The inspirational drama "The King's Speech," starring Colin Firth as a British king who conquered his debilitating stutter and helped rally a country heading into World War II, has an inspirational story behind it in screenwriter David Seidler, himself a former stutterer. With the film and the writer both considered Oscar favorites, Seidler lately has been on the campaign trail, which means doing a lot of something that once filled him with terror: talking.
Nevertheless, over afternoon tea at the Trump SoHo New York hotel recently, Seidler revealed a voice of radio-announcer quality - low, resonant, almost commanding, with not a trace of his lifelong affliction. At least, not that anyone can detect.
"I still consider myself a stutterer," he says. "In a conversation, at least half a dozen times, I can feel a block coming on. But I know all the techniques. I take a breath, do the slide" - that is, prolonging the initial sound of a difficult word - "and pssht! You don't hear it."
It's a testament to Seidler's confidence that he can talk at length about his inability to talk. Stuttering is considered at least partly psychological, a kind of stage fright that gets worse the more attention is drawn to it. As an example, Seidler points to a scene in the film in which speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) asks King George VI (Firth) to read aloud while listening to high-volume music through headphones. Thus distracted, he delivers a near-flawless recital.
Illuminating moments like that one have helped give "The King's Speech" a ring of authenticity. Though Seidler clearly fictionalized here and there to tighten the story and heighten the drama, he also did extensive research, including reading through Logue's diaries. And just as Logue probes into the king's childhood throughout the movie, so Seidler looked to his own while writing it.
Seidler developed his stutter at the age of 3, when his family left England for America. It began, he says, on the long boat ride over and continued as the family settled briefly in Sea Cliff and then in Great Neck. Even as an otherwise normal teenager attending high-school football games and sneaking off to Manhattan jazz clubs in the 1950s, Seidler had trouble with simple communication; even the word "hello" was agony.
His parents, he says, did what many parents of stutterers do: They overreacted. "If they just listen to you - a lot of eye contact, no concern, no agenda, no anxiety - guess what? That stutter fades away. It never takes hold. If you have parents who say, 'Just calm down! Slow down! Choose your words! Darling, don't worry!' Well, it winds you up. And then you are sunk."
Nevertheless, Seidler overcame his stutter himself when he turned 16. The motivating factor was hormones - "I couldn't ask a girl on a date!" - but anger also helped. In fact, the famous scene that earned "The King's Speech" its R rating, in which the well-bred king unleashes a furious string of profanity, came not from Logue's diaries but Seidler's own life.
"I just thought: -- everybody! If I'm stuck with stuttering for the rest of my life, you are -- stuck with listening to me! And then," says Seidler, "you've won. Even if it never improves, you're no longer the victim."
Seidler, at 73 ("I'm the Mick Jagger of screenwriters," he cracks), is now enjoying what only looks like overnight success. He helped write the 1988 auto-industry drama "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," directed by fellow Great Neck North High School alum Francis Ford Coppola, then spent years writing not-so-notable television fare. Just a few months ago, Seidler, who now lives in Malibu, didn't even have an agent; suddenly he's in demand. A stage version of "The King's Speech," he says, is headed for London's West End, and he is trying to woo Kate Winslet into starring in his next film project, about pioneering female traveler Lady Hester Stanhope.
That could be more likely if Seidler indeed wins the Oscar for original screenplay. When congratulated on that in advance, Seidler does something uncharacteristic: He interrupts. "Shh!" he says. "If you do that, whisper into God's ear, please."
More LI nominees to root for
BY RAFER GUZMÁN, email@example.com
NATALIE PORTMAN - The best actress hopeful, born Natalie Hershlag, moved with her family to Long Island in 1990 and graduated from Syosset High School.
MELISSA LEO - The supporting actress nominee grew up in Manhattan but spent many a summer in the Hamptons with her father, Arnold, a fisherman and later a secretary for the East Hampton Baymen's Association.