Oscar’s Cultural Stump: ‘The Social Network’ vs. ‘The King’s Speech’

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (left) and Colin Firth in The King’s Speech
Photo: Columbia Pictures / The Weinstein Co.

The Oscar race isn’t over by any stretch, yet the current conversation of the moment is focused squarely on the top two contenders for Best Picture, the two films I noted in my most recent predictions article: The Social Network and The King’s Speech. The conversation is not whether one film is more deserving than the other, it’s something much more cultural, and should the conversation continue the Academy will most likely fall in line.

Jeff Wells summed it up quite well in his piece “Zuckerberg vs. King George” when he wrote “to give [the Best Picture Oscar] to The King’s Speech would, no offense to Harvey Weinstein and Tom Hooper, constitute a huge backslide and a cultural capitulation to middle-of-the-road cinematic values.” He’s right and his reasoning is the exact reason I placed King’s Speech at the top of my Best Picture prediction chart. It’s a fact I wrote about specifically in my predictions write up saying “[The Social Network] speaks squarely to the heart of the Gen-Y crowd” and The King’s Speech is “the one film that’s right up the Academy’s alley.” That last aspect of my most obvious analysis is something even Wells agreed with while disagreeing with me at the same time writing, “Okay, he’s not wrong when it comes to the over-50 set [in the Academy].”

Tom O’Neil at the Los Angeles Times weighed in on the issue this morning saying, “The Social Network has a quality that gives it an edge in the current derby: It reflects the national zeitgeist during this Age of Facebook… Oscar voters want their best pictures to say something important about our times.” He has a point, though I’d argue The Social Network doesn’t necessarily “say” anything about our times as much as it focuses on a rather obvious aspect of them.

So would The Social Network be all that much of an advancement in cinematic values as Wells seems to believe? Wells ends the piece I referenced earlier saying, “A ‘no’ vote for The Social Network doesn’t mean you’re clueless or moribund or lacking in taste, hardly — but it does sorta kinda mean that the 21st Century way of seeing and processing life hasn’t exactly gotten through to you and yours, and that you’re basically looking more to the past than to the future to fill your plate.” Kind of an interesting stance considering The Social Network is being compared to 1942 Best Picture Oscar loser, Citizen Kane in every corner. Perhaps a Social Network win would serve as a 58 year righting of a wrong. Rather progressive eh?

However, Wells’s statement does offer an interesting perspective, adding yet another bullet point in the “What does it mean to be Oscar’s Best Picture?” conversation. We already know that not only does a film need to be good, but sometimes it deserves the Oscar for other reasons such as Scorsese’s lifetime achievement for The Departed or the recognition of a trilogy with Return of the King for instance. But now we can add cultural and cinematic duty among many other factors we won’t get into here.

Personally, I like the “cultural and cinematic” card, such consideration would have earned The Dark Knight a nomination (and perhaps even a win) over such films as The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk. It would have earned WALL•E a nomination. It would define the Academy and the Oscars as progressive rather than regressive and stagnant.

The past few years of Oscar predictions have become quite boring as the conversation leading up to the show pretty much dictated the winners. Could it be the same again as the Social Network crowd reaches a fevered pitch? Ticket sales this weekend will certainly add a new twist to the story and another bullet point for the conversation to focus on.

However, true cinematic advancement in the Best Picture field won’t come with a Social Network win. Something like Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller Black Swan or Christopher Nolan’s Inception would mark an actual step forward. Will Nolan get the requisite “he deserved it” Oscar for Batman 3 diminishing its cultural and cinematic significance? And when will one of Aronofsky’s forward-thinking features get the recognition it deserves? Will an animated film ever win Best Picture? Oscar pundits wanting to crank the dial need start pushing films and decisions that truly change the landscape. If this is the stump they’re standing on they need to take a risk in their support.

The Social Network winning doesn’t do much to move the dial forward, but I can agree it means we’re not turning it back. There are other films out there that could take home the hardware and turn the cinematic value to 11 where a Social Network win keeps it right around 6 or 7.