I have a stutter. I’ve stuttered since I was a kid. Over the years I’ve managed to gain more control over it, but at times when I’m overly eager to say something or I’m nervous, my speech impediment has a tendency to rear its ugly head.
Stuttering isn’t something that’s usually explored in films – probably because it’s not conducive to storytelling when you have a character who’s hard to understand. But a few brave films have broached the topic, and I’m going to talk about a few interesting ways stuttering has been used to inform characters. And as a stutterer, I will also share my own insights into these films’ instances of stammering.
Leaders Overcoming Stutters
The King’s Speech and It
In The King’s Speech, Prince Albert suffers from a debilitating stutter that prevents him from giving eloquent speeches. Despite his best efforts to avoid ascending to the throne of England, he eventually becomes King George VI on the eve of World War II, and he’s forced to face his fears and try to find his voice.
The King’s Speech uses stuttering as an instrument to test its hero. Albert wants to be a great leader for the sake of the British people and the world in their fight against fascism. But he can’t be that leader until he confronts his painful childhood memories and other deep-seated doubts. His stutter is an expression of his inner demons that he must find creative means to overcome with the help of a trusted friend.
Stephen King’s It also has a stuttering leader in the form of Bill Denbrough. In the 1990 TV miniseries, Bill leads a group of kids (and later adults), called The Losers Club, in a battle with an ancient, evil being known as “It.” The miniseries doesn’t capture the struggle of Bill’s character very well. In the book, the closer he and his friends get to It the worse his stutter gets. It gets so bad that he can’t even get a single word out by the end. And yet everyone still looks to him for leadership, despite his inability to talk coherently. In the end, his true test comes when he must recite certain words clearly without stuttering. And once the evil is destroyed his stutter begins to go away.
It’s not easy to overcome a stutter, and these films take a different approach at portraying this difficult task. The King’s Speech spends a lot of time showing different techniques Albert uses to physically and psychologically fight his stutter. And even though he overcomes it as he gives a critical speech to the nation, it’s clear that he’ll always have to work at it to keep from backsliding. It implies Bill’s stutter has a supernatural connection. As an adult, he speaks just fine until he’s reminded of the childhood trauma he experienced fighting It. His fight against his stutter is more about his spirit rejecting an almost incorporeal evil than about attempting to erase a speech impediment.
In my day job as a writer for a company, I’m sometimes required to call and talk to people over the phone. This can be pretty intimidating to me because I worry I’ll stutter or come across as less than professional. I prefer to stick to texts and emails. But I have gotten better at it with practice. I don’t expect to ever be completely free of my stutter, but it has become more manageable.
Giving the Wrong Impression
The Right Stuff and Die Hard with a Vengeance
The Right Stuff does something interesting with John Glenn’s wife. In one scene it shows a few of the astronauts’ wives chattering away, but this particular woman doesn’t say a word to any of them. She just walks away, leaving them to think that she’s a snob. What they don’t understand is that she can hardly eek out a word without stuttering horribly. The very next scene shows her having a stilted conversation with her husband. John patiently pieces together what she’s trying to say, but it’s clear that no one else would be able to quickly understand her.
This stuttering situation comes to a head when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson demands to have a nationally televised interview with her. She flatly denies his numerous attempts to speak with her. He can’t understand why she would refuse him, and he grows increasingly infuriated as John stands up for his wife and tells the vice president to leave his wife alone. These scenes reinforce how stuttering can lead to misunderstandings. She doesn’t want the whole world (or even a group of potential friends) to hear her stuttering. She’s embarrassed to try to talk to people, which can lead people to assume all sorts of things about her. The truth is simply that she’s shy.
Die Hard with a Vengeance also plays with people’s assumptions, but in a completely different way. The villain, Simon Gruber, stutters once while talking with John McClane over the phone, saying, “You c-c-c-couldn’t catch me if I stole your ch-ch-chair with you in it!” John McClane then retorts, “My ch-ch-chair with me in it? That’s very exciting. Let me ask you a question, bonehead. Why are you trying to k-k-k-kill me?”
This small exchange leads John and the rest of the police to underestimate Simon as an adversary. They assume that someone who stutters while attempting to sound threatening must be a fool underneath his façade of toughness. But the joke’s on them because Simon uses that perception to his advantage, lulling them into a false sense of security while outsmarting them and stealing a fortune right out from under their noses.
After he’s accomplished his goal, he once again stutters while speaking to his men of the “g-g-g-gullibility of the New York Police Department.” He’s implying that he faked his stutter as a tool of misdirection.
I can easily see how people could get the wrong impression about me because of my stuttering. Even online. I know it’s impossible for my stuttering to come through when my fingers are doing the talking, but I think my way of speaking bleeds over a little into my overall mindset of communication. Sometimes people leave amazing, insightful comments on my articles, and all I can think to say in response is something mundane, so I don’t respond at all. And I worry I’m giving the impression I don’t pay attention or care what people say.
Giving Up and Starting Over
Porky Pig has appeared in a few films, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam. He has the most famous stutter of all time. Often when he stumbles over a certain word several times, he is eventually forced to change his mind and say things another way. Like when he says, “B-but I got a g-good j-jo-jo-position” or “I-I-I’m r-r-r-all set, sir.” He’s trying to say “job” and “ready,” but he can’t spit them out. So he switches tactics and uses different terms that mean roughly the same thing, but at least he can easily say them. However, sometimes he gets so frustrated over his inability to speak that he changes his words to mean something totally different. At the end of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, he can’t say his trademark “That’s all folks,” so he gives up and tiredly says, “Go home, folks.”
I can relate to Porky quite a bit. When I stutter, I notice that words beginning with vowel sounds are almost impossible for me to say the first time. “Is,” “only,” “as,” and “even” are all out the window, especially if they come at the start of a sentence. I have to find replacements for them to have any hope of getting my message across. Instead of “is,” I might say “would.” Instead of “if” I might say “possibly.” The latter words are longer and lead to more convoluted sentences, but W- and P- sounds are easier for me to burst out of my lips while I- sounds are much more difficult. So I completely understand where Porky is coming from.
Changing the way you speak and the words you use to accommodate a speech impediment is a frustrating fact of life for Porky Pig and myself. Porky usually handles it with humor. I just do my best to muddle my way through.
Spit It Out
Stuttering isn’t pretty. It makes conversations difficult and it can lead to plenty of awkwardness and frustration. I love how some of these films use stuttering to explore sides of characters we don’t usually get to see. Internal struggles aren’t easy to pull off, and showing someone with a stutter gives us an outward expression of an internal tangle of emotions. Being unable to speak in critical moments is a personal problem that is hard to hide or explain.
In film, stuttering can be a challenge to be overcome, a source of misunderstandings, or something that a character must adapt to over time.
There’s a reason why I write articles instead of making videos. Here’s a video of me from two weeks ago at my sister’s house giving her and her husband (who has breast cancer) a Christmas gift. I really wanted to tell them about everyone involved in giving them this gift, but my stutter prevented me from getting the words out fast enough. You can see me fighting to spit the words out. I’m the one in the blue sweatshirt. Skip to about the 1-minute mark to get to the part I’m talking about.
Well, I guess I’ve opened myself up to possible embarrassment. But, hey, I like you guys, so I’m taking a calculated risk in bringing this up in the first place. I love how films can bring people together through common interests. These films and characters above explore sides of me, and I think they are all well done, if I do so say myself.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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