THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Artist’ (2011)

In 2012, the 84th Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Hollywood and Highland Center (formerly the Kodak Theatre) in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2011, and December 31, 2011, the awards were held on February 26. The ceremony was originally planned to be produced by Brett Ratner and hosted by Eddie Murphy. After Ratner made some disgraceful comments on Howard Stern’s radio show, he resigned from his producing duties. The following day, Murphy also resigned. Brian Grazer was hired to replace Ratner as producer, and he recruited Billy Crystal to host the ceremony for the ninth time.

After a two-year experiment of ten Best Picture nominees, the Academy once again changed the rules, announcing the introduction of a preferential ballot, which could result in between five and ten nominees. Only films which received a minimum of 5% of total number-one voters would ultimately receive a Best Picture nomination. This rather confusing system is still in place to this day. This system resulted in nine nominees this year.

In response to the burgeoning animated film industry, the Academy also announced changes to the Best Animated Feature category. If sixteen or more films were eligible for this category, the winner would be chosen from a list of five nominees. In the past, it had mostly been between three nominees. Since the rule change, the category has indeed seen five nominees every single year.

With his win for Best Supporting Actor for Beginners, at age 82, Christopher Plummer became the oldest performer in Oscars history to win a competitive acting award. It is a record he still holds to this day. With his win for Best Actor for The Artist, Jean Dujardin became the first French actor to win an Academy Award. With her win for Best Actress for The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep became the fifth performer to win at least three Academy Awards for acting.

Leading the way this year with 11 nominations was Martin Scorsese’s dazzling adventure Hugo, followed by Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to the silent film era The Artist with ten nominations. Both films took home five Academy Awards each, but The Artist was the big winner, taking out Best Picture, Best Director for Hazanavicius, Best Actor for Dujardin, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design. While not a silent film in the most technical sense, The Artist was the first silent movie to win Best Picture since Wings was honoured at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1927. It was also the first wholly black-and-white film (Schindler’s List does not technically count) to win Best Picture since The Apartment in 1960, and the first French-produced film to win Best Picture.

The nominees:
The Artist
The Descendents
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The winner:
The Artist

Inspired by a period of great change in Hollywood, The Artist is the tale of a silent movie star struggling with the introduction of talkies. In the 1920s, actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a bona fide matinee idol with many adoring fans. While working on his latest film, George finds himself falling in love with an ingenue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and, what’s more, it seems Peppy feels the same way. But the growing popularity of sound in movies further separates the potential lovers, as George’s career begins to fade while Peppy’s star rises.

Why did it win?
Gimmicks often work wonders with getting a film into the Academy’s good graces. The gimmick most likely to get their attention is a film which revitalises a long dorment genre. Chicago did it with the musical. Unforgiven did it with the western. And this year, the Academy were served up a film crafted in a genre and style which hadn’t been seen in cinemas in over seven decades. Silent movies were the foundations on which the film industry was set. But the introduction of talking pictures destroyed the genre, and it ceased to exist by the late 1930s. While several films had dabbled in the artform over the years, none had paid tribute to the silent era quite like The Artist. And the Academy would soon fall over themselves to reward such a charming piece of cinema.

Now it may seem harsh to call The Artist a “gimmick,” but, in essence, every film utilises a gimmick in some way. Some gimmicks just far more obvious than others. By utilising a form of cinema which had all but vanished from existence 70-odd years ago, The Artist resurrected the silent film genre, while also delivering a narrative which captured the moment it started to fade in Hollywood. Not only did this stand as a great piece of nostalgia for older audiences, especially those in the Academy, it brought this style of cinema to an entirely new audience who were most likely completely unfamiliar with silent movies.

So, in that sense, it was a gimmick, but what a damn glorious gimmick it is. A tribute to both the silent era and the film industry in general, The Artist is a joyous, warm, and delightful piece of cinema. In a rather light year for truly great films, it captured attention like few others. It’s no wonder the old, white men of the Academy fell in love with this film. It likely brought back memories long forgotten of a time before blockbusters, franchises, and CGI-heavy pictures. The Artist was the ultimate Hollywood tribute, and the Academy love nothing more than a film which showcases the ins and outs of the industry, particularly the positive aspects. Rather surprisingly, audiences lapped it up too.

On a tiny budget of just $15 million, The Artist would earn $44 million at the U.S. box-office and a further $88 million internationally to bring its worldwide total to an impressive $133 million. For a film devoid of big-name stars, presented in both black-and-white and the silent film style, this kind of result was unheard of. Given its small budget, the film was highly profitable and a huge financial success for its French production companies.

Adding to the film’s surprising box-office figures, The Artist received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it amongst the year’s greatest films. The Boston Globe called the film “a small, exquisitely-cut jewel in a style everyone assumes is 80 years out of date,” the New York Times hailed it as “a generous, touching and slightly daffy expression of unbridled movie love,” and Rolling Stone raved the film was “everything we go to movies for: action, laughs, tears and a chance to get lost in another world.”

