I read recently in Time magazine that the 2011 Oscar race for Best Picture might be a done deal: The King’s Speech is the one to beat. It’s a period film about how George VI, King-Emperor of the British Empire, overcame a crippling stammer, with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, and led the country through World War II.
Oscar certainly loves films about British royalty. Several years ago, Dame Helen Mirren won an Academy Award for a dead-accurate impersonation of George VI’s daughter, Elizabeth II, in The Queen. As Elizabeth I in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Cate Blanchett received two of her five nominations. Dame Judi Dench, a first-time nominee in 1998 for her Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, got her Oscar the following year for an eight-minute Elizabeth I lampoon in Shakespeare in Love. And the late Nigel Hawthorne came close to getting his own Oscar after portraying the titular monarch in The Madness of King George (for which Mirren, who played George III’s devoted Queen Charlotte, also was nominated).
So even if a Best Picture win isn’t the film’s destiny, a Best Actor nomination is practically guaranteed for 2010 A Single Man nominee Colin Firth, who plays George VI in The King’s Speech. History is on his side, and so is the movie’s trailer. In it, George VI’s vocal shortcoming is played partly for laughs, but there’s nothing funny about opening your mouth and blowing out only hot air.
I know. Like George, I’m a life-long stutterer. According to the Stuttering Foundation of America, so are three million of my fellow Americans (roughly 1 per cent of the U.S. population), including Carly Simon, James Earl Jones and country star Mel Tillis. Some sources claim that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, George VI’s World War II contemporary, also stuttered; others insist that he merely spoke with a lisp.
While I have no idea what it’s like to suddenly go mute while addressing an entire nation, I’ve had my own smaller-scale embarrassments. A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a group of friends, and I had something important — or at least relevant to what we were discussing — to share. I opened up my mouth, and nothing came out. Everyone at the table was looking at me, politely, expectantly, and with just a touch of concern. The more they stared, the more I panicked. Nothing was coming out! I started coughing. I figured I’d pretend that something was caught in my throat.
I’ve been pulling little ploys like that one since second grade. Before then, I refused to even speak in school because I was so embarrassed by the stammering. It was bad enough that I had this strange Caribbean accent (at least by speaking standards in Kissimmee, Florida), spoke with a slight lisp and said “tree” instead of “three.” What would people think when they realized that sometimes I couldn’t get a simple sentence out without stumbling over every word? To avoid the inevitable and merciless ribbing, I kept my mouth shut all through kindergarten and first grade.
By second grade, I realized that I couldn’t go on pointing and gesticulating wildy to communicate. I took a deep breath, and spoke up. Sometimes actual words came out. Sometimes they didn’t. At around the same time, I began several years of speech therapy, and my stuttering slowly began to improve. Eventually, I even learned to enjoy public speaking.
Most people who know me today, probably aren’t even aware that I still struggle with speech because I’ve gotten so good at covering it up. But now and then, usually when I’m talking in a group, the stammer returns, much to my alarm and shame. And it’s even worse in Spanish (perhaps partly due to the anxiety inherent in speaking a foreign language). That’s why I prefer one-on-one conversation — or talking to myself. That’s always been easier for me. I think it also might be part of why I became a writer. I’m a lot less fraught with unease typing on my laptop than expressing myself orally.
It’s worse when I’ve rehearsed what I’m going to say over and over in my head, or when I’m in a group circle — say, at an off-site seminar for work — and the moderator instructs us to say our names and tell something about ourselves. When I find myself in that situation, or having to introduce myself in general, I sometimes wish I had a different name. For most people, “Jeremy” is hard to screw up, but I always find a way. Multiple syllables are tougher on stutterers. It would be so much easier if my name were Tom or Dick, but probably not Harry.
So when The King’s Speech arrives in movie theaters on November 26, I’ll be eager to see it not just because I adore Colin Firth. Or because he and Geoffrey Rush, as Logue, are said to give Oscar-caliber performances. Or because, according to the buzz, Helena Bonham Carter (as George’s queen), hasn’t been this great since The Wings Of a Dove. Yes, I’ll be paying close attention to the performances, admiring Firth, Rush, Bonham Carter, and all the period costumes. But most of all, through George VI’s story, I’ll be looking for inspiration and a way to possibly, finally, speak freely, without faltering and without shame.