Shame was all over the place at The Oscars: Anne Hathaway trying too hard; James Franco not trying hard enough; dead Bob Hope getting more laughs than the live hosts.
And then there was the parade of unflattering gowns and hairstyles, along with the yearly close-ups of losers who probably aren't thanking the winners for saying, "I'm so honored to be in this category with you. You're amazing!"
But shame is also a key to the evening's last award.
Justified scorn for the schizoid and boring evening has been accompanied by grumbling about The King's Speech. It's been dissed as "an unbuttered scone," "old-fashioned" and invidiously compared to other nominees. One film critic dismissed its fans as people entering the theater via the disabled ramp, on wheelchairs. Another not only dubbed the film mediocre, she attended the ceremonies hoping she could watch the movie "go down in flames."
No, it's not edgy like The Black Swan, but it's deeply disturbing and more complex than the naysayers understand or perhaps can admit.
At its heart is one of the most profound human emotions: shame. Shame is innate and in its grip we feel utterly exposed and worthless, plunged into a whirlpool with no escape. As shame theorists have noted, it takes various forms like embarrassment, shyness and guilt. It can motivate social outrage and change -- look at how much shame comes up in North African discussions of living under dictators -- but its toxic effect on self-esteem makes it a sickness of the soul.
That's what we see beautifully and unforgettably portrayed in The King's Speech: the power of shame to leave anyone, even a King, feeling flayed alive in public and in private -- hopeless, helpless, irrevocably flawed. Here the specific catalyst is stuttering which doesn't just cripple the King, but paralyzes people around him. Shame is contagious; watching someone else in the grip of this emotion can make you cringe and some people defend against it by looking down on the source of that shame.
Yes, there's plenty of humor in the film, but what it does best is highlight shame and show a man struggling to triumph over it. It may not be Moby Dick, but it's an amazing voyage all the same.
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