Monday, January 31, 2011

KING'S SPEECH GAGGED?... Weinsteins Court Censorship While Proclaiming Artistic Integrity

It's a conflicting time to be THE KING'S SPEECH. The film has recently racked up major awards and buzz just when it seemed like everything was going to be swept by that Facebook movie. It should be a time of joy. But then, THE KING'S SPEECH is being distributed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, a strange place to be in at any time. And how are the Weinsteins taking their new success - by cutting the wings off it's Golden Goose.

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story that announced the possibility of cutting some of the saucier words from THE KING'S SPEECH in order to cut the film down to a more consumer-friendly rating. The idea is that the Weinsteins would speak with the director Tom Hooper about cutting the film down a PG-13 or possibly even a PG-rating in the U.S.

Hooper has not supported cutting anything out of the film, but has mentioned that the Weinsteins were looking at possibly censoring the language in the film. Both Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush have been against any censorship in the film. No matter who they confer with, the final decision rests with the studio. If the Weinstein Company goes ahead with this, the film would not go into cinemas until after the Academy Awards.

Naturally, there is a lot here to comment on. In order to do this, and because I am incapable of keeping any of these articles simple, we must look at four things.


In the United Kingdom, THE KING'S SPEECH currently carries a rating of 12A, as voted on by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). That means that children under the age of 12 must be accompanied into the theatre by an adult. It is roughly the equivalent to the United States' PG-13 rating, only the age is one year lower. In the United States however, THE KING'S SPEECH has been given an R-rating. For our non-U.S. readers, that means no one under 17 is admitted without an adult.

THE KING'S SPEECH is actually not a very explicit film at all. The only reason it currently carries an R-rating is for several instances of cursing, all of which are important to the plot. In the film, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) tries to cure the speech impediment of the eventual King George VI (Colin Firth). One of the techniques he uses is for George to swear between his recitations of words, presumably so that the tongue has somewhere to go in places where it might normally stammer. It makes for a truly humorous sequence, and one that is important as the future king seeks to overcome his impairment.

Let's take a good look at the British rating system so that people can understand this further.

U - Suitable for all
PG - Parental Guidance. No age restriction, although some scenes may be inappropriate for young children.
12A/12 - Suitable for 12 years and over. Children under the age of 12 must be accompanied to the cinema by an adult. Children under the age of 12 are not allowed to rent or purchase 12-rated DVDs or videos.
15 - Suitable for 15 years and over. No one under the age of 15 admitted to the cinema, with or without adult supervision. Children under 15 may not rent or purchase 15-rated DVDs or videos.
18 - Suitable for adults only. No one under the age of 18 admitted to the cinema, with or without adult supervision. Children under 18 may not rent or purchase 18-rated DVDs or videos.
R18 - Restricted. To be shown only in specially licensed cinemas, or supplied only in licensed sex shops, and to adults of not less than 18 years. (source: British Board of Film Classification website)

Now, of course the more familiar Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system.

G - General Admission. No objectionable material.
PG - Parental Guidance. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned. No one under the age of 13 admitted without an adult.
R - Restricted. No one under the age of 17 admitted without an adult.
NC-17 - No One 17 and Under Admitted.

On first glance, the MPAA looks to be a more tolerant if less complex system. The only age markers are ages 13 and 17. Likewise, the British board begins eliminating access completely to children at age 15 and then again at 18. In the United States, a film needs to be rated the ultra-rare NC-17 in order to be completely off limits to those younger than 17 years of age.

So, score one for the USA? Not quite. THE KING'S SPEECH still has the much lighter 12A rating. Why is that? There are many things to take into account.

