Baltimore's Wallis Simpson is more hiss-worthy than kiss-worthy in 'The King's Speech'

To screenwriter David Seidler, the Duchess of Windsor was a malign manipulator

  • Actress Eve Best stars as Wallis Simpson in the film "The King's Speech."
Actress Eve Best stars as Wallis Simpson in the film "The… (Handout photo )
December 22, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Screenwriter David Seidler knew he was treading a royal-blue carpet studded with land mines when he tackled "The King's Speech."

But nothing would deter him from telling that rarity — an inspirational story that actually is inspirational. Seidler, born in Britain and brought to the United States as a boy during World War II, revered King George VI ( Colin Firth) as a steadfast monarch and a personal hero.

George VI conquered a merciless stammer: the same obstacle that afflicted Seidler in his youth. And the king did it with the help of an Australian commoner, an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue ( Geoffrey Rush).

In the 1970s, when Seidler set out to dramatize how George VI and Logue grew from patient and therapist to colleagues and friends, Logue's son told him he must win approval from the monarch's wife, the Queen Mother. She asked Seidler not to depict such an intimate part of her husband's life while she was alive. (She died in 2002.)

But just as tricky as ruling-family sensitivity was the slippery figure who ignites the saga, George VI's older brother and predecessor, Edward VIII. He renounced the throne because, he said, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love."

That woman was Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced Baltimorean who then became his bride, the Duchess to his Duke of Windsor.

"The abdication crisis is very seductive," Seidler explained in a phone interview on Monday. "Go too far down that slippery slope, and it's really hard to pull back. The abdication story begins to take control and run away with the movie."

But Seidler had to bring it in, "because it's the McGuffin, the thing that starts the engine going and drives the drama along. The story would not be half as dramatic or crucial if [George VI] had been left alone to be the Duke of York. … it might have been personally humiliating and embarrassing and difficult, but no big deal for the nation."

Instead, Edward VIII's abdication thrust George VI in front of the microphone in 1936, when national pride and resolve were never more urgently tested. "Here you have Mussolini in Italy — and he was a great orator — and Hitler mesmerizing crowds in the millions in Nuremberg, and the Brits are stuck with a king who can't successfully order fish and chips," said Seidler. "I had to deal with it, but I didn't want it to take control. I'll leave that to 'W.E.' and Madonna."

Yes, Madonna is basing her second film as a director, "W.E.," on Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Reportedly, she has fictionalized and romanticized the historical couple beyond recognition.

Seidler went a different way. "I have to say that the American view of them is quite different from the British. Many, many Brits have a jaundiced view of them, as I do. Americans are romantics, and they absolutely love the idea of 'the greatest love story ever told,' a king who gives up his throne for the woman he loves. You Yanks have bought into this hook, line and sinker."

For Seidler, it was "the most selfish love story ever told."

Simpson was "very much taken with the romance and power of these 'men of action' [Mussolini and Hitler]" who had set out to conquer the 20th-century world. Seidler can understand why a woman like Simpson — a child dependent on wealthy relatives, an adult married first to an alcoholic U.S. Navy pilot and then to a shaky shipping magnate — might quiver for dictators who seemed to embody male dynamism. But he doesn't condone it.

"I believe the real story is this: There's no question there was a very strong sexual attraction between her and the king." But Simpson's conquest of Edward VIII — and his attempt to have his throne and have her, too — were "acts of will" on both their parts.

"She convinced him that as an act of will, he could have his way. After all, he was king. Who was going to tell him what to do? Basically, they were trying to go back the archaic idea of the divine right of kings. The king could do what he bloody well pleases," Seidler said. "And the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who understood the situation perfectly, said, 'No, you're a constitutional monarch, and you do what people want you to do, which is unite them in face of this horrendous conflict that's coming.'"

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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