It's a peculiar person — if not an unabashed sadist — who takes pleasure in someone's stuttering, particularly at a public event. Yet when filmmaker Tom Hooper heard that Colin Firth couldn't stop stammering while accepting an acting honor for "A Single Man," Hooper couldn't hide his delight.
For "The King's Speech," opening Nov. 26, Hooper had cast Firth as King George VI, the World War II-era English monarch who was nearly rendered a silent sovereign by a crippling speech impediment. Derek Jacobi, who costars in the film as the Archbishop of Canterbury, had warned Firth that affecting a stutter would be a hard habit to shake — Jacobi having learned the hard way after his tongue-tied performance in "I, Claudius."
"So Colin went to an awards thing for 'A Single Man' in the midst of production, and he completely stammered. He couldn't speak," Hooper says. "And I said, 'That's fantastic news.'"
That Firth was able to transplant King George's faltering diction onto his own tongue meant that audiences could see, and hear, how disabling a speech impediment can be. But if "The King's Speech" were to become meaningful drama instead of medical monologue, it was crucial that the monarch's relationship with his unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue ( Geoffrey Rush), feel even more authentic.
"Their friendship," says Firth, "is the biggest part of the healing story."
American moviegoers, and more than a few British patrons, may know little about the former Duke of York, who was elevated to the throne after his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated because he wanted to marry a twice-divorced American socialite. But any number of royal historians — and a young British boy named David Seidler — understood that King George VI was nearly paralyzed vocally. The disability was exacerbated by his wartime duty: to speak regularly to his subjects, urging solidarity as bombs rained down on England.
As a child, Seidler had been evacuated to the United States before the Blitz. The voyage — in which a convoy ship had been sunk by a U-boat — traumatized Seidler. "I was quite a profound stutterer," he says. He followed the war's progress on the radio, listening to King George, who by then could manage his stammer. "I heard these wonderful, moving speeches, and had heard that he had been a terrible stutterer," Seidler says. "If he could cure himself, it gave me hope."
Seidler went on to overcome his stutter and become a screenwriter but never forgot about the king. He was particularly interested in how the king was treated by Logue, an Australian who earlier had counseled World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock, a version of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Logue, who was not a trained speech pathologist, would briefly surface in biographies — "Blips on the radar screen," Seidler says — but details of his treatments remained secret. "The royal family does not like talking about the royal stutterer," Seidler says. "It was swept under the carpet."
In the mid-1970s, Seidler wrote the king's widow, Queen Elizabeth, asking permission to tell the story. She wrote back saying that "The memory of these events are still too painful" and that she wouldn't accede in her lifetime. "I thought, 'How long am I going to have to wait? One or two years?' She wasn't that young," Seidler says. But the Queen Mother famously lived until age 101, 28 years after Seidler had made his inquiry.
In the intervening years, Seidler had cowritten Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," but his credits in television had slowed to a trickle. What's more, he had lost contact with Logue's son, who had his father's papers. Rather than write "The King's Speech" as a movie, he penned it as a play — and that's when his luck took a dramatic turn for the better.
A staged reading of the play was presented in the London borough of Islington, and in the audience was Hooper's mother, Meredith, who is Australian. "She'd never been to a play reading in her life and didn't expect it to be much good," Hooper says. But as soon as she left the theater, she rang her son, who was finishing the HBO miniseries " John Adams." "I've found your next movie," she told him. It took Hooper several months to read the play, but when he did, he called his mother back to say, "You were right." Says Hooper: "I thought it was one of the most personal films I could make."
Around the same time, producer Joan Lane, who had helped organize the Islington reading, decided the part of Logue would be perfect for Rush, who had won the lead actor Oscar for 1996's "Shine." Seidler says he had been rebuffed by the actor's Australian agent, so Lane dispatched an Australian associate to get the actor the script through any means possible.