One is that the story presented in the THE KING'S SPEECH is one of national heritage. There is a local culture to the story, and thus a bit more of an understanding. Think that's an unfair assumption? Let's turn the tables then. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a film that strikes a cord with many people around the world. There is a deep, personal, even spiritual significance that comes with that film for many people. Hence, the film had no difficulty securing an R-rating in the United States, despite the fact that most of the running time is spent beating, whipping, kicking, torturing and finally crucifying the protagonist. The level of violence depicted in that film is something else. One of the only other types of films to compare it to is that of the horror film, particularly some of the more graphic films of recent years. Films like the SAW franchise have all had problems with the MPAA. The hopefully final installment in the series, SAW 3-D (retitled SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER for the rental market) had to be submitted then cut a whopping six times to avoid an NC-17 rating. No question, SAW 3-D is an astonishingly violent film. But THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST had no difficulty securing it's R-rating. What separates it from the SAW films, if not that feeling of historic or even spiritual iconography that some of the ratings board may have felt? America is not alone in this either. In other countries with more lax ratings laws, PASSION was released with an even less restrictive rating.

A second reason might seem at odds with the first - context. In the United States, some things are worthy of context while others are not. It is made plainly clear that the swearing in THE KING'S SPEECH is not only important to the plot, but harmless. The language is nothing more than a placeholder and is not meant to have any avarice, anger or abuse. This no doubt played an important role in securing THE KING'S SPEECH with a much lighter rating.

In the United States, context does not matter when it comes to language. If certain words are uttered more than once or twice than their R-rating is automatic. This might seem strange given the treatment of violence such as in the above example. Stranger still, check out Kirby Dick's documentary THIS FILM IS NOT RATED to see the shocking leniency heterosexual sex is treated over homosexual sex, or even the amount of wiggle room given to major studio productions over smaller independent films. There is a very large chasm, one too large to go into, even in an article as overblown as this.

I think we would all agree that cursing at someone and stabbing that person are two radically different things. And yet, there is a lot of leeway when it comes to film violence or sexuality. And yet, practically none when it comes to harsh language. Go figure.

If you want a real eye-opener, look at the back of a major Region 1 DVD. You won't see one rating there, you'll see three. The other ratings reflect the film's status in Canada, both in and out of Quebec. Take a movie like INCEPTION for instance. In the United States, it was given a PG-13 rating, which was expected. In most of Canada however, it was rated PG, without any age restriction. In Quebec, INCEPTION is rated G.


The Weinstein brothers are not new to this whole censorship game. Back when they ran Miramax, they cut various films to ribbons. If you ever followed by old articles on Horror Express from a few years back, you will see a pattern of growing frustration and rage as I read whatever they were up to next. They were constantly lightening the tone of certain film, even while they piled on as much gross-out humor as possible in the first two SCARY MOVIE films. One of the practices I was most frustrated with was their habit of buying up foreign films and recutting them. Sometimes, they recut them to dodge harsh MPAA ratings. Sometimes, they recut them to appeal to a wider audience, such as making a long movie much shorter and thus fitting in more showings per day. And sometimes, most confounding of all, they did it for no clear reason.

Look at Jaume Baloguero's DARKNESS, rendered completely incomprehensible in it's Weinstein cut. The Weinsteins had the film cut to reduce the film's violence but also to cut the film down to a shorter length. Hence, roughly fifteen minutes were cut out of what was already a pretty esoteric film. Moviegoers were confused and left the theatre angry. The uncut version was later released to DVD after the damage had already been done.

It wasn't just genre films either. For fear of receiving an NC-17 rating, the Weinstein's cut Giuseppe Tornatore's critically-acclaimed film MALENA. In it's native Italy, the film runs at least 17 minutes longer than it's U.S. counterpart. Most of what was cut involves sexual fantasies involving Monica Bellucci. And yet MALENA was one of the films that the Weinsteins proudly held up as one of their great artistic achievements that year. The uncut version has yet to be released to DVD within the United States.

They have tampered in other ways too. Remember LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL? When Miramax distributed the film in the U.S., it became one of the highest grossing foreign language films in American history. Not happy with the money the film had already brought in, the Weinsteins re-released the film in a dubbed version for moviegoers who had a paralyzing fear of subtitles. Unlike it's subtitled counterpart, the dubbed version of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL was met with derision from filmgoers and bombed at the box office. Which leads us to....


Ever try to convince a bunch of younger people to go see a film about a speech therapist who helps a future world leader overcome his stammer? I have and the laughter sort of stung a little.

