The Best Picture Winners: The Artist (2011)

| February 22, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I take issue with anyone who accuses The Academy of nestling itself in the safety of selecting a film like The Artist as Best Picture.  For decades, filmmakers tried and failed to have the opportunity to make a silent film but were shouted down by studio execs who demanded that the movie-going public would reject them.  Every artist dreams of being able to work in the medium, but the dollars and sense sounded louder than artistic impulse.

One of those filmmakers was Michel Hazanavicius, who had been working to make a silent film for many years because many of his influences had come from that era.  The Artist resembles most of the great epics about Hollywood, most especially A Star is Born, with a little of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Blvd thrown in for good measure.  It begins in 1927, at a time when the art of the silent film was about to be washed out by the advent of a new process called ‘sound’.  Many of the biggest stars in motion pictures were about to have their careers obliterated by this new process, especially those who were middle aged – studios wanted young actors with young voices.

Standing at the precipice of this tidal wave of technology is George Valentin (Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin), a dashing romantic leading man whose fan-base mostly consists of giggling young girls (imagine Douglas Fairbanks and you’ve got the idea).  He is the star of a series of simple-minded action and romantic epics, usually featuring his trusty side-kick, an adorable and ever-faithful Terrier named Uggy.

The initial introduction to sound doesn’t ruffle George at all. Cigar-chomping studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is convinced that this is the future, but George isn’t too concerned. “If that’s the future”, he laughingly tells Zimmer, “You can have it!”  Soon, however, he finds that the process is no laughing matter and he is out of work.  The rest of the story deals with his failed attempts to resuscitate his floundering career.

The results of the story aren’t exactly surprising to anyone familiar with the formula of most silent films.  What makes The Artist work is how much fun we have watching those old Hollywood movie conventions played out in fresh ways.  This is no stale recreation, Hazanavicius turns his film into something truly special, playing with our perceptions and reminding us of a time when Hollywood movies had a dream-like quality, before “The Method”, when the prepared theatricality of motion pictures made us feel as if we were stepping into another world.  He has fun with the over-dramatic moments that underline George’s despair.  He even has fun with the title cards, especially during one crucial moment when we think that one thing has happened it turns out to be something else – you’ll know the one I’m talking about.

To call the film “safe” is dismissive and unfair.  A movie like this took a lot of love and a lot of talent.  Sure, we would be happier if the Academy had chosen a much more progressive choice from 2011, maybe The Tree of Life or Midnight in Paris or Melancholia or Take Shelter, but I don’t think that invalidates The Artist.  Here is a movie that informs us of all the things that movies were made for, to transport us to another time and place, and to allow us to enter a dreamy world if only for a couple of hours.

The effect of this film on a true movie lover is not explained, it is only experienced.  How effective is it?  Let me put it this way: There is a moment early in the film, when a showgirl enters alone into George’s office. She finds his coat on a hanger.  She slips her right arm into the empty left sleeve and wraps the arm around herself. George comes in and catches her. The two share a quiet romantic moment so tender and so touching that, I swear, for a moment it reminded of the reasons that I go to the movies.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.