Reader alert: This story quotes quite a few four-letter words, all of them spoken by a future King of England. Some readers may wish to skip the dialogue section after the next boldfaced advisory.
His elocution teacher worked with George VI to clarify the King’s speech, to unlock his ability to talk to his subjects with ease and power. Now the Weinstein Co., in tandem with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has sanitized The King’s Speech. And all so the tweens of America could see Britain’s verbally victorious wartime monarch conquer the stammering problem, without the brief pollution of one vulgar word (begins with F, rhymes with duck) used 12 times in a single, crucial scene.
The King’s Speech — which won Oscars for Best Picture, director Tom Hooper, actor Colin Firth and original-screenplay author David Seidler — has earned more than $135 million at theaters in the U.S. and Canada since its premiere last November. But the two countries exercised different standards as to who could attend the film. In Canada it was rated “13,” meaning that anyone 13 or older could see it, alone, no questions asked. In the U.S., however; the R (restricted) rating is meant to refuse admittance to anyone under 17 not accompanied by an adult guardian. Bookish preteens, eager to know how a British monarch learned to speak up against Hitler, had to petition their parents (or an adult stranger loitering outside the local multiplex) to see the year’s Best Picture.
The MPAA has long been a bane of critics, indie filmmakers and other grownups who charge the group with being biased in favor of big studios and against the little guy and with being prurient about violence and prudish about sex. The Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein has often fought the group over its harsh ratings of his more adult films; late last year he persuaded the MPAA to soften its rating of his Blue Valentine from an NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted) to an R. Now he finds himself castigated for an uncharacteristic outbreak of timidity, or greed, or concern for the ears of 12-year-olds — all of whom, we’re guessing, have used or heard the words at issue.
The big movie studios fight and wheedle to get a family-friendly PG-13 rating (“Some material may not be suitable for children under 13″) for their expensive films because that’s where the money is. Of the top 75 box-office winners of all time, only two — The Passion of the Christ in 15th place, and The Hangover at No. 49 — were rated R. The King’s Speech has already spoken for itself: $375 million at the worldwide box office, on a production budget of just $15 million. But Weinstein must have steamed that his mild-mannered, stateliest-home inspirational drama carried the same rating as gross-out horror films like Saw and My Bloody Valentine 3D. So he constructed an amended version with the naughty bits blotted out. The F word, which Firth spits out a dozen times in the original, is now whispered just once and otherwise is replaced with an excremental expletive (“shit”) deemed less harsh to sensitive ears.
This artistic, or rather commercial, license annoyed Firth, who on Oscar night told reporters, “I don’t support it. I think the film has integrity as it stands. I think that scene belongs where it is. I think it serves a purpose.” The cut version also stoked spasms of outrage in the college of critics. “For the benefit of a teensy portion of the population,” wrote John Serba of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press, “the artistic vision of director Tom Hooper is compromised …” Roger Ebert tweeted, “Today is the last day you can see ‘The King’s Speech’ with the F word. F**k!” Note that in railing against the bowdlerizing of the film’s language, Ebert censored himself. (And yes, I know that Ebert’s comment was also a joke.)
The Naughty Bits
What, for the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film, is the scene in dispute? It takes place in the consulting room of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the teacher entrusted with correcting the stammer of his royal patient (Firth). Noticing that his disability disappears in moments of rage, Logue encourages Bertie, as the prince is familiarly known, to let loose with a few four-letter words. Here is the exchange, as recorded by the Internet Movie Database, and again with an advisory for the language.
Lionel Logue: You don’t stammer when you swear.
Bertie: Oh, bugger off!
Logue: Is that the best you can do?
Bertie: Well — bloody bugger to you, you beastly bastard.
Logue: Oh, a public-school prig could do better than that.
Bertie: Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!
Logue: Defecation flows trippingly from the tongue!
Bertie: Because I’m angry!
Logue: Do you know the word?
Bertie: F … f … fornication?
Logue: Oh, Bertie.
Bertie: Fuck. Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck and fuck! Fuck, fuck and bugger! Bugger, bugger, buggerty buggerty buggerty, fuck, fuck, arse!
Bertie: Balls, balls …
Logue: You see, not a hesitation!
Bertie: … fuckity, shit, shit, fuck and willy. Willy, shit and fuck and — tits.
It is the film’s signal moment of triumph, similar to Henry Higgins’ breakthrough with the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. (“By George,” Logue may as well say, “I think he’s got it!”) The actual words Bertie spumes, like Eliza’s “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” mean little; they are the sounds of elocutional and emotional liberation. But the F word gives propulsive force to Bertie’s frustration; it has the salutary comic snap lacking in an S word. And by uttering the ultimate vulgarism, Bertie begins to understand that a volley of obscenity can blow away the cobwebs of euphemism and misdirection that have accumulated around the royal rhetoric he’s been schooled in. He need not be separated from his subjects by language. The people’s rough speech can, for occasional cleansing purposes, be the King’s.
But if that speech includes the many uses of the F word — employed, however fleetingly, in this utterly justifiable context — the movie that cites it will be rated R. The MPAA, which serves as the film industry’s censor, typically allows one or two uses of the most common obscenity in a picture with a PG-13 rating; never mind that plenty of movies, from any Adam Sandler comedy to action films like Battle Los Angeles, The Green Hornet and Sucker Punch, boast a crude, lurid tone that The King’s Speech scrupulously avoids. That’s a distinction observed by censor boards in other countries. A 12-year-old in Ireland or Australia can see the film, and in the King’s homeland, the original rating of “15″ (the age a moviegoer had to be to see the film) was eased to “12″ on appeal. But the MPAA’s law is one observed in letter, not in spirit; The King’s Speech broke the bad-language law and would have to pay for it — unless the F bombs were defused.