With three guild wins, The King’s Speech heats up Oscar race

The Director’s Guild of America stunned the blogosphere when it bestowed Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech with its Best Director prize on January 29. Heavily favored  by most awards pundits was David Fincher, director of The Social Network, whose Oscar campaign appears to be losing steam by the day. Hooper’s win was regarded by most commentators as a seismic shift in the race for Best Picture, with many calling The King’s Speech a clear frontrunner.

Granted, part of the fun of awards season are the moments of unpredictability. It is hard to characterize a constantly changing voting body exclusively by the decisions it has made in the past. Academy decisions can seem arbitrary and downright confusing, though it seems we never tire of speculating about the Oscars. And though there are eight other nominees, The Social Network and The King’s Speech are the only two to have won major precursors. Thus, the media has quickly turned this into a two-horse race.

And The King’s Speech’s momentum has grown substantially. Hooper’s film also won at the Producer’s Guild Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards. This was an unexpected turn, as many presumed The Social Network would dominate after receiving numerous critics’ awards and topping many year-end top 10 lists. It seemed to cruise to a Golden Globe win for Best Picture, a prestigious honor that is also deceptively unimportant when it comes to the Oscar race.

The Golden Globe for Best Picture has a spotty predictive history with the Academy. Globe winners as recent as Avatar, Atonement, Babel, Brokeback Mountain, and The Aviator failed to repeat at the Academy Awards. Unlike SAG, DGA, and PGA, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which determines the Golden Globes, has no membership overlap with the Academy.

Guilds are comprised of members of the industry, whose fingers are almost always closer to the pulse of Hollywood than critical bodies like the Golden Globes. No Golden Globe winner in the past 20 years has gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars without being endorsed by at least one of these guilds — The Social Network would be an unprecedented winner.

However, perhaps SAG, PGA, and DGA’s decisions betray a deeper conservatism that permeates the most august corners of Hollywood — an unabashed love of old-fashioned filmmaking and a hesitancy to embrace edgier fare.

The King’s Speech, an old-school adversity story about King George VI’s efforts to overcome his stammer, is by all definitions a classic piece of Oscar bait. The pedigreed cast and feel-good material (not to mention its prime location at the beginning of World War II) makes it exactly the type of film the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences goes nuts for.

Stagey period drama is an Oscar mainstay (think Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient) and The King’s Speech even won over critics who may have become cynical about stuffy period work. By most accounts, it is a vibrant and thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema, by any standards.

On the other hand, The Social Network, the story of Facebook’s founding, is rife with slimy techies who guzzle appletinis and demonstrate less loyalty than Benedict Arnold. The characters engage in quick, backstabbing courtroom banter, squabbling over billions like the whiny, entitled children they are. Its brilliant portrayal is perhaps too honest for Oscar: Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers and other critics insist that it “sums up the spirit of a generation.”

If that spirit is characterized by a simple lack of values, Oscar might not be ready to embrace it. And frankly, the innovation of its characters is overwhelmed by their sheer detestibility. Granted, the AMPAS has fawned over corrupt and spineless cultures in the past, but often within the context of a mobster or western fantasy. The Social Network then could be a little too honest, recent, and specific to our times.

The Social Network may be a searing statement piece, but the loveliness of The King’s Speech can’t be denied. It received 12 Oscar nominations this year, more than any other film in competition, and four more than The Social Network’s eight. This disparity is made greater by the nominations Fincher’s film did not receive, like Best Supporting Actor honors for Andrew Garfield (who was nominated for most precursors).

It could be a clear sign that the odds are in Hooper’s favor for the big prize. Though, as the cliche goes, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

The 83rd Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 27, 2011 at 8 p.m. and are televised on ABC.