautiful costumes.

And while the ingredients may have seemed stuffy and calculated on paper, they didn't play that way on the screen. Hooper showed a light touch, emphasized humor, and shot the film in a way that wasn't traditional or staid. 

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the film had a great narrative. A young boy grows up a stutterer in England, finds a hero in King George VI, wants to turn the story into a screenplay, is asked by the Queen Mother not to do so during her lifetime, waits 20 years, and finally gets his chance. 

And it had people who were articulate and could sell that narrative. Both Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler were charming spokesmen for the movie; both worked incessantly telling the story, and both told it well.

Then, when "The Social Network" began winning one critics award after another, "The King's Speech" knew when to lay back and let the Facebook movie have its moments. The Weinstein Co. didn't release the film until late November (limited) and Christmas (wide), by which point "The Social Network" seemed to have a real head of steam given it by a near-unanimous string of critics' awards.

He transformed Oscar campaigning in the 1990s at Miramax, and Weinstein knew what to do with a film like "The King's Speech." He knew when to show it and build up good word-of-mouth, and he knew that when "The Social Network" had its streak that made it the frontrunner, he had an ace in the hole: Critics don't vote for the Oscars.

The real test, the "King's Speech" camp knew, would come when the Hollywood guilds began voting. Sure, all those Best-of-2010 honors would help persuade the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to give "The Social Network" the Golden Globe for Best Drama – but Academy voters, like their colleagues in the Directors and Writers and Producers and Screen Actors Guilds, do not take their marching orders from the critics – even if, in recent years, their choices have often coincided.

"The King's Speech" also knew when to answer its critics and when to ignore them. Seidler made an eloquent defense against claims that its subject was anti-Semitic, and the charges never stuck. British writer and anti-monarchist Christopher Hitchens mounted an eleventh-hour assault on the film, but few in the Academy paid attention.

It was a low-key campaign that used the hard-working Hooper and Seidler and the ever-charming Firth, and found an apt tagline in "Find Your Voice." And unlike "The Social Network," which sometimes seemed to act as if it deserved to win, "The King's Speech" was rarely caught flaunting its position when it surged back into frontrunner status.

Now, that's not to say that Oscar voters embraced the film across the board: one of the lessons of Sunday's Oscar show is that voters dismissed the notion of any kind of sweep, and dismissed it right away. "Alice in Wonderland" won for its art direction and costumes and "Inception" took the cinematography award early in the evening; when "The Social Network" scored one slight upset (for Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' score) in addition to its expected wins for editing and Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, you had to wonder if "The King's Speech" camp was getting nervous.

Then again, you could have wondered the same thing when "Social Network" won the critics prizes, or when it took the top Golden Globe, or when Fincher went into the DGA Awards a major favorite. Each time, "The King's Speech" was waiting in the wings, ready to assert one thing:

They like us best.