Marking their second Best Picture victory in-a-row, The Artist also had the power of The Weinstein Company behind it. As always, Harvey Weinstein put his full might behind the Oscar campaign of his latest contender, again sparing no cost in getting the film seen by as many people as possible. He even held a lavish Academy screening in Beverly Hills, hosted by none ofter than Dolores and Carmen Chaplin, the granddaughters of silent movie legend Charlie Chaplin. Harvey worked the nostalgia angle, and pushed the fact it a silent film hadn’t won Best Picture since 1929. The chance to make history became the narrative of the Oscar campaign, and it worked a charm.

During the precursor season, The Artist quickly became the frontrunner. Despite the National Board of Review going with Hugo, and the Los Angeles Film Critics going with The Descendants, The Artist started its sweep by taking Best Picture with the critics’ groups of Boston, Detroit, London, New York, San Diego, Vancouver, and Washington D.C. It was also awarded Best Film by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. With its light-hearted narrative, the film was deemed a comedy by the Golden Globes, where it would take Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical and Best Actor. The Artist also swept the BAFTAs, taking home seven awards from its 12 nominations including Best Film.

From here, The Artist became truly unstoppable, taking home both the PGA and DGA awards (it was ineligible for WGA) and snaring the all-important SAG Ensemble nomination, which it rightly lost to The Help. When the film received ten Academy Award nominations, the race was all but over, and we all knew what would happen, come Oscar night. The crowd-pleaser had taken the lead for the second year in-a-row, and The Artist went on to take home Best Picture, making all sorts of history in the process.

Did it deserve to win?
“You can pull all the stops out, ’til they call the cops out
Grind your behind till you’re bend
But you gotta get a gimmick, if you wanna get a hand”

I couldn’t resist starting this section of the article with these lyrics from the musical Gypsy. They seem quite fitting. Yes, The Artist is an old-fashioned piece of cinematic shtick. When you have a fairly awful year in film (just look at those Best Picture nominees…), a gimmick will always shine brighter than usual. It’s fair to say if The Artist had been released any other year, it surely would have still been nominated, but it’s hard to see it succeeding like it did in 2011. Outside of reviving a once-dead genre of film, there’s not a whole lot else to it. But so what? The Artist is such a beautiful and joyful piece of cinema. Why shouldn’t it win Best Picture? There were perhaps better films this year, but none were as decidedly unique and refreshing as Michel Hazanavicius’s quiet and unassuming masterpiece.

As both a homage to the heyday of Hollywood and a tribute to an era of filmmaking the industry owes a great deal of gratitude towards, The Artist is a genuinely magical experience. The film broke all conventions of what we expect from a piece of cinema in the 21st century. It was in black-and-white, it was devoid of dialogue, and it was presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. But therein lies its true charm and power. For some, it would be a nostalgic journey to their past. For others, it was a refreshing novelty and an introduction to a style of filmmaking many had perhaps never even experienced. And it took the work of a true artist to bring it all to life.

Hazanavicius is clearly someone who understands the history of the silent film genre enormously well. His attention to detail is utterly glorious. Take away a few of the film’s sound elements, rough up the clarity of the presentation a little, and The Artist could easily have been passed off as an actual example of a 1930s film. The accuracy in the film’s production is spectacular. From the production design to the costumes to the cinematography and the score, the film feels so damn genuine and authentic, it’s rather astonishing. Hazanavicius obviously has a fond love of this era, and knows his film history too. The end result he delivers is utterly remarkable.

But there’s more to this story than just how it looks, and The Artist is elevated by a wonderful screenplay and superb performances from its actors. It’s impossible not to get carried away by the film’s romantic and melodramatic narrative. Even if you’re not a lover of Hollywood history, the film’s plot involving the changing nature of the film industry during the rise of the talkies is truly captivating. One quickly comes to realise how devastating the end of the silent era was to those who made it such a success. As George Valentin begins to watch his world collapse, it’s impossible not to be affected by his plight. It helps his character is so well written, and you truly do care about the charming and suave film star. Seeking only to add to the film, the gorgeous Peppy leaps off the screen and steals focus in every scene she’s a part of.

Well-written characters are nothing without great actors to bring them to life. Even without the use of sound and dialogue, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo both deliver such terrific performances. Dujardin has the looks and charisma of old Hollywood, and you have to assume if he were around a few decades earlier, he would have been the biggest name in film. Valentin is so supremely likeable, thanks to Dujardin’s beautiful performance, and he quickly becomes a hero audiences can’t help but cheer for. Bejo is stunningly beautiful, and also fits the look and feel of the era. Her energetic and dazzling performance as Peppy is a true delight, and the pair has the most delicious chemistry together. When they dance together in the finale sequence, it’s the stuff of cinematic miracles.

Many people bemoan The Artist taking out Best Picture. I will admit I personally prefer Hugo or even The Help as “better” examples of cinema in 2011. However, you can’t help but adore the film which ultimately captured the Academy’s heart. It’s just too damn uplifting and glorious. It may be a novelty and a gimmick, but it’s so sublimely crafted and so wonderfully executed, you cannot deny it deserved Oscar glory. A touching tribute to cinema. A celebration of the world of filmmaking. A truly beautiful and entertaining experience. And a glorious ode to Hollywood which is bound to leave you with a huge smile on your face. When all is said and done, The Artist is a wonderful film, and a deserving winner of Best Picture.

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