But that's the issue at hand. THE KING'S SPEECH may be a very fine film. But it's not a film that is aimed at the youth market. There are some under 17's out there who have the patience and desire to see a film like THE KING'S SPEECH. If the MPAA made any sense at all, the film would have a less restrictive rating and getting it to them should be no problem. But unfortunately, the kids who are going to be truly excited to see THE KING'S SPEECH are not in the majority. No matter what the rating of the film, THE KING'S SPEECH will most appeal to adult audiences.

I grew up in the 1980s and was a fan of film ever since I can remember. My family was pretty shocked when I begged and pleaded to go see THE RIGHT STUFF, a film about America's space race that ran over three hours in length. Not only did I stay awake through the entire film, I absolutely loved it. None of my other friends had any desire to see it, as soon as they figured there were no lasers or aliens. Was I so much more evolved than my peers? Not really. I was just really into space when I was a kid. Hence, I was predisposed to enjoy it. It would be a number of years before I got around to watching more mature prestige productions from the time. I enjoyed OUT OF AFRICA when I was 25, I don't know if I would have when I was 10.

While I'm sure we would love it if young people took an interest in a film like THE KING'S SPEECH, it's not going to happen. It at least will not happen to the effect of bringing in tens of millions of dollars in added revenue. It just does not appeal to them right now. Hopefully, it will one day. And there the film will be, waiting for them. You may call this pure pessimism. But I just don't see millions of kids upset that they aren't allowed to see THE KING'S SPEECH because their parents won't let them. Likewise, I don't see throngs of teenagers lining up around the block, screaming, "King George FTW, yo!"


Let's suppose for a moment that censoring THE KING'S SPEECH would result in as much as $10 million in added revenue, it just isn't worth it.

The Weinsteins have had this weird relationship with art all their lives. There is no question that were it not for their work, many of our most beloved modern filmmakers would have never gotten a break. But at the same time, even as they have presented themselves as artistic icons, they have behaved as shrewd businesspeople, who need to turn a profit. And of course there's nothing wrong with that, unless it's at the expense of the very art one pretends to hold as sacred.

It is ironic that this controversy surrounds a film that centers around one's inability to speak. Now, there is a question of stifling George VI once again. How do you continue in proclaiming artistic integrity when you do not respect the art enough to speak for itself? You can't have it both ways, people. The MPAA made a ridiculous decision in insisting upon an R-rating. But it would be equally as ridiculous and many times more damaging if you inserted bleeps or silent pauses within the film in order to reach a wider audience.

Art embraces freedom. Censorship embraces commerce. But at what cost?

Let me speak directly to the Weinsteins for a moment (They're reading this, right? Of course they are.). No one is asking you to take a loss here. THE KING'S SPEECH has grossed over $60 million in the U.S., before the Academy Awards have even aired. The film has made back four times it's budget and it's still climbing. Since going wide, it has kept people coming for more. Not bad for a film whose climax is a guy reading. Do you really think censoring this film which you worked so hard to bring to the masses will fare that much better in a censored version. And will it be worth sacrificing what you have accomplished to bring in that much more?

If it is then I'm afraid you have learned nothing. Your trigger-happy censors which helped sew animosity towards you in the film community are part of what led to your departure and the ultimate destruction of Miramax. And you still have not learned your lesson. Already, the knives are out. Critics, writers and people within the film community have expressed outrage at this decision, and remember you still need to work with these people.

And yet, I fear that by merely entertaining the notion of censoring this film, you have already shown your true colors. Your decision will likely be based more on greed than integrity.

Take a note from your own film, and let King George speak for himself.

Special thanks to Dark Horizons for helping bring this issue to my attention.

1 comment:

  1. This is an incredibly stupid idea. I'll never understand how swearing is supposed to be more damaging than people being blow to bits and softcore porn, especially in a film which, as you said, isn't even meant to appeal to the younger audiences they want to cut it for.

    For motivation - greed aside - as much as I want to place blame on the "kids should rule everything" madness in the US, I'm also inclined to blame hipster parents who think their precious little crotchfruit are magically mature enough to want to see everything their parents do. And just because maybe a couple dozen of these people exist, it's naturally a demographic to pounce on and cater to. Bullshit. Hire a babysitter to look after your fashion accessory and watch a film that hasn't been dumbed down for them as well as for everyone else. Feh.