October 14, 2011 9:13am PT by Gregg Kilday
'The Artist': The Not-So-Silent Entry
"The movie speaks for itself." As awards season gets under way, that's one of the standard lines consultants throw around as they try to downplay their roles in shaping the conversation. But there is one movie this year, Michel Hazanavicius' silent feature The Artist, that can't speak for itself -- at least not literally. And while the Weinstein Co. has big awards hopes for the dialogue-free film, it faces steep statistical odds as only one silent movie, 1927's Wings, has won the Oscar for best picture. But then, maybe the fact that Artist is set in 1927 is a good omen.
At first, before its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Artist sounded like a novelty act. Not only is it silent, it's also in black and white. And France's Hazanavicius wasn't exactly regarded as a rising auteur -- he was best known for turning out a couple of popular spy-movie parodies starring Artist leading man Jean Dujardin. But Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the film from Wild Bunch before it even screened, was besotted. "It restored my passion in the joy of cinema," he says. "It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me cheer."
At its red-carpet unveiling, the film picked up more enthusiasts. The Cannes crowd gave the movie, in which Dujardin plays a silent-movie star threatened by the arrival of talkies, a prolonged ovation, and it has gone on to similarly rapturous receptions in Telluride and Toronto. Looking to give the movie as much exposure as possible, the Weinstein Co. is screening it at the tony New York Film Festival on Oct. 14 before moving on to the Hamptons International Film Festival and AFI Fest, among many others, ahead of its Nov. 23 release in New York and Los Angeles.
Artist is building an awards dossier: It won the audience award in San Sebastian; Dujardin was named best actor in Cannes; and along with Hazanavicius and leading lady Berenice Bejo, who's also the director's wife, he will be feted Oct. 24 at the Hollywood Awards.
It's all part of a Weinstein-designed charm offensive, not unlike the one used to help Roberto Benigni win his 1999 best actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful. The filmmakers, along with co-stars like James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller, are going to be busy with lots of meet-and-greets. They'll talk up the idea that the film was shot in L.A. with plenty of local talent, so it deserves to be cheered on as a hometown favorite.
Artist is sure to win applause within Hollywood. (Box office, of course, is a whole other question.) It's a veritable valentine to moviemaking, and it's set against an industry in transition, which adds contemporary relevance. But how will that translate into Oscar noms?
In some categories, it could face challenges. Hazanavicius, working from an unconventional script, didn't have to labor over dialogue, so an original screenplay nom isn't automatic. And though the movie has a wall-to-wall score by Ludovic Bource, its soundtrack also has passages from sources like Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo, which will need to pass muster with Academy rules about using pre-existing music.
Other categories look surer. As a period movie, Artist should have an edge in costume and production design. Although it has been a long time since a black-and-white movie won best picture -- 1993's Schindler's List, and 1960's The Apartment before that -- the cinematographers have a real affection and appreciation for black and white, nominating 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck and 2009's The White Ribbon.
As for its best picture prospects, Artist will have to contend with the serious, ostensibly more "Oscar worthy" films yet to arrive this season, like J. Edgar and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, while fending off Woody Allen's equally likable Midnight in Paris, which also debuted in Cannes. To do that, it will have to speak volumes.
SILENCE ISN'T ALWAYS GOLDEN
Wings (1927): The World War I aerial drama, starring Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Clara Bow, was the first best picture Oscar winner -- and the only silent movie ever to win that prize.
The Patriot (1928): Ernst Lubitsch's drama, set in the Russian court and starring Florence Vidor and Emil Jannings, was the last silent movie to be nominated for best picture.
Modern Times (1936): Resisting the move to talkies, Charlie Chaplin turned out this silent, now considered a classic. But the Academy wasn't impressed and didn't reward it with any noms.
Silent Movie (1976): Mel Brooks' spoof, featuring Marty Feldman and a cameo by Liza Minnelli, got no love from Oscar but did score four Golden Globe comedy nominations.