In the past, you might have thought that winning an Academy Award for Best Picture would be enough to save a movie from being censored by its own distributor. And you would have been right. Today, however, the Weinstein Company is releasing, to 1,000 theaters, a PG-13 version of The King’s Speech (a movie that in its original incarnation was rated R). If you go to see the new version, as I just did, here’s what you’re in for.
When the Duke of York, fed up with the rage and repression that have fueled his lifelong stutter, and goaded by his speech therapist (“Do you know the F-word?”), decides to let out his feelings by dropping a chain of F-bombs that would make Melissa Leo blush, the audience no longer hears the dramatic, and funny, and liberating sound of Colin Firth spitting out those fulminating “f—s” (which was still a very naughty thing to say if you were British, and living in the ’30s, and part of the royal monarchy). Instead, the word is said softly, and used exactly once (all that’s allowed under PG-13). The rest of the time, despite what Colin Firth’s lips may be saying, we hear “S—t! S—t! S—t!” Which, as I’m sure the ratings board would be the first to agree, doesn’t quite have the same ring. Later, just before the newly crowned king delivers his big World War II speech, he’s nervous, regressing back to his old stammer, and so he reaches into his bag of tricks, standing at mock attention in his medallioned uniform, mixing “f—” and “s—” and “bugger” into a little symphony of blasphemy. It’s a knockout of a scene – one of the best in the movie. Only now it’s not nearly as good as it was.
Before I get all righteous about why it was ever deemed desirable for a very fine, and popular, and critically lauded, and award-winning movie to be aesthetically smudged, if not in fact a wee bit neutered, let’s place the PG-13 King’s Speech in context. Every day on television, you see movies, often great ones, that have been chopped, trimmed, “cleaned up,” and re-edited by networks and distributors, often with the full cooperation of the films’ directors, all to soften or remove adult language, explicit sex scenes, and violence. For a long time now, it has been standard, when you’re in the middle of making a movie, to create different versions of it by letting the actors loop the dialogue several times, so as to have one version that’s suitable for the small screen. Strikingly, even a television series as landmark as The Sopranos has gotten the bad language bleached out of it for syndication. (Considering how much spicy Mob flavor there is in the way Tony Soprano and his cronies talk, I confess that I’ve always thought the cleaned-up version of The Sopranos plays surprisingly well.) So for anyone who owns a television set, it’s not as if this situation has ever been remotely pure.
Yet I think the Weinstein Company’s decision sets a precedent – a bad one – in several ways. The King’s Speech, a stiff-upper-lip British period piece, may not be the kind of movie that people associate with R-rated language (that’s part of what gives its salty scenes such punch). But if you plug into the psychological flow of the story, Colin Firth’s Duke blurting the ultimate naughty word is integral to what the movie is – to its forceful irony and power. This man, raised as a role model of propriety, has to trash his noble sense of language, of good behavior, to face down his stutter in order to become the leader he can be. He must defeat respectability to be elevated to the pinnacle of it. In a sense, he has to defeat being English. (That’s why his speech therapist/shrink/common-man friend is a “lowly” Australian.) Part of the greatness of Firth’s performance is that at the moments he’s cussing a blue streak, he puts you in touch with the war inside Bertie: that gentleman’s desire to smash his own gentility. That he has to go so far, flinging as much verbal mud as he can (and getting some of it on himself), is part of the film’s meaning.
In this case, though, the irony that really possesses me is that it’s Harvey Weinstein, one of the most creative and groundbreaking executives in the history of Hollywood, who has put his stamp of approval on this decision. Yes, he’s famous for trimming and reediting movies right under the noses of directors. Yet to do that to a film that has already found its place in the culture is something new. Certainly, Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, has let it be known (in an understated way) that he’s not happy.
A Weinstein Company press release claims that the new version of The King’s Speech is meant for young people – so that, say, a child who stutters would have the opportunity to see it and to be inspired by it. A noble sentiment, to be sure. Yet couldn’t that same kid’s parents just take him to the R-rated version? Or watch the film with him at home in its original form? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that the PG-13 King’s Speech is simply the Weinstein Company yanking a few more times on the udders of its Oscar cash cow. The TV ads are selling the PG-13 version as if it’s some new-and-improved product. And the newspaper ad features the slightly icky line: “The film that won Best Picture of the year is now the family event of the year.” Do the best pictures of the year really need to be subjected to the American “family-ization” of entertainment?
This is the same Harvey Weinstein who refused – rightly – to trim a sex scene in Blue Valentine in order to satisfy the bluenoses of the ratings board. Sure, he exploited that situation to drum up publicity. But how could that same freedom-fighter Harvey now turn into the post-Oscar Harvey Scissorhands? All to repackage, and compromise, a movie that represents his greatest victory since the glory days of Miramax? There’s no question that it was a business decision, but here’s why it’s a business decision I can’t understand. The Weinstein Company, like Miramax before it, is a brand that means something. The quality, and integrity, of the movies it distributes is the cornerstone of what the company’s name signifies in Hollywood. Is the gain in short-term profit via a PG-13 version of The King’s Speech really worth monkeying with the film’s essence?
The worst precedent that’s being set, I’m afraid, has to do with the TV-ization of the motion-picture experience. Sure, an edited version of The King’s Speech would have shown up on network, and no one, including me, would have blinked an eye at it. Yet we don’t blink an eye at that same film being interrupted by commercials, either, because that’s what we expect on the small screen. That’s how our pop culture evolved. The movie theater is different. It’s supposed to be the setting for a sacred experience – maybe not when you’re watching Hall Pass or Sucker Punch, but when you’re watching a movie like The King’s Speech, yes. Tidying up a film that has meant something to us, so that the total number of people who pay to see it grows a little bigger, is a goal that benefits no one (except a few accountants), and just feeds the perception that art – like any other product – can be wedged into a box of any shape. Movies should live in the dark as they were dreamed. Otherwise, we all might as well curse the darkness.
So does anyone plan on seeing the PG-13 version of The King’s Speech this weekend? What do you think of the whole idea? Is it tarnishing something sacred? Or am I making a mountain out of a cinematic molehill?