Should producer convert R-rated 'The King's Speech' into family fare?

'The King's Speech' was given an R rating solely for the use of profanity in some key scenes. As the producer reportedly considers re-editing the Oscar-nominated movie, the idea is getting poor reviews.

By , Staff writer

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    Colin Firth portrays King George VI in 'The King's Speech.'
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“I didn’t think I wanted to see an historical drama about a king who stutters,” says Imogene Bartha, the mother of a 13-year-old boy, as she flips through the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times in a local coffee shop. “But now here’s this ad telling me it got more Oscar nominations than any other movie, so I’m inclined to check it out.”

“It” is the highly acclaimed movie “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush, all of whom were nominated for acting honors. Mr. Firth plays Queen Elizabeth II’s stuttering father, King George VI, who seeks the assistance of speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Mr. Rush, on the eve of World War II. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Ms. Bartha’s one dilemma, she says, is presented by her son. Can she see the movie with him? The movie is rated R, which means, says the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), it “may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously.”

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IN PICTURES: Oscar Nominees 2011

Now, in an apparent attempt to avoid such dilemmas by potential moviegoers and reach a wider audience, “Speech” producer Harvey Weinstein is reported to be planning to re-edit the film. The movie received an R rating due to two or three short but important scenes in which the king swears repeatedly in an effort to correct his stammer.

“The British numbers are huge because the rating lets families see the movie together,” Weinstein is quoted as saying in the British newspaper The Guardian. Director “Tom [Hooper] and I are trying to find a unique way to do this that keeps his vision of the movie.”

Weinstein, whose “Shakespeare in Love” won Best Picture in 1998, is considered to have top-tier marketing and movie instincts. But several critics say the idea of altering this movie is ill-advised. Some are criticizing the MPAA’s rating system for not being nuanced enough. The MPAA responds that its system is merely a guide for parents, nothing more.

New focus on friendship?

“This is a very bad idea indeed. The movie is perfect the way it is,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “When you try to recut the best film of 2010, the reason better be for artistic reasons or more enhancement. But this scene is the heart of the movie and is not gratuitous or for shock value. But the simple reason of trying to make more money is unconscionable and is a move that should not be countenanced.”

[Editor's note: The above quote has been corrected.]

The Guardian also reports that Weinstein, to attract wider crowds, plans to refocus attention on the friendship between the king and his therapist, with new advertisements.

The original descriptive line was “It takes leadership to confront a nation’s fear. It takes friendship to conquer your own.” Besides touting the film’s 12 Oscar nominations, new taglines will read, “Some things never go out of style: Friendship; Courage; Loyalty.”

“This seems like an odd tactic to me,” says Robert Elder, film columnist and author of “The Film That Changed My Life.” “It’s not like it hasn’t found its audience. I don’t know any 14-year-olds who are clamoring for an historical drama about a king with a stammer. When I go to an R-rated movie, I personally look forward to an audience not filled with teenagers.”

Dixon, Elder, and others point to the fact that many filmmakers manipulate their films prior to release to get a different rating or to deal with criticism. Responding to charges of anti-Semitism, Mel Gibson famously decided to not translate a particular line in 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Todd Solonz’s 2001 “Storytelling” put red boxes over explicit sex scenes.

'Archaic rating system'

“I guess they could just bleep out the profanity like they do on cable TV for instance, and it wouldn't be too terrible,” says Picktainment.com’s Phil Wallace. “Maybe they can do that in some theaters, but not in others.”

But “the real issue is the MPAA and its archaic rating system,” he says. The profanity is “somewhat essential to the story as it’s an honest depiction of individuals with stuttering problems. The swearing is used in the least offensive way of any movie I've seen and hardly deserving of an R-rating. Yet the MPAA continues to give PG-13 ratings to raunchy teen sex comedies which are far more offensive.”

The MPAA is going out of its way to remind moviegoers that the entire purpose of the rating system is to inform parents about content.

“This is not for critics or filmmakers or marketers,” says Elizabeth Kaltman, Los Angeles spokeswoman for the MPAA. “The criticism we hear about this system is generated by clever marketing executives who are trying to get buzz for their movies. It’s important to note that we rarely, if ever, get told by parents that our rating has been too restrictive and the movie should be more accessible to children. The R rating doesn’t ever mean that parents can’t take children to see a movie. All it says is ‘you parents should educated about this before you take children to the theater.’ ”

No one at the MPAA, says Ms. Kaltman, can ever remember a time when a filmmaker has tried to resubmit a film for a different rating after it has already been released. But occasionally, she says, that happens when a film is about to be sold on DVD.

Movie benefits from Oscar buzz

Oscar buzz has already improved the fortunes of “The King’s Speech," says Harry Medved, spokesman for movie ticketing service Fandango.

“For several weeks in a row, ‘The King's Speech’ has been slowly but surely appearing among our top five ticket-sellers,” Mr. Medved says. “But on Tuesday it moved up to the top spot as Fandango's top ticket-seller of the day. You wouldn't expect any film with the words ‘King’ or ‘Speech’ in the title to be a true crowd-pleaser, but this little movie continues to pack select theaters across the country, and shows no signs of slowing down.”

Medved notes that according to historical accounts, the king really used the profanity as part of his therapy, and that in the movie “it makes for an amusing sequence.”

“Most informed and discriminating parents will know there’s just a tiny spot of profanity in the movie,” he says, “and they’ll take their older kids to see it regardless of the rating.”

The Weinstein Co. did not respond to several attempts for comment.

IN PICTURES: Oscar Nominees 2011

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