Watching The King's Speech in a Room Full of Actors

· Joanthan Poritsky

Last night, I attended a screening of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. After the film, Mr. Hooper, Claire Bloom, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth were all on hand for a Q&A session moderated by Elvis Mitchell. I was able to go because, besides being a film journo of sorts, I am also on the mailing list of an organization called Below the Line, which offers cinema perks to lower-rung film industry workers. (I work in post production when I’m not writing about films.)

The BTL screenings I’ve been to before have been pretty small and generally cozy. I was curious how this little known group could fill up the palatial Ziegfeld. Apparently, this screening was mostly for card carrying members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG filled up the bulk of the seats, while the BTL gang filled in the gaps.

I work in the film industry and I see it from many different angles. Anyone who has the mettle to eek out a living in this business is okay by me. There is very little glamour going around; we all have to eat. But there is something about a room full of actors that amplifies a number of stereotypes about them. A silliness, a vacuousness. When the lights went down and the film came up, I found almost immediately that I chose the worst possible film to see surrounded with this lot.

The King’s Speech not only features a handful of great performances, but it is about performance itself. This is emphasized immediately; the film opens with a broadcaster readying his vocal chords by gargling and mumbling tongue twisters in front of a massive microphone. The process, it seems, is the thing. Very quickly, scarlet walled theater felt like a corporate event, say, a lawyer convention with a comic announcing “a good start!” up on stage.

It felt like when, in Funny People, James Taylor calls out to a crowd of Myspace employees “Fuck Facebook!” There is a moment in The King’s Speech when Michael Gambon, as King George V, sets up a joke that with the advent of radio the King is becoming something far worse than a mere figurehead, he was becoming an actor. The crowd ate this up, laughing long enough to stomp on a few lines. Some, it seemed, tried to outdo one another with louder laughter, some hand claps, going big with the reaction. The joke, it seems, was on them.

The worst, and I have been kind up until now, came when Elvis Mitchell opened up to the audience for questions after warming up the talent on stage. Public Q & A sessions are an audience draw, but handing the mic out at random can be a dreadful experience, you never know who you’re going to get. The person who shot his hand up first was sitting in the front row, so Elvis trotted the mic over to him. As is often the case, the man opened not with a question, but with a lengthy pronouncement. This, unquestionably, was the worst one I’ve heard yet, and the speaker should be embarrassed and ashamed of himself:

“First of all, to Colin Firth, great great work. That was such an amazing performance. you’ve made my decision very easy when it comes time to vote for the SAG best male performance. Also, I’ve worked with you before and I noticed how nice to me you were and I thought ‘Why is he being so nice to me? I’m just a nobody.’ but you really were. Just great. But my question…Oh! And Tom Hooper, great direction, really really wonderful. I hope we get to work together someday soon.”

To his credit, at that moment, with the crowd releasing an agonizing grown, Elvis Mitchell made a motion to grab for the microphone. He almost took it back and made it clear to this character that he’d better stop grovelling for work and ask a question. And so he asked about how Colin Firth prepared for the role. And so did the next person. And so did the person after that.

What’s annoying is that on the first go, Colin roundly answered the question of how he played a stammering king. he explained how he was interested in Prince Albert’s life as a conflicted man, and noted that the internal struggle of any man is no different no matter the time period. (He also caddishly mentioned that he has some experience playing British gentry.) If you ask me, this is golden advice to budding actors, but they all seemed so obsessed with the plasticity of his performance. “How did you learn to stammer?” The brilliance of Firth’s performance is not that he figured out how to stammer, but that he gave voice to a man through the stammer. There is no question of Bertie’s (as he goes by in the film) strength as a leader, and yet his most important duty, to speak to his people at a time of war, is nigh impossible given his vocal flaw. To balance such raw power with open vulnerability is extremely difficult. To stammer, not so much.

All told, I enjoyed the film even if the crowd was a bit goofy. Not all actors make for a bad audience. The ones on stage, for example, seemed to be fine company indeed.