By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:51 AM
"The King's Speech," a stirring British costume drama about King George VI's struggle with a speech impediment and the challenges of leadership at the dawn of mass media, won Best Picture and three other prizes Sunday night at the Academy Awards.
After a decade in which the Oscars took a turn toward dark, violent and ambiguous fare, "The King's Speech" - whose leading man, Colin Firth, nabbed the Best Actor prize and whose director, Tom Hooper, was honored as well - marked a return to the feel-good themes and lush backdrops that the Hollywood voting community traditionally favored.
And a lucrative return at that: "The King's Speech" has made $114 million at the box office - a popular success for such proper fare and nearly tenfold what last year's uber-dark winner, "The Hurt Locker," had taken in by Oscar time.
The movie considered its closest competitor, "The Social Network" - which electrified audiences by telling the story of Facebook, a history so recent we're still living it - picked three major prizes, included Best Adapted Screenplay.
Firth, a British star beloved stateside for his stiff-upper-lip heartthrobs in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Bridget Jones's Diary," had picked up nearly every other acting prize this year but still seemed moved by the tribute.
"I have a feeling my career's just peaked," he said.
Natalie Portman won Best Actress for her portrayal of a ballerina on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the psychosexual art-house thriller "Black Swan." The 29-year-old Harvard grad cheered in Hollywood as the rare child star to avoid tabloid hijinks and mature gracefully into adult roles, mustered her usual poise to thank a laundry list of colleagues, as well as "my family, friends and my love" - her choreographer-fiance, by whom she is visibly pregnant.
Portman's coronation - among others, she defeated Annette Bening, revered in Hollywood for taming Warren Beatty and four winless nominations over two decades - marked what was intended to be a vote-for-youth year at the Academy Awards.
Instead of the usual grizzled stand-up veteran (Jon Stewart, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal), the academy tapped as its hosts glamorous Hollywood babes Anne Hathaway, 28, and James Franco, 32.
But it was the older folks who stole the show - 73-year-old "King's Speech" Best Screenplay writer David Seidler (who joked "my father always said I'd be a late bloomer"); 50-year-old Melissa Leo, who dropped a bleeped-out F-bomb while accepting her Best Supporting Actress trophy; and 94-year-old Kirk Douglas, who did his own part to extend the always-too-long show by drinking up the spotlight as he gave Leo her prize.
"You're much more beautiful than you were in 'The Fighter,' " Douglas flirted.
It seemed a multi-layered inside joke: The veteran character actress was much lauded for her role as the brassy, bouffanted manager matriarch of a dysfunctional Boston boxing family. But she raised eyebrows in Hollywood when she took out glamour-shot ads in the local papers asking academy members for their vote.
Talking to reporters backstage, Leo denied that she'd campaigned too hard. "I wanted a pretty photograph in a magazine," she said, that's all.
Christian Bale, who played her crack-addict son - real-life boxing tragedy Dicky Eklund - won Best Supporting Actor. Like Portman, a former child star, Bale (best known as the reigning Batman) winked at his reputation in Hollywood for on-set tantrums.
"I'm not going to drop the F-bomb like Melissa did," the British actor said in his thank-you. "I've done that plenty."
"The Social Network," which earned $97 million from U.S. audiences, picked up prizes for Aaron Sorkin's adapted screenplay and '90s techno-rock god Trent Reznor's edgy score, as well as film editing.
Sorkin, making a triumphant return to the big screen after his groundbreaking TV work with "The West Wing," heralded Facebook's impact in "what's happened in Cairo," where the networking tool helped organize the demonstrations that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down as president. It will be hard to follow a movie that so seized the cultural moment, Sorkin mused.
"I have the feeling the thing I write next will be the thing I wrote after 'The Social Network,' " he said.
But Seidler, whose battle with a stammer inspired his years of research, made a case for his own movie's relevance as he accepted his prize. "On behalf of all the stutterers throughout the world - we have a voice, we have been heard."
Why did "The King's Speech" strike such a chord in Hollywood? It evoked a certain nostalgia - for England between the wars, sure, but more potently for movie-making in the 1990s, personified by Harvey Weinstein. The official producing team was a trio of young Brits, but the man distributing it and spearheading its success was the pioneering indie-film mogue. For years, Weinstein was mocked for his aggressive (but successful) marketing campaigns for movies like "Shakespeare in Love" and "Good Will Hunting." At a time when most of the major studios have been subsumed into multinational conglomerates, there is now in Hollywood an appreciation of the pugnacious New Yorker who launched Gwyneth Paltrow's career and rebooted John Travolta's, and his actor-friendly good taste.
"Inception," a mind-bending sci-fi epic about psycho-spies who infiltrate a businessman's dreams, cleaned up in four technical categories - cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. Although its cult-like fans were outraged by director Christopher Nolan's failure to get a nomination, his vision - relying more on elaborate sets and camerawork than on computer-generated effects - won high marks from Hollywood's old-school craftmen.
No such love, though, for "True Grit." The hit remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, retooled with Jeff Bridges in the lead, won 10 nominations but took home no trophies - possibly because auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen won big just three years with another bleak western, "No Country for Old Men."
Rick Baker, a makeup artist renowned for his work evoking monstrous creatures, broke his own record yet again by winning a seventh Oscar in that category, for "The Wolfman."
Best Foreign Film went to a movie from Denmark for the third time in the award's history: "In a Better World," the story of a Danish doctor working in an African refugee camp.
"Inside Job," which probed the Wall Street meltdown, won Best Documentary; and Best Documentary Short went to "Strangers No More," about young emigres struggling to adapt in a Tel Aviv school.
"Toy Story 3" - the final chapter in the smash Pixar trilogy about the inner life of playthings, which sent not just kids but grown-ups home in tears - nabbed the Best Animated Feature prize as well as Best Song, for Randy Newman, the acerbic '70s singer-songwriter now best known for his quirky movie tunes. "We Belong Together" marked his second Oscar and 20th nomination.
The perfect person to ask about the Oscars' young-old tension. Newman, 67, told reporters that in show business, it's expected you'll do your best work before 25. He looked down: "These pants are 25."