April 13, 2011

Oscar-Winning Alumnus Returns to Cornell

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On the evening of Tuesday, April 12, lucky Cornell filmgoers were treated to a screening of the Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech, sponsored by Cornell Cinema. The film was introduced and followed by Cornell alum David Seidler ’59, the film’s screenwriter and winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. After watching the film, audience members had the opportunity to hear Seidler speak about his childhood stutter, his career in Hollywood and, of course, his own experiences at Cornell. Seidler also shared several amusing anecdotes about his time as a Cornellian, as well as surprising encounters he had during the production of the film.

Before the film’s start, Cornell Cinema president Mary Fessenden welcomed Seidler, who last visited Ithaca in 1979, to thunderous applause. Seidler then went on to tell the crowd that the last time he was in the Cornell Cinema theater in Willard Straight Hall was when he put on a “truly awful” play that he had written and acted in, along with his friends and famous alums Thomas Pynchon ’59 and Richard Fariña. After Seidler exited the stage, the enthusiastic audience watched the film and laughed and cheered throughout, especially when Seidler’s name appeared during the ending credits. As the credits rolled, Seidler returned to the stage with Fessenden, who proceeded to ask him questions about the film and his own experience as a stutterer. He told the crowd that as a young child, he listened to the speech recordings of King George VI, known to his family as Bertie and portrayed fearlessly by Colin Firth in the film. Seidler named King George VI his “childhood hero,” and knew for a long time that he wanted to write Bertie’s story. When Seidler began to write the script, which was first staged as a play upon his wife’s suggestion, he was fortunate enough to come into contact with Valentine Logue, the son of Lionel Logue, Bertie’s speech therapist who is played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech. The younger Logue had kept his father’s journals in which he recorded Bertie’s progress during therapy. Seidler would only be able to access the journals by approval of the king’s widow, who was wary of reminiscing such a difficult time in her and her husband’s life. However, Seidler obtained the journals after her death and “plunged into writing about Bertie.” Upon revealing this fascinating tidbit to the audience, Seidler revealed that a particular line from the film came directly from Logue’s records (after the king addresses his nation during wartime, Logue says, “You still stammered on the ‘W’”).

Seidler also revealed that many of the techniques and speaking devices that appear in the film helped him overcome his own stutter. He specifically noted the film’s notorious “f-word” scene, in which the king yells various expletives to relieve his frustration. He hilariously related to the audience that as a teenager, he was unable to ask a girl on a date and subsequently let out his frustration by jumping on his bed and screaming a certain four-letter word. By doing so, Seidler said that he convinced himself that he had a voice and deserved to be heard. Seidler said that, eventually, his impediment “melted away,” and now, not stuttering “just comes naturally.” His own experience of having a speech impediment was, as Seidler went on to describe, put to good use during the making of the film. He said that Firth would often question Seidler “very thoroughly on stuttering,” specifically the physical and emotional aspects of the impediment. During the audience Q & A, a woman revealed that, as a speech therapist, she was moved by the honest portrayal of the king’s speech impediment and was especially touched by the relationship between the therapist and his client.

While Seidler’s stories of his own stutter and of his inspiration for the film were undoubtedly intriguing, he truly lit up when he told the audience about his Cornell career. He spoke very fondly of his time as a Big Red student, especially the time he spent with his fellow intellectual friends Pynchon and Fariña, among other notable alums. When asked to disclose his greatest memory of his time at Cornell, he received hysterical laughter from the audience when he revealed that he once shot a duck that was sitting on an icy Beebe Lake. The most moving words that he spoke about Cornell came when he said that he was originally a Botany major but switched to an English major. It was, according to Seidler, his ability to explore his interests and to flourish artistically that contributed to his great affection for Cornell. He loved Cornell because it was a place where “you could escape, be whoever you wanted to be.” After his interview, Seidler was met with a standing ovation, but not before he himself gave a standing ovation to his fellow Cornellians from the stage.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden