Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 02-07-11

The cast of “The King’s Speech”

The cast of “The King’s Speech”

“The Social Network’s” Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg

“The Social Network’s” Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg

Oscar outlook: The Oscar race is supposed to be about choosing the year’s best film, but it’s really more about voting for the movie Academy members liked most.

They actually should call it the Best Liked Picture Oscar.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. First of all, best is a very subjective word. There’s really no way to determine or define what’s best. In the end, it really comes down to what most people like most.

So that’s how we wind up electing the best president for the country and giving an Oscar to the year’s best picture. Sorry to say, we’re not always right, but let’s not go there.

From an Oscar marketer’s point of view, it’s much better to campaign to be the best liked than to try to convince people you’ve got the best movie. Whoever’s best at getting voters to like their movie most winds up with the very best awards season bonus check. Everybody else goes home to lick their wounds and get the best night’s sleep possible.

As things are going right now, The Weinstein Company’s British biographical drama “The King’s Speech” seems to be on track for a Best Picture win and likability on multiple levels is what’s fueling its success.

Unlike the former Best Picture front runner, Sony’s “The Social Network,” “King’s” benefits from having some very likable characters. We sympathize with Colin Firth as a British Monarch unable to do his job because of a dreadful stammer. We root for him — calling him by his nickname Bertie makes him more likable — to conquer his speech issues in time to help steer his country through the difficult years of World War II. We applaud Helena Bonham Carter as his Queen for going the extra mile to find her husband the professional help he desperately needs, but hasn’t been able to get. And we’re right behind Geoffrey Rush as the unconventional (and apparently unlicensed) speech therapist who ultimately gets the job done.

What’s there not to like here? Three outstanding actors in a well directed (by Tom Hooper) and well written (by David Seidler) film. It’s already brought Hooper the Directors Guild of America’s award. Seidler would probably have taken home the Writers Guild of America’s award if the WGA didn’t limit its awards to films made under WGA contracts. As a result, Saturday’s WGA award for best original screenplay went instead to Christopher Nolan for “Inception.” The Academy writers’ branch is likely to favor Seidler.

In contrast, “Social” is about a most unlikable protagonist. As much as I enjoyed the movie and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, this just isn’t a character who ranks high on a likability scale. I have no idea if the Real Zuckerberg’s anything like how he’s portrayed in the movie, but the Movie Zuckerberg fits the unflattering way in which his unhappy girlfriend famously describes him in the opening scene.

“Social’s” other principal characters are either hard to like (Edwardo Saverin and the Winklevoss Twins) or easy to dislike (Sean Parker). Edwardo and The Twins may have been screwed financially by Zuckerberg, but they’re portrayed as being so naïve and such shortsighted businessmen that they probably deserved what they got. And even if they deserved better, it’s still hard to like them as written and portrayed. As for Parker, this is a character who’s clearly not going to win any popularity contests.

So in a world where Oscar voters prefer likable characters in likable movies, “King’s” should wind up wearing the crown Feb. 27.

Heading down the homestretch, of course, things can always change, particularly if the marketing gurus playing the game start doing their jobs better or worse.

In the case of “King’s,” Harvey Weinstein is the ultimate Oscar campaigner and his sense of how to do the job is still better than anybody else’s on the planet. Harvey’s skill surfaced again last weekend with absolutely brilliant full page ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times that were headlined THE WORDS THAT RALLIED A NATION THE FILM THAT IS INSPIRING THE WORLD.

The ads show a full length vertical photo of Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth both looking great next to a full length vertical reproduction of Buckingham Palace stationery with the typewritten text of a speech to the British people delivered by Firth’s character, King George VI, at the start of World War II. The text includes handwritten editing in red ink to indicate points for the King to emphasize.

Because most Americans and, probably, many Oscar voters aren’t aware of George VI’s role in helping his subjects get through the rigors of World War II, this ad goes a long way towards telling that story. It works because it does so in a way that’s not packaged as a dull history lesson that no one would bother to read. Instead, it’s a reproduced document that we’re curious to see.

Had Harvey sent out a booklet called “A Brief History of George VI During World War II” people would have ignored it. But we look at this George VI speech because it’s displayed as a real Buckingham Palace document.

This quick history lesson about George VI makes his character in the film all the more likable because we have a sense of his noble intentions regarding his people.

News accounts have surfaced during this Oscar campaign suggesting that George VI may privately have endorsed Britain’s policy of appeasing Hitler as World War II loomed and some have questioned how he really felt about the Nazis. But none of that’s been proven and it hasn’t managed to tarnish Firth’s portrayal of the Monarch.

Saturday’s newspaper ads raised the film’s likability profile by reminding us about the real King. That should help at the boxoffice with moviegoers, who have already spent over $84 million to see the film. It also should help with Academy voters, who are inclined to like what guild voters (many of whom are also Academy members) like rather than what the critics like (mostly “Social” this year).

At the end of the day, Oscar’s Best Picture winner will be the film that Academy members like best.