'King's Speech' rules obvious batch of Oscar bait
LOS ANGELES — This Academy Awards season seems all over but the coronation.
"The King's Speech" won top prizes over the weekend from Hollywood actors and directors, securing its standing as the film to beat at the Feb. 27 Oscars, whose winners mostly look like foregone conclusions.
Front-runners coasted to victory at Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards — lead performers Colin Firth as Queen Elizabeth II's stuttering dad in "The King's Speech" and Natalie Portman as a ballerina going off her rocker in "Black Swan," plus supporting players Christian Bale as a boxer on the skids and Melissa Leo as his doting but domineering mother in "The Fighter."
"The King's Speech" also won the SAG award for overall acting ensemble. A day earlier, the film was an upset winner at the Directors Guild of America Awards, where its filmmaker Tom Hooper triumphed over David Fincher, who had been considered the favorite for "The Social Network."
While Fincher's Facebook chronicle dominated at the Golden Globes and critics' awards early in the season, momentum abruptly shifted to "The King's Speech" in barely a week.
"I'd like to thank security for letting me into the building," Firth said as he accepted his SAG trophy.
His joke points up how quickly "The King's Speech" usurped front-runner status from "The Social Network," which appeared to have a smooth ride toward a best-picture and director win at the Oscars.
The previous weekend, "The King's Speech" was a surprise recipient for the top award from the Producers Guild of America. Last Tuesday, the film led Oscar contenders with 12 nominations.
The directors and actors guild honors, the last major ceremonies before the Oscars, may have sealed the deal for "The King's Speech" at Hollywood's biggest party.
Only six times in the 62-year history of the Directors Guild awards has the winner there failed to go on to claim the best-director Oscar. And whatever film claims best director at the Oscars usually takes best picture, too.
All four Screen Actors recipients preceded their wins with Golden Globes and are safe bets to pick up Oscars. Firth and Bale have appeared unbeatable almost from the moment their films began screening for critics and Hollywood insiders.
If there's room for surprises at the Oscars, it's likely in the actress categories.
Portman faces tough competition from Annette Bening as a stern lesbian mom in "The Kids Are All Right." Bening's a beloved figure in Hollywood who has been nominated for Oscars three times previously without winning, so she might have a shot.
And the supporting-actress lineup includes a dazzling performance from 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in her screen debut as a girl who hires a boozy lawman to track her father's killer in the Western "True Grit." This is the one Oscar category where teens and preteens have shone, with past wins by 16-year-old Patty Duke ("The Miracle Worker"), 11-year-old Anna Paquin ("The Piano") and 10-year-old Tatum O'Neal ("Paper Moon").
But at age 50, Leo somehow has become a fresh-faced darling in Hollywood despite a decades-long career. She had early success on TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street" in the 1990s and now has caught a second wind at an age when many actresses find roles scarce.
Leo, an Oscar nominee two years ago for "Frozen River, was speechless for a long moment after taking the stage at the SAG Awards.
"I'm much better when I have my words written for me and somebody's costumes to put on," Leo said. "This has been an extraordinary season for me."
Predictable though the awards may be, there still was room for spontaneity Sunday night. As Bale came on stage to collect his SAG Award, his real-life counterpart — former boxer Dicky Eklund, whom he plays in "The Fighter" — popped up at his side.
Eklund's career unraveled amid drugs and crime, yet as Bale's exuberant performance makes clear, the man is an irrepressible showman.
"Thank you for living the life, and thank you for letting me play you. You're a real gentleman," Bale told Eklund. "I like you now."
The 6,000 Oscar voters probably will like Bale's Eklund, along with Firth, Portman and Leo's characters, and that grand, uplifting story "The King's Speech" lays out.
Geoffrey Rush, a supporting-actor nominee as the monarch's wily therapist in "The King's Speech," said his film showcases momentous oratory for modern audiences accustomed to pithy sound bytes. "The King's Speech" builds tension as George VI struggles to find words to inspire his countrymen on the eve of World War II.
"It's so great to hear a speech that kind of galvanizes the psyche of a country," Rush said backstage at the SAG Awards, alongside Firth and supporting-actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the king's devoted queen.
Come Oscar night, it looks as though there will be a lot of speeches inspired by that tongue-tied king.