The answer is in fact George Arliss, who won for playing the title role in the 1930 film Disraeli. The next, and more commonly known, English actor to achieve this feat was Charles Laughton as the eponymous King in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Subsequent male actors to win the coveted prize include Robert Donat as venerable Public School teacher Mr Chips, Laurence Olivier as Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, David Niven as Major Angus Pollock, Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi, and Jeremy Irons as Claus Von Bulow. The next man to win the award will be Colin Firth, this year, for playing King George VI.
Can you see what I’m getting at? Nine of the thirteen English recipients of this prize won the award playing either historical or fictional aristocratic or bourgeois figures, and it won’t be long before it’s ten out of fourteen. Of course it isn’t just a male actor thing (Judi Dench as Elizabeth I, Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II) nor is it a British speciality to win at the Golden Gong show playing a real person from world history (half of the last decade’s male winners won playing such characters, as did seven of the ten Best Actress winners), but it’s an interesting correlation nonetheless. It is impossible to be blind to the politics, lobbying and timing which invariably accompany the momentum that builds behind the eventual winner, but it is beyond argument that a certain type of character stands a demonstrably better chance of bagging the prize than others. It seems that the only characteristic more beloved of Academy voters than having existed in reality is the presence of some form of disability or impediment. The role of a stammering monarch, therefore, increasingly looks like a dead cert.
This shouldn’t, however, take anything away from a film as finely performed as The King’s Speech, nor do I wish to give the impression that the many accolades forthcoming for Colin Firth are in some way undeserved. On the contrary, the very fact that Firth is nominated again the year after he should’ve won the award (Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart over Firth in A Single Man, seriously?) in a role which historically has Oscar written all over it shouldn’t overshadow how utterly brilliant his acting is in the film. It’s a performance which effortlessly combines great technical precision with immense heart and emotional depth. Firth’s flawless vocal recreation of King George VI is matched by the way he exudes the nobility, imperiousness and grandeur of a British monarch, elements omnipresent in Firth’s aloof regal manner yet deliberately undermined by his defining vocal defect. Firth doesn’t shy away from rendering Bertie’s stammer infuriating, uncomfortable, and at times unbearable, but his great skill lies in simultaneously stimulating sympathy and affection for a potentially very alienating character. Our potential irritation by the stammer is turned by Firth into empathy for his vulnerability, allowing him to play a royal character, whose very historical and social standing threatens to make him distant and difficult to relate to, as a human being. By turns fiercely angry, fearfully vulnerable and intimately honest, Firth can convey the weight of Bertie’s intimidation and fear in a single glance, his reluctance towards accession in the way he wears a military uniform, and the pain in his character’s past as he sings to overcome his speech impediment. It’s a piece of acting which is heartfelt, tender and deeply provocative, simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking. The scene in which Bertie reveals the neglect and repression of his childhood, whilst delicately assembling an Airfix model, is both moving and haunting.
So Firth’s performance is a knock-out, but it still begs the question of why we’re fascinated with this kind of film character, and why Oscar regales them so regularly. In some ways it’s a lazy choice for the Academy since it is easier for a performance based upon a real-life model to be immediately impressive, especially those still in living memory. If an actor can vocally and physically replicate a real person, whilst avoiding degeneration into simple impersonation, we can very easily judge how effectively the mannerisms and behaviour of a recognisable entity have been captured. If we have knowledge of the original person and an actor successfully channels this knowledge into their performance we can swiftly sing its praises: but is the sensitive mimicry of a person whose many characteristics are pre-existing really more impressive than the creation of a subtle, nuanced and psychologically believable character from scratch, the only reference point the actor’s imagination?
There’s also the issue of humanising these people who exist solely in the way history and/or the media have presented them. I’ve talked about Firth’s emphasis on Bertie’s faults humanising a potentially inaccessible character (not just in terms of the stammer: also consider Bertie’s flashes of rage towards Logue provoked by their different social classes), but is it really Firth’s eyes that we see through in the film, or do we rather view his progression through Geoffrey Rush’s eyes? We can feel for Bertie, but the majority of the audience cannot truly understand the day-to-day difficulties of his speech impediment or the pressures of ascending to the throne, and it’s inherently difficult for a common audience to relate to a monarch. It can be argued that we relate to Firth, and via him to his character, but isn’t it more convincing to suggest that it’s the King’s relationship with a commoner, in this case the Australian Lionel Logue, that is really engaging us? Without the presence of a character much more socially and emotionally akin to the audience, we would surely feel much more like outsiders in a world of exclusive royal privilege. Logue, and not Bertie, is our emotional anchor, and his intimacy with Bertie grants us permission to enter the monarchy’s world effortlessly and empathetically. The same terms of dramatic and emotional association with the monarchy are present in Billy Connolly’s performance in Mrs Brown as the plain-speaking highlander John Brown, and Michael Sheen’s performance in The Queen as Tony Blair: a commoner albeit one elected into public service.
Finally, is there something inherent in the portrayal of aristocratic characters which plays upon the American perception of British actors, a kind of acceptable appreciation of their old colonial masters? Broadly speaking, the American dramatic ancestry and background is strongly rooted in film, whilst the British tradition is much more heavily theatrical. Portraying bourgeois personae, especially royalty, appeals to performance elements which are much closer to theatrical acting than film acting: clipped and precise diction, bold physical presence, grandiose manners of behaviour and communication, and elevation above existence in our accepted reality. These are elements of performance inbuilt in British actors but perhaps slightly distanced from American actors’ methods of dramatic interpretation, and so the Academy Awards recognise an engaging and powerful style in British theatrical performances on film which is culturally idiosyncratic, seemingly beyond American capabilities, and therefore dynamic and impressive. You need a sense of theatricality to capture both the austerity and the human factor of these roles, and Americans rarely display this theatricality, their equivalent performances to British actors portraying monarchs often seeming grand but emotionally reticent. Of course an American isn’t going to be able to play a British monarch, but they can play Presidents, and only two actors have ever been Oscar nominated for playing an American President: both actors played Richard Nixon, and only one of them was American (Anthony Hopkins being a Brit). We even play major figures in US history better than American actors.
So come Oscar night, when Firth triumphs over Bridges, Eisenberg, Bardem and Franco, remember this: whilst he’s playing a role beyond the ability of the other four nominees, and as such is destined to win, it’s nonetheless a stunning and moving performance which deserves recognition in its own right regardless of Academy voting trends and politics.