Ideology in Hollywood? You don’t have to look for it, because it always finds you. In The King’s Speech the cause of the king-to-be’s stuttering is precisely his inability to assume his symbolic function and identify with his title. He displays little common sense, seriously accepting that one is a king by divine will; and the task of the Australian coach is to render him stupid enough to accept his sovereignty as natural property. In the film’s key scene, the coach sits on the throne. The furious king asks him how he dare do this, to which he replies: “Why not? Why should you have the right to sit on this chair and me not?” The king shouts back: “Because I am a king by divine right!” At which point the coach just nods with satisfaction; now the king believes he is a king. The film’s solution is reactionary: the king is “normalised”, the force of his hysterical questioning is obliterated.
The other winner at the 2011 Oscars, Black Swan, a feminine counterpart to The King’s Speech, is even more reactionary. Its premise is that, while a man can dedicate himself to his mission (as in The King’s Speech) and still lead a normal, private life, a woman who totally dedicates herself to her mission (here to be a ballerina) enters the path of self-destruction. It is easy to recognise in this plot the old topos of a woman torn between pursuing her artistic mission and having a happy, calm private life.
The King’s Speech and Black Swan reassert the family values of the traditional couple under the masculine authority: for a man, a naive assumption of symbolic authority; for a woman, a withdrawal into privacy. But even when traditional ideology is not asserted in such a direct way, the retreat from public space into family life has a clear ideological function. Such is the case in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, out last year, which deals with the touchy subject of leftist ex-radicals confronting their past.
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on October 3rd 2013.]