At last somebody has made an epic, triumphant movie about a heroism with which I am personally familiar: that of a recovering stutterer.
In "The King's Speech," actor Colin Firth gives an Oscar-worthy portrayal of the inconsolable despair behind the stiff upper lip of Britain's stuffy King George VI, the royal family's second banana who never aspired to be king, but fate had other plans.
In 1937 his older brother, King Edward VIII, gave up the throne to marry his divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson. The young Duke of York had to step up despite his debilitating stammer, as the English prefer to call it, a condition that severely threatened his ability to perform one of the most important duties left for a British royal, rallying his country on the brink of war.
As an adult, the aspiring king did what I and many of this country's estimated 3 million stutterers have done: He sought therapy. In his case, the therapeutic Yoda for the royal Jedi was Lionel Logue, whom actor Geoffrey Rush turns into a scene-stealing force, trying -- when he is allowed -- to break down the royal inhibitions and build a necessary level of trust between the aspiring king and his commoner therapist.
"The movie helps to demystify stuttering," said Atlanta lawyer Adam Marlowe, 31, in a telephone interview. Marlowe is remarkable for containing his own stuttering well enough to become a successful litigator, a job for which effective talking is essential.
"A lot of people want some quick cure," he recalled. "In reality what really helped me was what you saw in the movie, a long-term therapy, working on your voice and your breathing but also on how you view yourself as a stutterer in the world."
In my case, I thank the public school system of Middletown, Ohio, for providing me with a parade of encouraging speech pathologists. I also thank my high school's speech and debate club and supportive grown-ups like Fred Ross, a local attorney and family friend who patiently coached me through what Marlowe might call a "bad speech" in a contest when I was 14.
After sympathetic applause, I slumped off toward a corner where my coach was waiting with a big smile on his face. "When are we going to start working on next year?" Fred said. With his encouragement I came back the next year and stunned the crowd with a near-flawless performance that, in a moment suitable for a Walt Disney film, took home the second-place trophy. It was better than first-place, as far as I was concerned. I've hardly stopped talking since.
Every stuttering kid needs optimistic support like that. I was reminded of that night as I watched Firth's young prince in the film's opening scenes. He faces a microphone that looks as large as the U.S. Capitol Building to stutter his way through a speech that is being broadcast to the entire British Empire. During the real-life 1925 speech, which he failed to complete, the future king's hesitation lasted over a minute in several cases, according to Mark Logue, the therapist's grandson and co-writer of the movie, in an interview with NPR host Diane Rehm.
The prince went to Lionel Logue a year later because, as his grandson recalls, "by that stage he was pretty desperate." But, as history shows, he persevered. He beat what I call "the beast."
This is a film intended to make everyone feel good about his own potential. Most important to me is the message it sends to concerned parents like mine were. On film and in real life, King George VI never completely cured his stuttering. None of us do. Like reformed alcoholics, we are constantly recovering, learning how to subdue the beast so it does not stop us from pursuing greater things.