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The British are coming? Decoding the ‘King’s Speech’ win

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If you were watching the Oscars on Sunday night, the narrative of ‘The King’s Speech’ beating ‘The Social Network’ played out on several levels. The Tom Hooper film won in four major categories -- best picture, director and actor, as well as in one of the two screenplay categories -- the first time since ‘American Beauty’ 11 years ago that a single movie walked away with that quartet of prizes.

If you were a follower of Hollywood politics, that kind of haul had a David-toppling-Goliath feel. This was a small film with a director whose lone previous feature grossed less than $1 million, and that starred the second lead from ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’ triumphing over a movie made by a major studio, directed by the filmmaker behind ‘Seven’ and penned by the creator of ‘The West Wing.’

But it was also hard to avoid a more cultural subplot in Sunday’s events: the British-ness of Oscar’s biggest prize.

The motion picture academy is sometimes perceived as favoring movies with a British tilt. But it doesn’t, in fact, show them that much love. Productions from across the pond can win at the Oscars, but despite a history of paying them respect, it hasn’t happened much in recent decades. Before ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in 2009, you actually have to go back to 1987 (‘The Last Emperor’) to find a best picture winner with mainly Britain-based producers. (One of the three ‘King’s Speech’ producers is Australian-born but is based in London.)

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‘The King’s Speech’ was also the first best picture winner in more than a decade to be set in England. (‘Shakespeare in Love’ last did it in 1999.)

And the ‘King’s Speech’ win on Sunday night marked the first time the academy chose for its best picture a movie that also won best British film at the BAFTAs (essentially the British Oscars) in the modern history of that organization.

But maybe more important than any of these statistical landmarks were the themes of ‘The King’s Speech.’ Though universal subjects such as loyalty and responsibility ran through the film, there was also an unmistakable British hue to the movie, what with its exploration of an evolving monarchy and its view of an British empire as the best bulwark against Nazism. (The point was highlighted backstage when an English journalist asked the producers if they were in fact monarchists; the question elicited an elaborate answer whose nuances were lost on many of the American journos in the room, this one included.)

This was, in the end, a season when movies with a distinctly American tone shone brightly for audiences. ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Black Swan’ took place in highly particular stateside settings and explored quintessentially American themes (the role of the underdog and the price of over-achievement). And that epitome of American stories, the redemption Western, was one of the season’s biggest hits. (‘True Grit’ tallied nearly $170 million in box office.) Yet the combined Oscar count for those movies was exactly three.

On top of that, of course, came ‘The Social Network’ losing out in its bid for best picture, a category in which a period movie about kings and prime ministers bested a story of Silicon Valley ambition.

There’s been much made in recent months about the rise of British actors in blockbusters, with performers from across the pond, such as Andrew Garfield and Henry Cavill, being cast as American superheroes. True, Sunday night was mainly about one film. But when it comes to heralding the arrival of things British, the academy is back to riding that horse.

-- Steven Zeitchik
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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Complete coverage: The Oscars


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